Writing the Midnight Oil

January 10, 2020 § 6 Comments

clockBy Suzanne Fernandez Gray

The first few times it happened, I tried not to look at the clock. Then I decided to make a game of awakening in the middle of the night by trying to guess the hour at hand. 3:11 a.m? 4:13 a.m.? 1:45 a.m.? By checking things out like the shade of the sky’s blackness, the heaviness in my body, the level of silence on the nearby roads, my guesses sometimes hit the mark.

Somewhere along the way in my life, I read that if you wanted to fall back to sleep you should stay in bed and keep the light off, so I dutifully stared at a dark ceiling sometimes for hours, careful not to look back at the clock to confirm what I already knew. The night was long, and I was not sleeping.

As a writer with side hustles as a public art consultant and website manager for my husband’s small business, I already knew how to juggle a day. If taking care of pennies (so the dollars will take care of themselves) is an asset in finance, its chronological equivalent is managing spare minutes in a day, and I was good at that.

I carried a notebook in my purse just about everywhere I went to take advantage of an inspired thought or overheard snippet of conversation that might fit in my work somehow. If I stopped for coffee, I pulled a book or magazine from my bag to indulge in a short essay along with my beverage.  And, I kept lists of things that needed to be done on a given day and inserted them into open pockets of time between bigger tasks (though I confess to losing those lists often). Still, I treated daylight hours with a kind of respect and value I had never given to those at night.

So, I decided to change that. I moved the clock out of the way and replaced it with a clipboard loaded with fresh notebook paper and a favorite pen. I don’t wake up every night, but the next time I did, I only lay in bed for a few minutes, still taking in the all the qualities of the night I had become familiar with, before switching on the light and writing. It started with a page here, two pages there. I journaled about my day or continued a thread I’d begun unraveling on a piece started earlier. In time, I added a small book of writing prompts to my bedside and on some nights started something new. I found that really good work sometimes comes when the house, my husband, and my three dogs, are deep in sleep. Paradoxically, my mind feels almost rested in the middle of the night and I write with a clarity that’s hard to come by in the course of a cluttered day.

I look at my sleeping problem differently now. Though I’d still prefer seven consecutive hours of shut eye, when I don’t get that, I get precious time for my writing. I know I’ll still be tired the next day, but the stress of having a sleep issue isn’t in the forefront of my mind anymore. There is too much good work to be done.


Suzanne Fernandez Gray’s work has appeared in several publications including Fourth Genre, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Huffington Post and Solstice Literary Magazine, where her essay “Bridge of Cards” won the 2017 Nonfiction Award. She holds an MA in Art History and an MFA in Creative Writing. You can find her at www.SuzanneFernandezGray.com.

§ 6 Responses to Writing the Midnight Oil

  • Nice to know I’m not the only one who plays the time-guessing game. Or the only one who writes in the middle of the night.

  • floatinggold says:

    How do you keep from getting frustrated that you can’t sleep/ are tired the next day? I find it hard to even imagine that I’d be happy about waking up in the middle of the night and doing things that do not include sleep. Do you ever fall back asleep? How do you determine it’s time to go back?

    As far as staying in bed when you can’t sleep is concerned, I know of the opposite – you should get out of bed and return only when you feel sleepy again.

    It’m glad to read that you are able to turn a negative into a positive, though.

  • Yes! I have found sometimes that my best writing comes in the darkest (and quietest) parts of the night–that is when I know I am free from any and all obligations. I don’t even have to stop and open a can of food for the cats, since I am usually sleeping. It is liberating. Good luck.

  • I’ve thought about doing this, but I’m afraid that I would never get back to sleep. But maybe I should try it instead of lying their blinking at the dark ceiling and fuming…..

  • Oh Suzanne, I feel like that was me last night. So many sleepless nights since I lost my estrogen more than 10 years ago. I prefer to read on my Kindle since I don’t like to turn on the light. However, maybe I’ll have to take up your tips and do some writing.

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