Writers In Bed

Last week I tweeted that I'd fallen asleep in school car line, and at the dentist. The outpouring of empathy from overtired authors who'd fallen asleep in wacky places got me thinking: what is it with writers and sleep issues?

I decided to do a survey -- not an anecdotal one, but a real bar-graph pie-chart percentage-yielding one. In the midst of this, the New York Times wrote about a study suggesting that curing insomnia can help those who suffer from depression. There is a link, science seems to say, between sleep, attitude, and mental health.

One week and 203 responses later, I had a rough, pseudoscientific but fascinating profile of the American Writer in Bed*.

First, writers are getting more sleep than many would think. The stereotype of the sleepless insomniacal writer might be a bum rap, at least in my survey.

An impressively rested 37 percent reported getting seven hours of sleep regularly, and 54 percent got seven hours or more.

Only 11 percent said they get fewer than six hours a night.

Interestingly, 10 percent get their fill of sleep through some combination of night sleep and daytime naps, which is not something that can be said of all professions. (Though maybe that's not altogether true, since seven people, in write-in answers, volunteered that they'd fallen asleep on their office floor.)

An enviable 44 percent rarely or never have trouble falling asleep, and 53 percent said sleep issues caused them "a little" angst (compared to 29 percent who say moderate angst, and 18 percent "a good bit").

So, all in all, this doesn't seem too bleary. What's all the fuss about tired writers and tortured sleep?

Well, there's this: 69 percent "feel so involved in your writing that you can't get to sleep/stay asleep."

I can't imagine that not happening.

My brain won't turn off.

When I'm working super well, I'll wake up in the middle of the night in order to write stuff down.

Sometimes I wake up at night with a line of dialogue.

Oh, those active minds. And not fruitlessly so: 63 percent say their dreams yield material for their writing ("symbolism from dreams often feeds into my writing").

But here's the rub for a lot of folks: 49 percent "sometimes" wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, but make that "frequently" for 25 percent.

Of those who get the middle-of-the-night blues, 57 percent lie there drumming their fingers on the sheets, counting sheep, or whatever else quiets the demons until the finally fall back asleep. ("Cry," "lie in bed plotting revenge," "worry frantically about things outside my control," "lie in bed hoping desperately to fall back to sleep, but more often mentally re-writing my work or someone else's. I often come up with new ending for movies or new story threads for TV shows.")

The other 43 percent lie in bed a short time then get up and do something else. The something else was quite interesting.

Not surprisingly, 77 percent read. In spite of the old stereotype of sleepless people turning to the tube, only 21 percent said they watch TV in the middle of the night. The same number (21 percent) said they turn to sex, either with a partner or alone. Other methods of trying to relax themselves back to sleep:

26 percent over-the-counter medication

22 percent prescription meds

16 percent alcohol (only 1 percent reported using illegal not-exactly-available-at-CVS drugs)

16 percent sound machine

14 percent yoga or meditation

10 percent pray

9 percent eat

7 percent talk with a partner or friend

Write-in answers: "give self acupuncture," "melatonin," "chamomile pill," "play Free Cell," "Sudoku," "Facebook or tweet," "read email or news online," "bring hot water bottle to bed," "play with the cat," "deep breathing exercises," "turning on a happy movie I've seen a hundred times before," "audiobooks (I don't want to admit which authors voices put me to sleep)."

What about writing in the middle of the night?

A cautious 60 percent said they would not touch their most valued writing projects in the wee hours. Of those who do get up and write, 18 percent thought their midnight state yielded better writing, with their free-associating brain firing on all cylinders; 8 percent thought it was worse and had to change it later ("though I don't know it until the next day").

I think it's brilliant at the time, but usually discover in the morning that it's not.

I used to start writing at 11 pm and write all night. It was a terrible, unnecessary habit that I wouldn't return to. If It did change my writing, it probably made it darker/more solemn.

It's either noticeably better or worse, but definitely different. If it's better, I attribute it to the quiet, which my house rarely is.

I feel like it's both (better and worse). The writing is "sloppy" but I tend to think pretty deeply at these times. So it's a good time for drafting or making notes, not for revision.

Sometimes things occur to me at night easily (plot points, figuring out what a character is trying to tell me) that I work so hard at during the day -- I think I stifle myself in the daytime.

When I started out as a writer, I think writing very late at night or at odd times tapped into that free-association mode, but years into it, I've become more workmanlike about getting things done and that doesn't happen. I drop right back into where I need to be.

It's a good time for taking notes, the ideas flutter around like loose birds

What about the person on the other side of the pillow? Ten percent said their sleep issues caused relationship difficulties with their significant other. "Annoyed" is the word that came up repeatedly.

My partner finds it annoying as I'm always tired and he feels I compound the issue with my habits.

Yep. We're on different schedules and pass in the night.

We're even further out of sync than we already are.

Yes. He has to watch the kids if I had a hard time sleeping because I will be a wreck all day.

My husband and I started sleeping in different rooms a few years ago -- it really helps.

My partner worries.

Husband sleeps like the sheeted dead. He'll have no idea I've been up all night.

Then there's the difficulties it causes for oneself in the world. We asked where were some of the strangest, most inappropriate places respondents fell asleep.

Frisbee-golf course

In the military, while standing in formation

On the floor of a recording studio during a drum sound check. This should not technically be possible.

Movies (three people said this)


Meetings (three people said this)

Office floor (seven people said this)

At a 76ers basketball game

Parent-teacher conference

Dinner party (at the table)

Driving (six people offered this, all horrified)

* The 10-question poll was structured in multiple-choice format with room at the end for write-in responses, on Survey Monkey.

By Nichole Bernier