The Making of a Novel: What Sleep Has to Do With Writing

08/23/2010 03:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I haven't been sleeping well lately. I lie in bed and my head spins -- working out problems in my book, and problems in my life. (My oldest kid starts college in a week. The problems in my life have to do with UPS shipping and establishing bank accounts and new computer back up systems -- nothing earth-shattering, but so many details!) The other day, my husband said to me, "This always happens to you when you start a new book."

I was stunned -- first of all that he would recognize that pattern, and second of all that he was right. I mean, he's often right, but I don't consider him an expert on the writing life.

What's ironic is that many experts consider sleep critical to creativity. My book is keeping me awake at night, when sleep is the one thing that would really help me with my book.

Here are 5 great resources on how sleep enhances creativity:

  • A couple years ago, The New York Times published a piece in their technology section on sleep and creativity. One of the quotes from that article says everything: "There is a cultural bias against sleep that sees it as akin to shutting down, or even to death," explains Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and director of the Sleep Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. Most people, Dr. Ellenbogen says, think of the sleeping brain as similar to a computer that has "gone to sleep" -- it does nothing productive. Wrong. Sleep enhances performance, learning and memory. Most unappreciated of all, sleep improves creative ability to generate aha! moments and to uncover novel connections among seemingly unrelated ideas."
  • Psychology Today recently published a blog post called Sleep for Success. The conclusion? "Relaxing the brain's focus then, seems to be essential for insight."
  • In the follow-up post, Strategic Sleeping, writer Joanne Cantor speaks directly to writers: "Say I've been writing during the day. Writing, in particular, requires intense focus on the immediate problem at hand. You must craft sentences that express your next idea, and these sentences must flow stylistically and logically from what you've just said. They also must be headed in the direction you want to go. Because of the relatively small capacity of working memory, you can't focus your attention on more than one task at a time. In order to execute this deep focus, you must inhibit other thoughts. It's as if your conscious brain makes a commitment to go in a certain direction, and it resists the mind wandering that might bring up novel approaches. It's only when you quit that concentrated focus that your brain is open to more far-flung ideas that might be residing in the remote corners of your brain."
  • National Geographic recently featured an article on sleep and human adaptability "If your brain is an email account, sleep--and more specifically, naps--is how you clear out your inbox."
  • Daily Routines lets you skim through the habits of famous writers. You can search on "nap takers," "early risers" and "night owls" and learn how other writers react to sleep. What you'll find? Every writer has their own sleep system, and somehow, they find a way to make it work. I guess I will, too.