It's often been said that insomnia and creativity goes hand in hand.
Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems (edited by Lisa Russ Spaar) is a collection of over eighty poems by famous poets and writers like Walt Whitman, Emily Bronté and Robert Frost, all inspired by sleepless nights. And novelist Vladimir Nabokov believed that insomnia was a positive influence on his work. He once was quoted "sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals." At times, I can't help but agree.
I'm a freelance writer -- my livelihood is directly tied into my daily output. Quite simply, the more pitching and writing and publishing I achieve, the greater income I earn. I'm far from wealthy, but I have been blessed with a sturdy work ethic and tend to spend the majority of my waking hours tied to desk or email.
After years in my industry, I have a fair amount of ongoing clients and that average week sees me with 6-8 project deadlines. Some weeks are greater, often involving travel and daily events and appointments mixed in. I love my work and my life and I've gotten pretty good at juggling everything without going (too) crazy. So much so that I'm always looking for more work. Again, output equals income. And who doesn't want a raise?
Sometimes, my friends will laugh at my rigorous daily existence and ask how I do it. "I don't sleep! That saves tons of time!" We'll laugh over cocktails. They'll assume I'm kidding.
The truth is, I'm not kidding. I've had ferocious stretches of insomnia for year. And as much as I'd love to pretend I've achieved a higher level of consciousness that negates the need for beauty sleep in the interest of higher productivity, it's simply not true.
I think sometimes the issue is more that I don't have the ability to turn my brain off. In fact, when the world goes silent is when my mind is its noisiest. I'll often go to bed, eyes dropping, shuffling my manicured toes -- exhausted and sure I'll be unconscious as soon as my head hits the pillow. Only until 10 minutes later, when I'm glancing at iPhone for new email. Or jotting a note about a story idea that just popped into my head. Or, worse, staring at the ceiling having an existential crisis about any one of the dozen proverbial balls I'm currently juggling. Sometimes, out of desperation for a good night's sleep, I'll take Tylenol PM and be knocked out until morning. I hate having too, though. It feels oddly like cheating.
The relationship between sleeping and creativity is one has always been of great personal interest. When we have great big issues on our minds, we're told to "sleep on it" -- that seems to be the best problem-solving advice when dealing with a tough decision. Really? Having a tough decision or something that requires thought and consideration is what makes it most likely I won't be sleeping "on it." Or, at all.
So, which is it? Are the great poets correct? Is sleep parallel to our creativity? Or is societal suggestions otherwise more valid? Is it sleep a source of being our best and doing our best work? Conventional wisdom has always insisted that to be our best, we need a good night's sleep.
I'm honestly not sure. For my sleep-addled brain, it sometimes a struggle between the pressure of needing to sleep and needing to be on top of the activity I am sleeping in the first place to be on top of. (So to speak.) Insomnia is a bit of a tapeworm, you see. The more you obsess about it, the more feeds on itself.
I've often deluded myself that insomnia is a sort of marker for my ambition. The gift of more time to achieve more, do more, be more.
Obviously, you don't have to have trouble sleeping in order to succeed. Not in my line of work or in any. Nor do you need to not sleep to be creative. That'd be the insane ramblings of someone who [doesn't get enough sleep]. It is said Paul McCartney wrote the song "Yesterday" while he was asleep. It came to him in a dream. He didn't need wakefulness to fuel his creativity. If anything, he had rest to fuel it.
But what if motivated insomnia, and the related mind that will never turn off? It's not just achievement or motivation, but something else. A form of anxiety. But the truth remains -- no matter how of ill advisement it may be -- those of us who don't sleep have more time to think and create than those who do sleep. It's simply math.
I have close friends who are artists or musicians; they too have dealt with sleep unrest. I wonder if what we share is undirected time that our creativity demands we will fill with whatever our art demands we produce.
But many of us have a career we love, how many of us would, if we choose, spend les time sleeping and more time working? It brings new level to the issue of work-life balance, a balance that already seems to be vanishing. In my own life, I've found that a certain level of exhaustion (comparable to a martini or two, one may say), makes me feel more creative. Considering that equation, what happens to that same creativity if you stayed up all night?
Writers, also any of those in business for themselves, maybe we suffer from insomnia just because of an overactive mind that just won't shut down at night. That's what I've always conjectured. But maybe we also lose sleep simply because we simply work a lot of hours in the average week. Theoretically, people with a "normal" job work eight hours a day, have eight hours of leisure time, and sleep the other eight, but in our world? Sixty to 80--100-hour work weeks are common. There's just not a lot of hours left.
I used to spend a lot of time worrying about the health implications of not getting enough sleep, but then I turned that on its side -- was worrying about my inability to sleep more harmful than lack of sleep itself? So I changed my attitude. It's oddly effective.
Are you a creative to suffers from insomnia? How do you deal with it?
Follow Aly Walansky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AlyWalansky