Some great ideas come in the middle of the night, around two or three a.m., when I wake up and cannot go back to sleep. My mind races while I lay in bed, awake in the dark, and pretty soon I stumble into my office and grab a pad and pen. And I just write.
Sometimes I have an insight about a scene I’m working on, and other times I have sketches for new stories, many of which never make it past this stage. (There’s a great scene in Robert Weide’s Woody Allen documentary where Allen wades through scraps of paper that contain ideas he’s had for projects, and he tosses many aside, explaining how most of them are worthless. Maybe it’s just because I’m a creative-process nut–and some might argue that his recent films have been throwaways too–but I found it inspiring.)
I don’t believe that all ideas need to be written down or else they’ll be lost forever. A great idea will stay with you, at least that’s been my experience.
No, what I like about writing in the middle of the night is the way my mind works. I am not fully awake, which allows me to dream on the page. Dreams themselves never inspire my work, but I have long been drawn to supernatural fiction and works that might be described as dreamlike. Most of us generally disregard our dreams, imagining they had no real import, but this wasn’t always the case.
T.M. Luhrman, a professor of anthropology at Stanford, wrote a great Opinion piece in the Times about the importance of dreaming in other cultures, citing Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close, an extensive history of night and its role in Western culture. I put the book a little higher in my reading list–at the top, in fact–and found much of it fascinating.
In the clip linked here (Go C-Span Book TV!), you can hear Ekirch discuss what most surprised him about his research, which was that sleep was at one point segmented in pre-industrial Western culture. This meant people slept in phases, getting up in the middle of the night to, among other things, discuss their dreams or spend time in contemplation. Segmented sleep more accurately mirrors nature (I’m thinking about my dog’s sleep habits), and psychiatric studies and experts such as Russell Foster, a circadian neuroscience professor at Oxford, support this view.
Even when I have to wake up a couple of hours later in order to teach a 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. class, I feel satisfied, if not fully rested. I stole a little piece of time back from the night, and the waking dream was worth it.