Sleep deprivation and carving out your own method

a pot of coffee

Some people think I’m a “night owl”, but I have been highly sleep dependent for a long time. I think anybody can look like a night owl if they’re just transposing the sleep to the entire morning, and sometimes early afternoon, instead of doing it at night. To me, the night owls in my life are not likely sleeping before midnight, yet somehow up and functional at 6AM.

One identified issue for me has been sleep apnea, and my airways measurably closing up over 15 times per hour (according to one sleep study session). But before I go far down the personal health road, I want to remind you of the dedicated author type, the “night owl” who heroically forgoes sleep for a full week, and reports sleep deprivation hallucinations like just further proof of how dedicated they are.

They are dedicated, no doubt. But I want to ask, what works for you? Is emulating them a good idea?

One of the first courses I took at York University was called Theories of Writing. We looked at some of the ideas and research from the field of Cognitive Science, and what that view brings to our understanding of writing and writers. It’s been over a decade with no brush-up so I can’t recall every detail, but here’s the gist for you: the most successful writing method and practice you can have should be tailored to you. While I’m filing you under the writer type to keep rhetoric simpler, you’re an individual with a name, a unique set of life experiences, a brain that’s yours and yours alone, and along with it, a unique upbringing and set of psychological experiences that have shaped what’s there.

Every year (that I don’t misread a calendar or address and miss it entirely) I do at least one overnight writing session with others. Every year, on a personal level I see diminishing returns, so I treat it as a fun bit of excess that, having survived, I can laugh at afterward with the other survivors. I value the social experience of being with writers yet I am most a writer when I can tune out everyone else, and let the story come to the forefront of my thinking while every other aspect of my life… doesn’t vanish, but steps aside, takes a lower priority. So I could already reason from there that the most productive I’ll get is by being alone, but I can be happier not alone; wonderful things like noise cancelling headphones allow me to “warp” out of the room full of people for writing after I’ve found inspiration, yet conveniently “warp” back in without having to physically travel. I went on this tangent to show that the group aspect of the Overnighter isn’t really a problem.

No, the diminishing returns probably come from my increased sleep dependency. I can summarize the last one for you. Early part of the evening, things actually get done. Food. Drink. Early morningĀ Ouija session with a small group, for fun. Return to writing, really force out stuff that ups the word count but might not stay in the final copy. Drink more coffee when it’s gradually ceasing to matter. Try to nap on the carpet with a rolled up jacket for a pillow, yet my lack of versatility as a sleeper wins out over the tiredness that you’d think would force me to pass out anywhere. The night ends, it’s officially daylight. People are asking me if I’m okay because I am officially not present for stretches of seconds at a time, but my eyes are open. I don’t always hear what they’re saying. Pancakes at a restaurant; go home, fall over somewhere comfortable.

This is a lot of me, me, me and also me, but I would feel awful if I really cared how well I fit the sleep deprived hard working author type.

I just want you to know that if there’s a trendy piece of advice or technique to try, and super famous, super successful authors are using it, and you try it and fail miserably, I suggest you treat that as your “fun bit of excess” that you get to laugh about afterward (which should be easy if, like me, five in the morning rolls around without a wink of sleep and you’re laughing to yourself thanks to sleep deprivation). The problem isn’t you. There isn’t a problem at all, unless you think you’re obligated to fit the same type as a writer whose work you happen to enjoy reading, or whose success you just really respect.

That’s their brain. If they succeeded, they found what works for them.

Find what works for yours. Maybe you’re a morning person. Maybe the span of time you normally try to sleep is when all the ideas show up. Maybe you need to be well rested. Maybe you need to swear off coffee. Try a bunch of things and their complete opposites, and take inventory of the results.


  1. Richard Paul

    I honestly am still working on my method. I seem to never get enough rest and I only feel rested or well in pockets of the day. My memories that I can command come and go depending on little stress I am under. The more stress the harder my recall becomes. I have noticed too I can be quite hard on myself at times re: my performance during daily activities. The best thing for me is usually lots of vitamins, at least 8 hrs rest or a little more, and sometimes a caffeine boost for good measure.

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