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 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 Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.