Writing and Insomnia

I am writing first thing in the morning. That seems to be the best and only way to reliably do it. Same with exercise. But you have to pick one. Lately I've given up exercise, except for a mind-bogglingly slow 5K Turkey Trot in my hometown a week and a half ago. I knew I was going slowly, but I was still surprised when to come around the bend of the high school track and see the clock already ticking away in the early 40s. That was the slowest by far I'd ever run.

I like how the race ends on the track there, circling the football field where freshman year I played xylophone to "Oye como va" and the other years in the chilly fall evenings I meandered around with friends in the field behind the bleachers crush-spotting, drinking hot cider (and I really do mean cider not  "cider", weirdly none of us ever drank), paying no attention to the rushing, passing or scoring on the field. There was that intoxicating smell of crushed leaves, the cold, clean air, the trace of a wood stove burning. Later in the car we'd listen to Concrete Blonde and ache for that doomed Wendy underneath another chilly gray November sky, wondering why she had only one more day to live.

I have a lot of writing to do. I have to write a Statement of Intent for my grad school application. I think of the Blaise Pascal apology about writing a long letter because he didn't have time to write a shorter one. The application essay is only supposed 500 words, which is why it's taking me so long to write. Also, the pressure applying for an English Master's with a Writing Concentration is immense. Could there be any field of study for which the expectations for an application essay would be higher? A traditional English Master's requires strong research, reading, analytical and theorizing skills. You have to be able to think and write clearly to be a scholar, but not particularly well. An applicant for a creative writing MFA plans to master the art of fiction or poetry or playwriting and makes no special claim to the craft of essay writing per se. I suppose an applicant planning to focus on creative nonfiction would face equally high expectations, but that's about it. In no other field do you have to demonstrate your particular expertise in both form and content of the very essay describing what you plan to do and why you're capable of doing it. In other fields you can make claims about your background and capabilities without the danger of undermining the truth of those very claims as you make them.

I am done at least with the GREs. It went well and I'm glad to have it over with. The verbal section was much easier than described in the Princeton Review book. I don't think I came across a single vocab word on the test that I didn't know a year ago. Now I can let the relationship between meretricious (gaudy) and bedizen (to adorn, especially in a cheap, showy manner; festoon, caparison) fade from memory. It will be okay to mistake jocuse for jocund, to forget that maunder not only means meander, but mutter as well, applying to an aimlessness of both movement and speech.

The Manhattan-parenting thriller/romance I wrote with a local mom friend last winter has been rejected by two agents now. I don't mind the rejections themselves -- they're something of a badge of honor and proof that we are at least out there on the field (not simply maundering with our cider in the background) but I do mind all the time that's gone by. Whenever I read about A Wrinkle in Time being rejected 29 times, or Gone With the Wind 25, or J.K. Rowling being turned down by 12 publishers, I admired the tenacity of these writers to keep facing rejection, but I hadn't thought about the time that those rejections would have taken. It's been nine months since we first sent out a query letter and in that time the manuscript has been requested and rejected by only two agents. More than a decade could go by before we get to that final rejection letter, if we ever do. (On a side note, I think my all-time favorite rejection-letter line is from the publisher who told Fitzgerald "You'd have a decent book if you'd get rid of that Gatsby character.")

I realized Sunday wandering in a hazy, dreamlike state of fatigue that the wide-awake feeling as the clock ticked along in the early dawn before had been  worse than the fatigue itself. While I read and the rest of the building slept (except for the spirited upstairs neighbor) I kept hoping to feel a a sign of weariness, just a hint of heaviness around the eyes. The minutes ticked by, and no sign came. That wide-awake feeling any other time of day is great, yet in the night, when you are bright, alert and attentive with insomnia it feels dreadful. You have this running clock of how much more sleep you could hope for at any given point. If I'm lucky maybe I'll get another hour and a half. Later...maybe still a good hour. A 20 minute nap before the alarm goes off at 6:15? Instead it went off and there I was attentive as ever to the words written on the first Sumerian tablets in Manguel's book. Still the fatigue that I dreaded suffering through the next day was actually not as bad as experiencing the lack of fatigue the night before. One is merely uncomfortable, the other feels distressing in some existential way. Not able to sleep, you feel off kilter, alone, out of sync, lost to the world. You want to rest but your body doesn't seem to need it. What feels so awful is the dread of the opposite feeling the next day. 

Early Sumerian tablet

Why are those wasteland hours of the night so hard to use productively? Why is it so hard first just to will myself out of bed? It's not cold in my apartment, (or anywhere in New York, right now) so I don't have that excuse. I have plenty to do to occupy myself. We all wish we had more time, so when we're given it, why not just accept it? I have to will myself just to turn the light on and read. I haven't yet gotten myself to use those hours in a more productive way, to work, to write. Something just feels so not right at that time, but I want to try to change that idea. There have been studies lately on how people aren't meant to sleep all in one straight shot. That maybe four hours here and then four hours somewhere else is more natural. True most of us don't have schedules that allow us to catch up on that lost time, but eventually you will, you'll manage, you'll get through exhausted days. As long as you don't have to perform surgery or fly a plane in that state -- what's so terrible?

I can write first thing in the morning. Any time of day, or late into the night, but not during the night, not when I should be asleep. The motivations for writing and prayer are similar: in both we seek guidance, understanding, we process the day, express gratitude, hope and confusion. The middle of the night feels like desperate, lonesome time, when instead of enjoying the solitude you'd usually luxuriate in you feel bereft and abandoned, not only by companions but by that precious elixir sleep. I could see the least devout among us turning to prayer. If I can't commit to my Statement of Intent, or a novel, a poem, or even a blog post, why can't I turn to writing as prayer? Why not offer that time to the quiet practice that satisfies me more than almost any other? Why can't I choose that time to be still instead of restless? The rest you lose for the chance to be still with your thoughts is not such a heavy price to pay.


  1. I never knew you played xylophone! I played the clarinet. Also love the phrase "crush-spotting." I spent a few minutes at the Danvers-Gloucester football game on Thanksgiving and there was definitely that vibe in the air.

    I don't think it will take a decade - though I also feel the frustration about slow agent responses. I think simultaneous submission is probably ok.

  2. I played piano growing up but xylophone was the closest match for playing in the band. Were you actually in the band as well? I only did it that one year. I found the schedule too grueling with all the away games! Yeah - why isn't "crush-spotting" a bonafide expression? There is always that vibe at HS football games (and so many places...publishing conferences among them).

    Simultaneous submissions are definitely okay w/ some agents....

  3. Hehe, i never knew publishing conferences were such meat markets - i think you told me that before...yeah, I was in the band. The schedule was definitely grueling but i liked it.

  4. They really are! I'm starting to wonder if that's what conferences are in general. Maybe everyone but us knows that. (Everyone, that is, but the people who were drinking good old-fashioned apple cider in high school on weekend nights.)

    Did AB ever play Danvers?

  5. Huh. I don't think so. I think it was salem, beverly, gloucester, manchester, marblehead...but there are probably some i'm forgetting...

  6. "Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're trying to be so quiet?" Dylan, Visions of Johanna

  7. I read somewhere that when you are wide awake in the middle of the night- the reason you feel so awake is bc you aren't focusing on anything substantial. that is why counting sheep is supposed to work, just the act of counting is enough focus to make you sleepy. I know i can't do anything "of substance" in the nighttime- shoot off emails that make me feel like i accomplish something, but nothing that requires focus and especially not writing. I sympathize with your essay- eeks- sounds intimidating, but you are such a great writer I know something good will come out. Good luck! And thanks for procrastinating on your blog.

  8. Why thank you, Eli. I hope you're right about the essay.

    In terms of focusing during the middle of the night - you get into that trap of just focusing on the fact that you still don't feel tired. I think your ability to drag yourself to the computer during bouts of insomnia is impressive. Also you get the cred for sending out emails at some ungodly hour without explanation so people think you're just up super later or ridiculously early because of your work ethic rather than a neurotic inability to sleep. I'm glad to know, though, that I"m not the only one who can't use the time in a productive way. I don't know why it's so hard.

  9. I will myself awake in the morning to run before work, well, at least a few times a week. It's awful. But once I'm up and out and back, then it's great and I feel accomplished and can do anything that day. And then, I'm UP! So I talk to myself at 5am - you can do it, you'll feel good, you'll be glad you did. I recommend running first and writing second. Well, showering second and writing third ;)

  10. You are really impressive Rhonda. It is an amazing feeling once you're out and back, or even once you're dressed and out. I wonder if there are people out running in the dark along the river at that hour. I suppose there probably are.


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