writing life

Narrating my Insomnia

Some of my author friends have been discussing sleeping problems and what to do about them, and it seems that it’s pretty common for writers to have difficulty sleeping. It’s hard to shut off the brain, and whenever you’re quiet and still with no outside stimulus, the brain goes into overdrive.

What I’ve noticed while I’m between books is that if there’s no active story for it to be working on, my brain still doesn’t slow down. It just starts narrating my life. I’ve always tended to think in narrative. As a kid, I was a lot like Calvin in the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” when he has his “Spaceman Spiff” adventures that he mentally narrates in third person. A long car trip might have turned into an intergalactic voyage, being kidnapped by pirates, or journeying across the frontier in a covered wagon, all mentally narrated as though it was in a book.

I don’t do that so much now, since I’m usually writing a book. If I’m not actively focusing on something else, I will tend to start mentally composing a scene for whatever I’m working on. If I’m sitting still, I’m generally writing in my head. I had to take up knitting so I could manage to focus enough to follow a TV show, and I take notes in church so that I follow the sermon rather than drifting off.

It’s only when I’m not working on something that’s taken over my brain that I go back into “Spaceman Spiff” mode, only instead of making up crazy adventures for my imaginary alter ego to go on, I find myself just mentally narrating my life, as though it’s a blog post or women’s fiction novel. This week it got particularly bad because not only was I between books, but the book I was reading was a first-person women’s fiction novel, so it was way too easy to fall into that mode. The craziest thing came when I decided to try long, deep breaths to settle myself down so I could sleep, and then immediately there came the mental narration, “I decided to try long, deep breaths to settle myself down so I could sleep.”

One of my childish coping mechanisms is starting to make more sense to me. I used to tell myself stories in order to get to sleep, usually based on whatever thing I was really into at the time. Either I was a self-insert character in that fictional world or I was in the role of one of the characters, and at some point in the story, that character would go to sleep — either having to rest out of exhaustion, passing out for some reason, or hurt and having to rest. When the character went to sleep, the narration stopped and I could go to sleep. I think I stopped that somewhere along the way when I started writing fiction professionally and learned that having your characters asleep all the time makes for a boring story, so even mentally writing that sort of thing offended my novelist sensibilities. And there’s not really any fictional world that I’m that into right now. I’m not writing mental fanfic for anything.

I am trying to do better about settling down at night. I was listening to the classical radio station, but some classical music is really stirring, so it doesn’t always work well. Instead, I switched to CDs of calming music, like chant or music for Evensong services. For the last fifteen or so minutes before I turn out the light, I switch from reading a novel to reading a magazine, so I’m less keyed-up about what’s going on in the story. But my real problem isn’t so much falling asleep at night, but rather getting back to sleep when I wake up at about three in the morning. I’m not awake enough to follow the advice to get up and do something instead of trying to sleep, but I’m just awake enough to be aware that I’m awake and for the narrative to kick in: “I’m lying here, not really awake, but not really asleep.” Maybe I should try creating a character I can put to sleep all the time, like I did when I was a kid.

Comments are closed.