08/04/15 – TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO WRITE
When I’m not writing, I spend much of my time as a sleep evangelist, leading a nonprofit (Start School Later) dedicated to school hours in sync with sleep needs. In that role, I’m always looking for ways to persuade people to value sleep—and it struck me that I could almost certainly call on the writers of the world for some pithy, poignant, and mellifluous thoughts on the subject.
My hunch was correct. A quick search provided a plethora of well-phrased ammo in praise of sleep from fellow writers. Of course, I first had to cull out Ben Franklin’s “There will be sleeping enough in the grave” brigade. This group includes J.M. Coetzee, who once described sleep as a “nightly brush with annihilation,” Edgar Allan Poe, who called sleep a “little slice of death,” and Robert Frost, who had “miles to go” before he slept. Sleep here is the enemy not only to productivity, but to equanimity, control, and life itself. And then there’s the Heinrich Heine camp, which is summed up in his famous saying: “Sleep is good, death is better; but of course, the best thing would to have never been born at all.”
But even without the many naysayers urging us to avoid going gently into any form of good night, I found no end of paeans to the magic and beauty of sleep. Many writers recognize that sleep is not only a blessing, a source of solace and perspective, but even the source of material—how many of us keep a notebook at our bedside to write down ideas that came to us in dreams? Here we’re in good company. “I put a piece of paper under my pillow,” Henry David Thoreau said. “and when I could not sleep I wrote in the dark.” Writers also have some great advice about sleep habits, some of it quite amusing. Writing about his protagonist in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, for example, Richard Flanagan noted that “He happily slept without women. He never slept without a book.” Then there’s Herman Melville’s contention that it’s “better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
Here are a few other favorite quotes by writers on the blessings of sleep and sleep rituals. Enjoy—if you can keep your eyes open!
Sleep, delicious and profound, the very counterfeit of death. – Homer
Sleep, rest of things, O pleasing Deity,
Peace of the soul, which cares dost crucify,
Weary bodies refresh and mollify. – Ovid
Sleep is a belonging to all; even if all songs are old songs and the singing heart is snuffed out like a switchman’s lantern with the oil gone, even if we forget our names and houses in the finish, the secret of sleep is left us, sleep belongs to all, sleep is the first and last and best of all. – Carl Sandburg
My theory is that literature is essential to society in the way that dreams are essential to our lives. We can’t live without dreaming—as we can’t live without sleep. We are “conscious” beings for only a limited period of time, then we sink back into sleep—the “unconscious.” It is nourishing, in ways we can’t fully understand. – Joyce Carol Oates
In sleep I am not, I am gone, I am given up. And nothing in the world is lovelier than sleep, dark dreamless sleep, in deep oblivion. – D. H. Lawrence
Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing,
Beloved from pole to pole. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon/ Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss/Of blankets... – Rupert Brooke
Oh magic sleep! O comfortable bird,
That broodest o’er the troubled sea of the mind
Till it is hush’d and smooth! – John Keats
When every inch of the world is known, sleep may be the only wilderness that we have left. – Louise Erdrich
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast. – William Shakespeare
Now, blessings light on him that first invented sleep! It covers a man all over, thoughts and all, like a cloak; it is meat for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, heat for the cold, and cold for the hot. It is the current coin that purchases all the pleasures of the world cheap, and the balance that sets the king and the shepherd, the fool and the wise man, even. – Miguel de Cervantes
When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep. – Ursula K. LeGuin
It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” – John Steinbeck
I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know? – Ernest Hemingway
Whether these or any other writers practiced what they preached is another matter entirely. A couple of years ago writer Maria Popova’s ran an enormously popular infographic of the sleep habits of famous writers on her BrainPickings blog, correlating each author’s wake-up times and sleep patterns with literary productivity.
Even a cursory glance at this infographic puts the “early to bed and early to rise” advice to bed. It is immediately clear that whether the creative work is nonfiction, fiction, or poetry, no particular sleep pattern guarantees success. Some writers rose well before the crack of dawn, others close to noon. Sylvia Plath would rise (though not necessarily shine) at 4 a.m., Sinclair Lewis and James Joyce not till 10 a.m., and F. Scott Fitzgerald often not till 11 a.m. Whether Honoré de Balzac was an early bird or night owl is a matter of debate, since he ostensibly began his “day” at 1 a.m.
Nor is any given amount, of pattern, of sleep a magic bullet to writing success. Another oft-shared online chart suggests this by color coding hours that prominent artists, musicians, and writers devoted to sleep, writing, day jobs, eating, exercise, and other habits of living. Here, too, you can see that sleep patterns of highly successful people varied along with work and other lifestyle patterns. Some writers worked well early in the morning, others midday, and others in the small, still hours of the night. Some needed huge amounts of sleep, others very little.
Flannery O’Connor was typically in bed before 9 p.m. and rose before dawn. William Styron rarely hit the pillow till close to 3 a.m. and stayed there until close to noon. Vladmiir Nabokov wrote in the morning, had a leisurely lunch, and then went back to writing through the afternoon with a nap before dinner. Kurt Vonnegut rose at dawn and finished his daily writing by 10 a.m. Gustave Flaubert typically began his writing “day” at 10 p.m. and kept going until a 3 a.m. when he allowed himself a relatively measly 6 or so hours of rest. And then there was insurance lawyer/poet Wallace Stevens, who famously rose at 6 a.m. to read for two hours, arrived at the office by 9 a.m., and got his writing done by scribbling ideas onto envelopes during lunchtime walks or composing poem fragments at his desk and stuffing them into desk drawers for later typing by his secretary.
If there’s any conclusion to be drawn from all this, it’s merely that, like it or not, every writer needs sleep. But I doubt anyone’s going to quote me on that.