Creative Sleep and the Writing Life

November 12, 2021 § 12 Comments

by William T. Vandegrift, Jr.

Many great minds have faced challenges with their sleep habits. Thomas Edison claimed sleep was a waste of time, and he rarely had a full night’s rest. Like Edison, both Leonardo da Vinci and Nikola Tesla took several naps during the day as opposed to having one long period of sleep. This is called the polyphasic sleep pattern. This form of sleep is not recommended by experts because it can be disruptive and result in sleep deprivation.

The most common model in North America is the monophasic cycle, a pattern in which one sleeps seven to nine hours straight and always at night. This is standard and the ideal amount per night for most. 

Then there is the biphasic pattern, in which one sleeps in two phases: a few hours at night with a brief nap midday. This pattern is common in Europe and Latin America, where the nap is referred to as a siesta. 

I may not be considered a genius, but I have, for much of my life, battled sleep demons to no avail. In the early days of the pandemic, I did some experimenting, and I discovered that the biphasic pattern is the best fit for me. 

Every night, I am in bed around ten, and I rise at three thirty a.m. During this time, there are no distractions. The world is silent. I can focus exclusively on writing. I don’t have emails that I must respond to; the news, which I haven’t checked yet, doesn’t distress me; laundry and errands don’t insist on being done. My partner is sound asleep as are the dogs and cats, content in bed with him, and not yet wanting to be fed or let out. The world is at rest. Everything waits patiently. All there is for me to do is write until sunrise. I find that I am more productive, and I accomplish much more than I could ever manage to achieve had I blocked off an entire day for writing. 

Another advantage of the biphasic cycle is that it offers the relief of a midday nap. Unfortunately, this sleep cycle isn’t realistic for most people, as they have everyday responsibilities in addition to a nine-to-five work schedule that doesn’t allow a nap in the middle of the day. I benefit in having a flexible schedule as a writer and can do my work at any time I choose.

I find naps to be rejuvenating. When it’s nap time, I lie in a recliner and simply close my eyes. This process of “resting my eyes,” as my grandmother would put it, allows me to not only get sleep, but also gives me the opportunity to slip into a creative state where I can wander and roam throughout the clutter inside my head.

When I wake up from a nap, the ideas inside my head quickly become elusive, and I immediately write freely in my journal in an attempt to capture every last thought I have. This period of creativity while waking up is known as the hypnopompic state. When in a hypnopompic state, I often make breakthroughs, whether it is the development of an essay or a short story or coming up with a first or last line of something I am working on.

Then there is the hypnagogic state, which is the brief period of creativity that one experiences while falling asleep. When they took naps, Edgar Allan Poe and Salvador Dali used to hold a ball in their hands so that when they reached the hypnagogic state, they would be startled awake when the ball fell to the floor. With their creative side set afire, they brought forth the results of their dreams on paper or canvas. The plot of Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley while in this dreamlike state. Benjamin Franklin claimed that many of his ideas and inventions also came to him while in hypnagogia. 

There is a strong correlation between sleep and our subconscious. If we have the necessary flexibility in our day, we can take control of our sleep patterns and unlock the doors to our complex, often inaccessible creative side. I know this for a fact as I have made great strides with my work since I began experimenting with my sleep patterns. 

At the emergence of the first hint of daylight, after a few hours of writing, I sit back, feeling content and satisfied. I pull out my journal, and I write the last remnants left of my thoughts, and then I close the journal, push away my laptop, and drink the rest of my tea. The sun has now risen. The dogs creep into the room and roam about, still sleepy, and they finally curl up at my feet. The world is slowly awakening. Life’s demands and obligations now begin to call upon me. 

___

William T. Vandegrift, Jr. is a biphasic sleeper. A graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, he has published numerous author interviews, short stories, and essays in various journals, including The Writer’s Chronicle, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Quarterly West. William reads voraciously and is always cooking up a storm. He lives in New Jersey with his husband, two dogs, and two cats. He can be found on twitter as: @willvandegrift

§ 12 Responses to Creative Sleep and the Writing Life

  • Cassandra Hamilton says:

    I heartily agree and add that keeping a dream journal can greatly inform one’s creative endeavors and use of the shamanic journey helps one to re-enter dreams to mine additional information/test fly options.

  • A psychologist once explained our relationship to the conscious and unconscious mind as like a quarter resting in your palm. You see the head and only the Head, but when asleep or distracted in some way (when you stop thinking about how to solve a problem) the coin flips briefly to Tails and might hand you an answer.

    • btw I am also a biphasic sleeper, a sleep pattern that is not natural to me, but developed as a result of my husband who routinely wakes at 3:30am. We go to bed by 9pm and often nap midday. I am glad to know the name for that sleep pattern as well as the mental state while waking and falling asleep.

  • William, how long are your daytime naps, and are they at the same time of the day?

  • Morgan Baker says:

    This is fascinating. My sleep has changed since getting “older”. I go to bed earlier and I too wake sometimes anywhere from 4-5:30. I love the writing in the morning in a silent house. I do let my dogs out when I get up, but then they lie down and keep me silent company. Thanks for naming all these kinds of sleep. I love and thrive on afternoon naps.

  • annavteditorgmailcom says:

    I am a biphasic sleeper (AKA pre-industrial sleeper—google it) and find that some of my best ideas arrive during that wakeful interval. They beg to be noted down minimally but not to be expanded, lest I stay awake too long and ruin the short length and peacefulness of that precious time.. Expansion comes later, during the day when I am fully competent.

  • This is a really interesting article about different phases of sleep. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  • candacecahill says:

    As an adult, I typically sleep easily through the night but recently I’ve been waking about five hours after falling asleep with ideas swirling in my mind. Instead of rolling over and going back to sleep, I will get up and see what develops! Thank you!

  • Marlene A. Bumgarner says:

    Pretty much any time, although I like to go to the farmers market around nine or ten. But even that is flexible.

    http://www.marlenebumgarner.com.

    >

  • Lizzy says:

    As someone with narcolepsy, I am very familiar with hypnagogic and hypnapompic states (hallucinations that occur during those states is 1 of 5 core symptoms of the neurological condition ). I loved reading something that relates to that part of my life in an unexpected context – it adds nuance and little twists of perspective.

  • Phil Strawn says:

    It’s maddening to be sleep-deprived. I go down around 10, then my brain kicks into gear and I am up at around 1, then write for a while, drink hot Ovaltine and take a Lyrica, then back to bed, then up around 7, then a nap around 2, then the cycle starts again. I didn’t have this problem until the virus turned us into homebound zombies., and radiation for cancer fried my brain. I do agree, my best writing is done in the wee hours.

  • Alisha Maham says:

    I am also a biphasic sleeper but unfortunately, I rarely get chance to complete my another phase towards sleep and this drive me mad while carrying head full of thoughts and the load falls on the eyes made me feel irritant.

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