Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 24, 2017

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Kathryn Craft

Turning Whine Into Gold 

When thinking about what to sacrifice in order to earn a living, care for a family, and also write a novel, the first thing most of us take off the table is sleep. Unwilling to crimp anyone else’s schedule while we work hard to pursue our dream, we joke, “Sleep—who needs it?”

Well, you do.

Why do we—particularly women—choose to hurt ourselves rather than ask for the support we need? Our writing goals may not be sure-fire income producers, but pursuing them sure does take a lot of preparation and time investment. The very fact that it is an uncertain endeavor requires that we regularly replenish emotional and physical energy resources. This is especially true if we expect there to be anything left for our families when we’re done with our daily obligations to self.

Nothing batters our ability to surmount life’s obstacles more than the lack of good night’s rest. Our inner parent knows this—when our children face tough trials, such as a test or performance, who among us has said, “Why don’t you stay up half the night and tackle it in full sleep-deprivation mode”? It’s time for we adults to afford ourselves the luxury of our own sound parenting practices.

We mistakenly tend to think of sleep as the least productive part of our day; a time when the mind and body shut down. But this is not the case. Sleep is an active period of processing, restoration, and strengthening, says the National Sleep Foundation.

From your writing activities alone, think of all the data your brain takes in on any given day. Research, setting detail, character motivation, plot twists. Add writing business details. Car pools. Queries, application deadlines, medical appointments—whatever else that’s flying at you. While you sleep, all those bits and pieces of information are transferred from our tentative short-term memory to stronger long-term memory—a process called "consolidation." One reason you wake up refreshed after a full night’s sleep is that your inner office has been uncluttered and important information filed, freeing you to move on. Without that sleep, those same bits just keep flying at you along with all the new ones.

According to the American Psychological Association, consolidation happens during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase—which usually takes place toward the end of the night, between the sixth and eighth hours of sleep, when people are most likely to dream. So if you only had four hours of sleep, you never had a REM phase.

That’s a shame for writers, many of whom credit their dreams for some of their most creative ideas.

Good sleep—yes, seven to nine hours of it—is so important to good decision making it may just save your life. Did you know that according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers who sleep only five or six hours in a 24-hour period are twice as likely to crash as drivers who get seven hours of sleep or more? Drivers with only four or five hours of sleep had four times the crash rate—close to what's seen among drunken drivers.

Turns out, solving your problems by sleeping less isn’t problem “solving” after all.

Falling asleep can be a real problem for people whose brains are putting out fires most of the day. Anxiety loves the attention it gets when singing its cyclical chants solo in the middle of the night. But which came first: the anxiety or the inability to sleep? According to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America, it’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Anxiety causes sleeping problems, and new research suggests sleep deprivation can cause an anxiety disorder.

In addition to anxiety and mood disorders and a generalized inability to solve problems, those who don’t get enough sleep are at risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and obesity—conditions which our chosen occupation, played out during long hours in a seated position in front of a computer monitor, has already put us at increased risk.

Despite such statistics, our “productivity at all costs” society continues to give shut-eye short shrift. More than one in three Americans don't get enough sleep on a regular basis, according to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. My guess is that’s even higher among writers.

Let’s support one another in true WITS community spirit here and brainstorm some solutions. Has lack of sleep ever bitten you in the rear end? How do you handle the burden of your multiple responsibilities without sacrificing sleep? If you conquered an inability to fall asleep, what tips can you pass along? Let’s hear about your meditation, yoga, and Epsom Salts baths. Let’s hear about your meal planning and co-parenting arrangements. How do you fit writing into your life? Believe me: we have exhausted, inquiring minds who want to know!

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Kathryn CraftKathryn Craft  is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writingboth from Writer’s Digest Books.

42 comments on “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream”

  1. You know me! I am sooo guilty of this. I LOVE to sacrifice sleep to get work done. I wrote my first novel from 4am-6am Monday through Friday - and in 7 months was done. I just recently started to get 7 hours of sleep after years of 5-6 hours a night and 4am alarms. I feel good but miss being more productive. I can't nap at all no matter how tired I am so I just caffeinate to keep going.There is so much I want to do!!!
    My tips:
    1.Turning off the internet helps me be more productive with my day while still getting that 7 hours. 🙂 I have my son turn it off and I DONT WANT TO KNOW how to turn it on. The Freedom app also works well for this. https://freedom.to/
    2.As far as meal planning, I love to cook my veggie side dishes on a Sunday and eat them throughout the week alongside a big crockpot entree. I HATE wasting time cooking when I could be writing. Having a supportive spouse who cleans up the kitchen is a big plus!
    3.In nice weather I aim to be in my lounger outside. I take many breaks and meditate there with deep breathing. Does relaxation wonders and eases stress and reminds me that this isnt a race but a journey to be enjoyed!
    4. Get the family to be more independent! My son loves to bike with his friends. Lately, he's been staying out later and wants me to pick him up and his friends with their bikes and take them home because it's dark out. I let him know he needs to re-think this and come home before twilight. I wont always say YES to this. He understands this is nearly an hour of my time to do this and he sees how hard I am working. He's been great about it. So rally the family to give you your time back!

    1. Those are great tips, Donna, and hard-earned, I know. When sleep becomes the problem, and you toss and turn for five minutes, it's so much easier to abandon the sleep and think you might as well get up and "at least" be productive—when solving the ability to fall asleep may be the very best problem-solving you can do. Love: "this isn't a race but a journey to be enjoyed!" A thousand times yes!!

  2. I don't have a problem sleeping - mainly because of the RLS meds I take relax me. I'm asleep in like 30 seconds.

    BUT - for those who do have issues, one way to un-guilt yourself to sleep - lie down, and think about what comes next in your WIP, as you fall asleep. Honestly, I can't tell you how many times I wake up with the solution - my brain figured it out while I slept.

    This way, you're looking forward to sleep, and you're working at the same time, so no guilt!

    Susan Squires taught me this (she's brilliant). Here's a snippet:

    "Our mid-brain functions like a computer. If you ask it a question it can't answer, it won't try. The cortex doesn't work like a computer. It can't refuse, and it can't give you an error message. It has to try to accumulate data to answer any questions you ask, just like it's been doing for 50,000 years. Once upon a time it tried to answer questions like, "Is it safe to run across this open field?"And it would come up with an answer. It would accumulate data such as, "Well, you're down wind of the watering hole, so anything drinking there won't smell you."
    In practical terms the cortex part of our brains is hardwired to respond to the questions we ask it.

    You can engage that same power for yourself. One of the things that works best for us is to fall asleep thinking of just the right question to ask. "How would my character react if X happened?" "How can I combine two characters into one?" "What would the villain do at that point?" Whatever it is, refine your question as you are falling asleep. Then let it go, so you can actually get some rest. It often happens that when you wake up the next morning, the brain will have been working on the answer to your question overnight, and the lightbulb will go on. It usually happens to Susan in the shower as the synapses begin to fire again. Einstein once mused aloud, "Why do I get my best ideas shaving in the morning?" We know why.

    No answer the next morning? Try refining the question. Or just give yourself some time. Ever lose something precious to you and you just can't remember what you did with it? And then, like a bolt from the blue three days later, you realize where it must be. Cortex here, answering your question. It just took a while."

    I highly recommend trying this - it works!

    1. I'll try it tonight, Laura! I think a lot of people have trouble with the "letting it go" part, and they just keep chewing and stewing instead of sleeping. I once heard a tip in this regard: envision yourself writing the question on a leaf, then toss it into the stream and watch it floating away from you downstream. It's a peaceful image.

  3. This is such a good post! I had a medication change a month ago that my body didn't tolerate and it causes horrendous problems with my heart, anxiety and sleeping. I am better now but sleep has been the hardest to get back on track. I have never been a great sleeper, but now I really rely on meditation before bed, herbal teas, epsom salt baths and no screens within a half hour of sleep. You don't realize how important sleep is until you don't have a good nights sleep!

    1. Sadly, I've known some people who've had rough detox experiences from drug addiction and they say the lack of sleep is absolutely insanity-producing.

      My dad was an Epsom Salts kind of guy—in his mind there was nothing it couldn't cure. Turns out there's now good research about magnesium supplementation and a good night's sleep, and that the Mg can indeed be absorbed through the skin. High five, Dad!

  4. How timely. I just told myself this morning that I must get more sleep! I'm editing the (possibly) final draft of my WIP and keeping a clear head is vital. One key for me is to actually stop writing two hours before betime. Otherwise, my characters crawl into bed with me and keep chatting.

    1. Oh Kathy I am so with you on this. Last week—yes, even after already writing and submitting this post!—I thought I'd burn the candle just a wee bit and knock a few long-postponed things off my to-do list. Three nights I worked until 10 pm—not bad—but was up past midnight unable to get my brain to settle. And then BING! Eye wide open at my usual 5:30 am. I too need decompression time in order to fall asleep.

  5. I shut down every night at 9 and read in bed. Falling asleep isn't the issue for me; it's staying asleep, but that's another issue, and I have meds or I read. I sacrificed television and don't miss it at all. I record favorites and watch a show a day.

    1. I think that being methodical this way has to help. You are teaching your brain and body what to expect. Thanks for the tip, Terry! I too watch little to no TV. When I see all of these FB posts about what writers watch and binge-watch, I wonder—when do they get all of their reading done?

  6. This is a huge issue for me, too, Kathryn. I took a four-month sabbatical after my last book to give my poor brain a break, letting it do what it wanted--and it wanted sleep! I've now gone from many years of five hours of sleep per night to usually getting seven or eight, and I plan to give it priority as I start my new book. The suggestions here look very promising, and I'm especially interested in Laura's contribution, to ask myself a question about my work-in-progress before going to sleep. I've had serendipitous middle-of-the-night epiphanies in the past, but now I'll see if I can achieve this intentionally. Thanks for this important post.

      1. There's the rub. If it comes in the middle of the night, there's no guaranteeing I'll remember it unless I get up and record it. Good idea!

  7. I'm going to start my dream journal again. I forgot how much I missed that. When I awake, I write down images and stories that have played out during sleep. The thing is to look for recurring images, symbols or themes.

    I'm a huge believer in sleep and have no guilt if I need an afternoon nap. All of that stems from a ten year period dealing with my son with autism/hyperactivity. Every hour of sleep was treasured in those days because many nights he didn't sleep and my husband and I slept in shifts until we went to work at the day job.

    Thanks, Kathryn!

    1. That was a tough road that you and your husband walked. I can see why you'd never want to return to that type of "glory days" schedule! Wishing you the gift of many imaginative dream thoughts, Debbie!

  8. I used to stay awake all night one or two nights a month to "get stuff done." I no longer abuse my body that way, although I do sacrifice sleep to other things occasionally. And I always pay for it. Thanks for the timely reminder, Kathryn. Oh--I "learned" Laura's question-as-you-fall-asleep tip in college. I'd fall asleep grappling with some problem on my math homework and, in the morning, the solution was obvious!

    1. Fae—I'm glad you got over that! I once read that we should all be privileged to die with a full to-do list, because that would prove we were still fully alive. If we can't get something done in a day there may be consequences, yes, but those consequences are best used as information that helps us decide what is possible in our lives. Achieving the impossible by sacrificing sleep only convinces us that we can do even more to our self-detriment.

  9. Great reminders Kathryn. As a health writer, I'm doing more and more posts on sleep and regularly finding more research on how critical it is to health, creativity, and longevity. Now they're discovering that sleep deprivation as we age contributes to the aging brain. If you want to write as a nonagenarian, get your 7 hours a night! :O) Also---get the best mattress you can afford. It makes a world of difference. Most mattresses wear out at 8 years or less.

    1. Thanks for the added facts, Colleen. Ack!!—only eight years? Amazing. Then again, a lot of mattresses that used to be rated to last longer could be flipped. Our pillow-top can only be switched end-to-end, which isn't quite the same thing. I only published my first novel at 55 so I definitely want to protect my end game. But not my 90s—I'm reserving that decade to catch up on my reading!

  10. I've had a sleep disorder since I was a kid. I know the dysfunction of teaching while not sleeping. It's not good. I try to maintain my sleep habits now that I'm retired and writing.
    May the Sand Man find you all!

    1. My niece has a circadian rhythm disorder, Zan, so I can only imagine how hard it was for you. Sleep is something many take for granted until it's gone!

  11. I went through a period of terrible insomnia about 8 years ago, and swore "never again" when I had it conquered through medication and a CPAP machine. Eventually, I weaned myself off both aids. My secret now, is first of all, start getting ready for bed 20 minutes before you aim to turn out the lights. Amazing how this one technique works. (I'm retired, so all you Moms out there, I know this might not work for you.) Secondly, my mind wanders a lot. For instance, if I have heard a bit of disturbing news (SO rare just now, don't you agree?) it plays in my mind while trying to sleep. My solution is simply talking my breaths in my mind. "breathe in, breathe out," continuing it, over top of the other thoughts that try to fight their way back into the upper level of my thinking. Eventually my brain gets the message and I fall asleep. Not 100% effective but about 85%. It takes a bit of practice. We are so used to giving our thoughts free rein.

    1. So, no surprise that at junior high sleepovers I was the one whose bra went in the freezer. I would go insane without sleep! So glad you got a handle on it Ann. I never heard of someone weaning off a CPAP! Good to know it's possible.

  12. Amen-Ouch! I'm terribly guilty of short-changing my sleep (as my husband keeps reminding me.) I have yet to figure out what to give away in order to make up the hours. I have found a way to build writing time into my 30 minute drive to work, though. I start asking myself questions (out loud - there's no one in the car to get annoyed with me) about the story and characters. When the ideas begin to roll in, I dictate into my phone, then air drop or email the notes to my writing computer after I get home from work. Kathryn, it is such an encouragement to read that you published your first novel at 55. I'm not too late to play this game after all. Looks like I'm right one schedule; I'm only a few days into 55.

  13. Yes, be encouraged! Just don't record and drive if you didn't get good sleep! We have to remember that we live in community and when we aren't well rested, others can suffer too. Wishing you all the best, Deb!

  14. Great article on a topic that's more important than we might think. I've learned the hard way that if I don't get enough sleep, especially over a prolonged period of time, I can hardly function - period. So now I make a point of going to bed at a decent time on weeknights (and programming my laptop to do an auto-shutdown at 8:45 pm each night). You just feel more alert and refreshed on a good night's sleep, and you feel no resentment toward yourself if you know it's because you gave yourself enough time for that sleep.

    Thanks, Kathryn!

    1. Sara I had no clue you could schedule an automatic shut-down. That's brilliant! Will have to look into this to save me from my high-achieving, people-pleasing self...

      1. Yes! It's done through Control Panel / Administrative Tasks. The instructions differ for different computers (Mac vs PC) and operating systems, though. So keep an eye out for that as you search.

  15. Nothing relaxes me into sleep like a heated mattress pad. I discovered this at a spa when I fell asleep on the massage table. I hit the heat, and every muscle in my body just unclenched. It doesn't work daily, but I recommend this; when muscles relax the brain is lulled.

    1. The massage I would adore. The heated pad? Maybe a younger or older version of me would love it, but for the past 18 years my thermostat has been out of control lol! I'm glad you found something that works for you, though, and thanks for sharing it here for others, Jeanne!

  16. Thank you Katherine for raising this important topic. I've always had the "problem" of being a deep sleeper, 8 hrs and more if left on my own. However apart from stiffness due to not moving much all night, it was never a problem - until I began writing creatively.
    Then the dynamic plots and exotic characters overwhelmed my sleep.
    I have solved my "mind-just-won't-switch-off" problem by listening to the last couple of chapters of an audio book - one I have probably heard umpteen times and re-edited, redrafted etc in my dozy state. But now it sends me off to sleep, then switches off by itself.

    1. What a fun idea! Will have to try. And thanks about my name. Of course it is misspelled all the time, by writers who are looking right at it, and when that happens it always feels to me like the byline credit is going to someone else! You are sweet to care. ?

  17. I struggle sometimes because my most creative period is nearly always in the evening but, with a school-aged child in my life, there is a lot of activities in the morning. Those are the days when I nap in the afternoon.

    But the things I do that save the most time on a daily basis are these:

    1. I gave up TV when my daughter was born. If I was going to write, work the day job and be a good wife and mother, something had to give. That something was TV.

    2. I read while I eat. This lets me fully relax and eat more slowly and take an actual break. Reading usually gets me over that tired feeling. It's almost better than caffeine.

    3. I make "big pot" foods at least once a week to save cooking time later. Chili, soup, jumbalaya and spaghetti are always at least a triple batch. The rest gets frozen or reheated for a few days as lunches and another dinner.

    4. I do the majority of my social media on the go. By using my phone for social meda and reading, and by keeping a paper copy of my latest writing task with me, I can work while I'm waiting on my child. Anyone who has hung out with kids knows there is a LOT of waiting time - practices, school lines, doctors appointments. I look forward to those times now as moments to get stuff done.

    I also keep my Surface Pro on me whenever I'm going around town, in case I find a spare hour when I can write. But I'm much more likely to give up sleep than something else that I want to do. My FitBit helps. If you wear it - it tells you how much you slept. It has helped me average about 7 hours a night, which is the sweet spot for me. 🙂

    1. Love all of these Jenny! I actually miss those little found spaces in a day with children for getting a little reading done--I too think it boosts and organizes your brain. Endless hours are not always your friend. Interesting use of Fibit! What is a Surface Pro?

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