Fiction sleep

Published on October 10th, 2014

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Sleepy Writers: Why Do We Care How Much Dickens Slept?

I recently read an article on Brain Pickings titled “Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity Realized.” I wonder if the hyper-healthy, miracle-cure, don’t-eat-that-drink-this, cows-are-evil-fish-are-heavenly mentality of our health-obsessed society has finally infiltrated the literary circle, the last bastion of celebrated unhealthiness.

Why do we care about how much Charles Dickens slept?

Do the hours he spends resting correlate to Hard Times or Great Expectations? Is there such a thing as a sleeping formula for writers?

Writers tend to be extremists. Let’s face it: if you create prose, poetry, scripts, or some other form of verbal artistry, you probably are guilty of one or more compulsions, obsessions, or habits. It seems to be a part of the gig.

And one area life in which nearly all artists push the boundaries is sleep.

Whether it be writing through the night, or lying in bed all day thinking (likely fretting) about an idea that they just can’t seem to get on the page, writers use and abuse the regular circadian rhythms in order to milk their creative sides.

They sleep late, or not at all. They look for dreams. They are labeled as lazy neurotics and insomniac workaholics in nearly the same societal breath.

The notion of sleep doesn’t just apply to the artist.

Sleep garnishes the edges of many works of fiction and poetry, almost as if it were the picture frame for the art forms. It also weasels its way into the art, too.

In his poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Robert Frost muses, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero muses that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

Speaking of tempests, writers tend to have a stormy relationship with sleep. Virginia Woolf once called sleep “that deplorable curtailment of the joy of life.” But Hemingway was quoted as saying “I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”

wolf poet for article resized

This love/hate relationship perhaps goes back to the extremist nature of writers. Maybe something about the written word demands that its writer either love or hate, binge or teetotal, champion or demonize, become comatose or embrace insomnia.

I mentioned dreams earlier, and I really think that dreams hold the answer to my questions. Sleep produces dreams. Exhaustion produces dreams of a different sort. Staying up late while others are in bed puts writers into the world of dreams, surrounded by the dreaming worlds they write about.

Writers are the dream world’s explorers: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” So wrote Edgar Allen Poe. Writers dream dreams no one else can or will.

They blur the lines between sleep and waking. Maybe the two states are the same for them. So sleep and dream well today or tonight, writers. And if you don’t sleep at all, well…dream anyway.

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