Monday, March 26, 2007

Story and Sleep

I'm an insomniac. Let's start with that. Sleeping is a skill I've never fully mastered and I am subject to both going to sleep too late and waking up too early as well as occasional bouts of being awake in the middle. In general this is no fun, and actually in specific as well now that I think about it.

But what does this have to do with writing you might ask. And it's a reasonable question. I'm not entirely sure it has anything to do with writing, but it definitely has to do with being a writer, or more specifically a storyteller. Not only do I tell stories literarily (my writing) and socially (at parties) but I tell stories to myself in a more or less continual stream.

Someone smiles at me as they drive past me on the freeway? I automatically make up all sorts of things to explain the smile. I can't help myself, given any starting point and something unknown, my brain starts filling in the gaps. This is one of the two chief sources of insomnia for me--the other being problem solving--I can't get my brain to shut up and quit telling stories. I seem to need the damn things.

As with most storytellers, I am an avid consumer of storytelling (that might even be the root of being a storyteller--an impulse that says "well, if nobody else is going to tell me a story...). Often this leads to reading--yes, the horror, a writer who reads--quite often at night, when I might otherwise be sleeping. Because of this and the complete exhaustion of some life stress I made a discovery about three years ago.

I sleep better if I don't finish reading the book. In fact, I can almost always go straight to sleep if I put it down at a cliffhanger moment. If, however, I am so tired I can barely keep my eyes open but I still push on to the finish to see how it all ends, I will then spend the next several hours wide awake.

This is because (I think) when there's still story left at the time I put the book down, my brain stays in happy reader mode--the story is still in the hands of author and not my problem. OTOH, if I finish the book, the storytelling part of my brain knows that the author is done and realizes that if it doesn't do something right now the story will end! There will be no more story! Aiee!

And so it kicks into high gear telling a new story. It may be the story of what happens in the book after it ends, or it may be the story of what's going to happen to the stupid cat who is sitting on my head. That part's not really important. The important part is that story is once more my responsibility. I bring this up because last night, like an idiot, I finished the book.

So, how about you? Did you finish the story last night? Do you regret it this morning? Does this sound completely alien to you?


Erik Buchanan said...

Actually, I have the opposite problem. The story must be finished before I go to bed.

The worst was when I was 16 and read Stephen King's "It" in one day. Started at 2 PM and finished at 3 AM. It was the beginning of a lifetime habit.

But I can relate to the inability to sleep. Most nights I get six hours if I'm lucky. Up too late, up too early (the latter is due to a two year old and the desire to work out, rather than insomnia).

I have the same problem when I'm writing. Want to finish the scene, want to finish the story. Of course, writing novels makes this tricky to do in one go, but I still keep trying.

My wife has had several words with me on the subject.

For what it's worth, I recommend meditating before bed. I think I put a post about it lasdt month on my blog. Let me know and I'll find you the link.

Good luck.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Sleep is vastly overrated. I tell myself that most nights.

I tell myself lots of things when I should be falling asleep, and a great many of them are little stories of one sort or another. Works in progress, retelling myself something I'm critiquing to find out where it deviates from my "expectations" of how a story like that should go, rehearsing worries, planning ahead, indulging in daydreams, you name it. If I'm at it for more than an hour, it's time for a brain reset.

I'm no good at putting the book down--ever, really. I try to choose short stories or news if I'm reading when I should be asleep. Finishing a book won't keep me up. They percolate for a while as I sort out my reactions, but I don't have to pay attention.

Meditating is a bad choice for me. The "quiet places" in the back of my head are not rational, and the last thing I need to do is reinforce them by listening.

A job where I can shift my hours a bit after a bad night, that works. A husband who will occasionally take the first shower is also wonderful.

Naomi said...

I thought about your issue with this last night, as I put down Jane Eyre about 150 pages from the end. I can finish a book and still sleep. However, it was 11:15 p.m., and my household gets up early.

I have intermittent insomnia that's definitely a "why the hell can't I turn my brain off" sort of thing, but it seems to be largely unrelated to reading material.

Douglas Hulick said...

Finishing the story before I go to sleep can lead to a sense of regret for me - "It's over. Damn." - but usually not sleeplessness. Then again, the sheer exhaustion of dealing with my kids can usually do the trick. :)

The times I can't fall asleep, I am either feverishly coming up with new stories or characters in my head, or grumping about how bad what I just read is. I try to fix the other person's story in my head so I can be happy with it before I fall asleep.

The thing that I have found that relaxes me the most and gets me ready to sleep is doing a few mental revisions or some short-term outlining for whatever is coming up tomorrow. If I know where I am going to be and what I am going to be doing creatively tomorrow, I seem to be able to shut down my inner-writer for the evening. It isn't guaranteed, of course, but know the next immediate step seems to comfort my imagination for the next 5-7 hours.

Anonymous said...

It's kind-of a 50-50 split for me.

I tend not to read in bed. It doesn't make me tired, or turn off my brain, and reading has, occasionally in the past, been an acceptable surrogate for sleep over entire nights. So, when I go to bed, I try to go to bed to sleep.

I have been greatly aided in this by the fact that I've developed a sort-of unfocused-meditation-story-mode, a state into which I can sink in a matter of moments and which is like actively turning on undirected dreaming, or letting my hold on logic dissolve. This usually results in me falling asleep within five minutes or as soon as the light gets turned off from my wife reading--for whom reading in bed functions in a completely different way. I get little bits of stories and whatnot wisping around, sort of like being lulled to sleep by ghosts.

The first problem with this technique is if I encounter something interesting, which occasionally jolts me wide awake and causes me to spend two hours of valuable sleep time writing it down and trying to make it logical enough that upon waking the next day it continues to be interesting and to make sense.

The second problem is that if have anything that is really troubling me, and I release that hold on logic--well, ditto on what Steph said. I don't get a lot of sleep those nights, and bad things happen in my head. Not good anyway you put it.

Generally, that's not too much of a problem, and my system works. It must, because I still use it, and I like having it at my disposal.

Kelly McCullough said...

Interesting comments all. The insomnia isn't really something that causes me huge amounts of stress anymore, it's something I can manage with OTC sleep aids when I have to. The trick is remembering to do something about it early enough. Also, if I put the book down in the climactic moments I can usually drop right off.

Erik, thanks for the offer. Unfortunately, I'm not much for meditation, though I know it works very well for many--I was trained in it at one time, but the brain state is too close to the way I process story when I'm composing and now I pretty much automatically slip into story mode if I try to do it anymore.

Steph, sleep is overrated--I'm constantly thinking about all the other things I could get done if only I could convince my body to agree with me on that one.

I wonder if some of the issue isn't how much I use dream time to process story issues and generate ideas.

Bill Henry said...

I sleep not a wink -- how can I?

The vile mummudrai crouches at the foot of the bed, smacking its lips in a sinister rhythm.

Kelly McCullough said...

Bill, laughing out loud at that. In fact, I actually had to clean a bit of soda off my glasses.