Susanne Dunlap

Writing and Sleeping

In Random thoughts, The writing life, Writing Craft on August 7, 2010 at 9:52 am

This past week I made an offhand comment on my Facebook page about the fact that writing always seems to make me sleepy. I had a few interesting “Me too!”s, and a few people who pointed out that the intense concentration can make us breathe more shallowly and not get enough oxygen, so therefore we yawn more.

But that wasn’t the phenomenon I was talking about. I didn’t actually notice it as such until after I stopped working full time at an office job. I always figured I’d feel sleepy on a Saturday or Sunday after an hour or so of writing just because I was exhausted after my work week, and needed to catch up.

But then, when I had plenty of sleep at night and a good, productive schedule under my belt, the same thing would happen. I’d write for an hour, maybe two, and suddenly be overcome with fatigue. Not just tiredness, but sleepiness. Sometimes I’d fight it, thinking I was just being lazy, but other times, if I knew I had enough more time in the day to continue afterwards, I’d succumb to the urge, take off my glasses, and curl up on my chaise for a nap.

This week (as I do, now, most weeks), I came out to Connecticut to stay with a friend whose business I’m involved with (more exciting news to come about that soon, I hope!), and we spent two and a half productive days together. No sleepiness, even though I was working at my computer virtually non-stop writing and designing a website and a presentation deck.

At the end of the day, one of the many pleasures of working with my friend Susan is that we enjoy a superb meal prepared by her and sit at her lovely table, talking. She’s an amazing individual who has done a lot of thinking about life and about the way we work. On Wednesday night, I casually mentioned to her this phenomenon of sleepiness when I’m writing a first draft. Not when I’m editing, only when I’m getting that first draft down.

What she said was so full of insight and opened my mind to immense, exciting possibilities, that I just had to share it here.

When I’m creating (and I think this probably applies to most writers, possibly other creative artists), I become a vessel for the thoughts and stories that are “out there” in the world, I open myself and let them flow through me onto the page. It’s that experience of being “in the zone,” when I have the sensation that I’m not really sure what’s coming next, and surprise myself with the words that form in front of my eyes, the things my characters say, and the events that transpire.

Susan pointed out to me that this state is a sort of semi-consciousness. Our conscious brains only tap into a small portion of what we’re capable of thinking and experiencing, in a way that’s filtered so that everyday life makes sense to us. When we’re sleeping and dreaming, we inhabit a different world that appears to be nonsensical, to throw sensations and thoughts together in a seemingly random way that can be funny, frightening, illuminating. The writing process when it’s working well approximates that dream state.

And rather than be expressive of exhaustion, which would manifest as tiredness, my brain tells me I need to recharge it by reconnecting with that subconscious state by sleeping.

Wow. It made sense to me. It explained so much about the physicality of writing, the brain patterns and magical thinking that just seems, well—magical.

And it gave me permission to value that whole process, including the sleep that overcomes me after a stretch of deep creativity.

Susan has a great deal more wisdom and insight about life. But I think that’s enough for a gorgeous Saturday. Don’t you?

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