The Tides of Sleep

The act of writing consists of summoning images from your subconscious. That’s why, when you’re concentrating hard to create a sentence, your eyes are often closed. You’re trying to block out the everyday nonsense. It is also why many writers prefer to write first thing after they wake up in the morning. You are no longer dreaming, but the embrace of sleep doesn’t let you go right away.

Yet a valuable part of the process also takes place at the other end of the sleep cycle. When you are fully engaged in writing, day in and day out, one of your best opportunities for fresh ideas can occur right before you fall asleep. Although you are tired, which is not a good state for writing at any length, you can mine valuable nuggets of prose. In particular, you can utilize the quasi-sleep state just before you fall off into dreamland.

That’s because the subconscious does not work according to application of will. It jumps around, making random connections between the different parts of your novel. You may be writing Chapter 7, but out of nowhere, while you’re lying there, springs a terrific solution for a problem in Chapter 2 that has long been bedeviling you. Or, the absolutely perfect way to express an image like a cloud formation may crystallize in your mind. If you get out of bed to write it down, you’ve locked down a nice piece for the book.

For those of you who suffer from insomnia, the rewards can be even greater. Let’s face it, if you wake up and you know you’re doomed to stay awake for the next hour, you might as well be thinking about your story. As long as you lie in bed, you’re not fully awake, and the same wandering process toward an unexpected solution can take place. From personal experience, I have found that semi-conscious exploration seldom leads to entire glowing passages. Yet it has frequently yielded a crystalline sentence or two. Or, you may realize a key connection between characters—Uncle Frank could have dropped by that night—that seems so obvious once you have thought of it.

Besides the gain of solid prose, you also achieve a deeper satisfaction. Even if you have a full-time job, you are committing yourself to a cycle of creativity. Your being is engaged in the mysterious process from which all art comes. You don’t have to give up your day job. You know who you are inside.

Exercise: If you have a partner, you should be prepared. You need to slide out of bed in a stealthy fashion (or reap the consequences). I always keep a pocket notebook and pen on my night table. Just be aware that writing in the dark can lead to very large words and oddly slanting lines when revealed by daylight.

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”
―Saul Bellow

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.