Amongst all the other personality labels I have currently stuck to my incredibly tasteful jacket, “insomniac” is amongst the biggest and brightest. It’s the one written on a pink neon sticky, probably slapped right over the small brown cardboard luggage tag that says “idiot”.
(In case you were wondering, the one saying “writer” is a big piece of ripped-up A4 with holes punched in it. It’s on the back, held on with a pin.)
Being an insomniac is just something you get used to. Like being a long-distance commuter. For the first few months, commuting for two hours a day to work may seem like a torturous, alien concept. Then it gradually becomes A Thing You Do. It becomes Normal. It’s generally only when it casually comes up in conversation that you look at other people’s faces and realise that they think you’re nuts to do That Thing and that they definitely don’t think you’re Normal.
So I tell people I usually only sleep five hours a night (and that’s a good night) – I tell them I wake up every weekday at around 5 a.m. and don’t go back to sleep – I tell them that if it gets to 1 a.m. and I’m not asleep, I get up to read a book or watch TV. And they do that thing with their faces. You may be doing it now. (have a look in a mirror)
And I’m not looking for sympathy, here. Because actually, sometimes insomnia can be a good Thing You Do, and here’s why.
(Also, please don’t offer me remedies. Hot milk? Valerian? No caffeine after midday? Acupuncture? No TV or internet after 6p.m.? Prescription drugs? Illegal drugs? Alcohol? Hypnotherapy? Physical exercise? No wheat/dairy/meat? Heard ’em all)
The link between insomnia and creativity is very real. So’s the link between creativity, guilt, procrastination and boredom, but I’ll maybe go into that another time. The point being, I have my best ideas when I’m not sleeping, I have the best focus when I’m awake and the rest of the world sleeps, and I have plenty of evidence to support the fact that I do my best writing when my need for sleep is channelled into my need to create.
In Stephen King’s novel Misery (which I’ve just re-read as part of World Book Night – I shall be passing that copy along presently, and I hope it makes its way to you, wherever you are) the protagonist author Paul Sheldon’s view of “the zone” is that glorious moment when the “hole in the paper” opens up and swallows the writer, where he is living the story and unaware of his physical self or surroundings. The real and the imagined merge. What’s written becomes reality, if only for that short time, and that remembered veneer of reality carries across to the reader later.
At 3a.m, as any long-term insomniac will tell you, the boundaries between what’s real and what’s not are pretty damn thin anyway. Pick up the pen, open the laptop – the boundaries are now only how fast you can get the words down and how long you can stay awake. I have done the least editing on 3 a.m. stories out of all of my work. They come out faster, more fully formed, more assured. They have a life of their own. The difference between these early-morning beasts and their late-afternoon companions is like the difference between a peacock and a chicken.
After years of being an insomniac – I think the last time I wasn’t tired was probably in 1987 – I can only speak for the good of it with practice. But there’s treasure everywhere, if you have a mind to look.