Posted by Kathy Waller
There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep. ~ Homer
(A word in this post contains a zero in place of an o. If you find it, go to the head of the class. I saw it but now I can’t find it to correct it. There’s an and for an, too. Yes, this is pertinent to the subject of the post.)
Ten a.m., and I was dead tired.
I’d awakened at seven a.m., put sheets in the washing machine, piled three loads on the landing to do later, folded a load taken from the dryer, hidden one load of clean towels under the couch pillows so the guy cats couldn’t sleep on them, dressed myself, and driven downtown.
Now I was sitting on a stool at the computer bar of my office-coffee shop, checking email and thinking about continuing to revise the manuscript of a short story I’ve been working on.
But my tired went to the bone, and more to the point, the brain. I just sat there, staring at the screen, reading the most interesting emails, scanning a blog post here and there, eating pumpkin bread and drinking Earl Grey tea, and trying not to put my head on the keyboard and fall asleep.
Then a post on Kristin Lamb’s Blog: “Can Being Tired Make Us Better Writers?” appeared on the screen. The title seemed synchronous, so I read it.
I expected Lamb to say that being tired prevents our being good writers, that we need to rest our bodies and our brains before we address the page. I was wrong. Lamb says being tired can make us better writers, and she makes an excellent argument in supp0rt of her position. Contrary to my expectations, I agreed.
But Lamb’s tired and the way I felt that morning were two different things.
I’m sleep-deprived and my Circadian rhythms are a tangled mess. Several years ago, following a death in the family and some chronic depression that had crept back after a bit of respite–depression is insidious–I began staying up late at night. Then later. And later. Not having to meet and eight-to-five schedule, I was free to sleep in the morning as long as I needed to.
Complicating the matter was the tendency for my brain to switch on about nine p.m. and keep going until about four a.m. I have more energy then. I write better then. I move the refrigerator and sweep under it better then. Really, my best housework occurs about three in the morning.
I’m not a Lady Macbeth. When I go to bed, I go to sleep. The truth is, I’ve never wanted to go to sleep. As a child, I protested, mildly (I knew it wouldn’t work) but sincerely, every night when bedtime rolled around. I protested every afternoon at nap time. That never worked either. My mother said if I didn’t have my nap, I would be cranky all evening, and furthermore, even if I didn’t need a nap, she did.
But as college drew near, parents withdrew from the bedtime thing. One night when I was about sixteen, I was sitting in the living room when The Tonight Show came on. The older generation had disappeared. I realized I’d been left to decide. It was a little scary. I went to bed.
But in college, with no external controls, and dorm mates who kept odd hours, I forgot all about needing sleep or being cranky. I learned essays for freshman English flowed (relatively speaking) from the pen around one in the morning. Studying went better, too.
Everything went better, until the day I woke fifteen minutes before my eight o’clock speech class in Old Main, at the top of College Hill. I roomed at the bottom of College Hill. Any student absent from or egregiously late to Dr. Abernathy’s class had to atone by writing a report.
Suffice it to say I took my seat on the second floor of Old Main 7.5 minutes before class started. I didn’t look, or feel, good, but I was there.
Note: Only alums of Texas State University-San Marcos–Southwest Texas State University when I was there–will fully understand what I’m talking about. The dorms are on the low, flat side of the Balcones Escarpment. Old Main lies on the other side, almost straight up. It is well known that girls living in the dorms at the bottom of College Hill have the best-developed calf muscles in the Western Hemisphere.
Oversleeping never happened again. Every night I set three alarm clocks, two of which were across the room. And I never stayed up late before an exam. What I didn’t know by ten o’clock remained unknown.
Because I’d like to get to bed tonight, I’ll summarize the rest of the story:
I graduated from college, got dumber, and by the time I was in my forties, had my days and nights mixed up. Since I was working outside the home, I slept mostly on weekends. When I finally decided things had to change, I read about sleep deprivation and, with determination and a few melatonin tablets (and my doctor’s okay), I reset my sleep pattern. And my health, both mental and physical, improved.
But I am an optimist, which in my case means never learns from experience, or thinks she can do a thing the same way she did it before and get a different result. (There’s another word for that, but we won’t discuss it.)
So here I am with what my husband calls my Cicada Rhythms out of whack. During the day, I’m awake, but I feel ratty. At night, I wake up and feel fine. Or did. Until a couple of days ago. Now I just feel ratty. I’m putting my health at risk. I’m creating the perfect conditions for weight gain. My brain isn’t working as well as it should.
And my writing? Uh-huh. Being this kind of tired hasn’t made me a better writer. It’s just made me a zombie.
Anyway, after dinner, my husband kindly went out and procured a bottle of melatonin. I took a tablet thirty minutes before I expected to be in bed. That was over an hour ago. My eyelids are heavy. And typing is going more and more slowly . . .
So I shall end.
As I said in the beginning of this post, at the most basic level, I agree with what Kristin Lamb said in her post. But when I’m tired at the most basic level, I’m more likely to stare at a monitor and make my way slowly through my email than to write.
It’s interesting, though, that staring and going slowly through my email was what alerted me to Lamb’s post. Reading it made me realize why I was so tired. The realization led me to do something about it.
Tracing this back to its source, I find–if my brain hasn’t gone wonky again–that in a Rube Goldberg sort of way, being dead tired can make me a better writer.
It’s after midnight. And suddenly I’m awake. I could go on all night.
Speaking of The Tonight Show, I found this video on Youtube: Kermit the Frog hosting in place of Johnny Carson. Vincent Price and Bernadette Peters (and I don’t remember who else) guest. It’s the entire show, from 1979, and one of the best. If you can take the time, watch it, even in little segments. Laughter is and sleep are good medicine.
Kathy Waller blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write and every fifth week at Austin Mystery Writers.