Monday, October 29, 2007

Sleep and Creativity

The New York Times devoted its Science section to sleep last week. Sleep is one of those magical topics that everyone knows about, but no one really understands. Scientists don't really know why people and other, less conflicted animals require sleep. It just seems the case that the vast majority of sentient creatures require some non-sentient time. I suspect when we know more about sleep, we'll know more about consciousness as well.

Needless to say, writing requires sleep. Writing is often the natural enemy of sleep, of course. If you read this blog, there's a good chance you spend a night or more a month staring at a dark ceiling, working out a plot development, or worrying for your character, or getting consumed by a new story idea.

Get up and write it down. (But that's not the subject of this post).

Creativity requires concentration. It also requires desire. You have to really WANT to say something new. There's no worse feeling than trying to write when you don't really want to. Needless to say, sleeping beforehand is a big help in this regard.

As it turns out, sleeping helps in more ways than we knew. Sleeping allows the brain to do a second, higher ordering of data accumulated during the day. In one study described in this article, subjects were given a set of simple relations -- kid stuff. Then some were allowed to sleep, and others were not. Those who had slept were able to build and remember logical relationships between ALL the objects. Those who hadn't slept could only really remember what they were shown directly.

It brings an analytical awareness to memory, basically. This is probably the first step in the creative process. We all know the feeling of looking at a synopsis or a scene and not finding the critical point. Somehow we've written down everything except what matters. The older I get (and the more I need naps), the more I suspect that this failure to grasp is directly related to a lack of sleep.

For me, the mark of a truly dedicated writer is writing through that exhaustion, and building those connections. I think the writer's high is probably best described as that moment when all the elements spontaneously align, and you can write no wrong. You feel like you're channeling a story that's already there. I think that's probably exactly what is happening. We dream at night. We can dream during the day.

The tortured writer is a cliche. I tortured myself for years trying to live up. But there is most definitely an ounce of truth here too. It's as if this poor scribe cannot live outside his nightmares. I think that might be too terribly true. There's a reason we write, and it's not so different from why we dream, or even why we sleep.

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