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Writing and Napping

Many years ago, before I became a book editor, I worked in radio. It’s great work. I learned so much about dialogue and, with broadcast time always limited, I came to appreciate the art of telling a story concisely.

But one great thing about working in radio is the voice-over studio. It’s where the reporter goes to record the intro and links between the pieces of pre-recorded interviews.

It’s often a small room filled with all that audio gear and lined with soft, cushiony foam. It often has a comfortable chair too; one that doesn’t squeak when you’re recording.

The interesting thing about many of these rooms is that you can raise the slider on the mixing desk to open the microphone, ready to record, and a red light automatically comes on outside the room, alerting people not to enter. Anyone who works in radio respects that red light, way more than they would a traffic light.

For me, this was perfect. A magical little room. I’d always book the room for a half hour in the afternoon. Around 2 PM. I’d record what I’d have to (sometimes I didn’t always have to, but I’d still book the time – please don’t tell my ex-colleagues), then stop the recording.

But I’d leave the microphone fader up to keep that red light on outside. I’d then sit back in that quiet chair, wheel it against the wall and lean my head against that soft, pillowy foam, and fall asleep.

Well, it’s not really sleep. As anyone who naps will tell you, we don’t really fall asleep. It’s a nap. It’s different. It’s somehow not quite so deep, but it can be every bit as regenerative as a full 8 hours.

Yes. I admit it, I take naps.

Perks of the craft

And I’m not alone. In my last post about the benefits of walking for writers [1], many of you commented how napping was just as beneficial.

“Napping … is my alternative for refilling the creative well!” said Jan. “Naps are the best,” agreed Vijaya. Tom adds naps to walking and biking to find inspiration, while Denise uses naps to work out problems: “I often have the solution when I wake,” she said.

And they’re not alone. Stephen King is a fan too. In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he says:

In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.

In The Writer’s Book of Hope: Getting from Frustration to Publication, Ralph Keys said:

I find an afternoon nap is indispensable if I’m to accomplish anything after lunch. Naps are a writer’s perk.

Keys acknowledges that naps “have a fishy odor among those who have day jobs.” And it’s true. Many people look down on napping. It’s an unproductive waste of the day, they say, and those who nap are just lazy, lack stamina or motivation. If you don’t like to take an afternoon siesta because maybe you wake up even more grumpy than before, then that’s fine. If it’s not for you, don’t nap. But don’t judge us nappers either.

Creativity boost

Sure, I can work through a whole afternoon, but I know I’ll reach a point when I’m not at my best. That’s when I prefer to make myself comfortable somewhere, close my eyes for 20 minutes (often less, rarely more), and wake up refreshed and even more productive than if I’d chosen to plod on through the haze.

And the science backs us nappers up. A 2012 study from Georgetown University Medical Center [2] suggest that the right side of the brain – considered to be the creative side – is more active than the left when we rest. “The brain could be doing some helpful housecleaning, classifying data, consolidating memories,” the study’s lead author, Assistant Professor Andrei Medvedev PhD, says. “That could explain the power of napping.”

Timing is important. “The short‐term benefits of brief naps (e.g., 10 minutes) … include greater alertness and accuracy and speed when performing a number of cognitive tasks, including psychomotor performance and short‐term memory,” reports a study from 2016 [3].

Longer naps, more than 90 minutes, give you the time to enter REM sleep, and may be even more restorative. That’s especially true for people who don’t sleep so long at night (less than 7 hours or so). But the study authors point out that “long nap durations during the day may disturb nighttime sleep.” So maybe that’s why you’re getting less sleep at night in the first place.

The in-between time of 60 minutes is not always so good. You’re likely to wake in the middle of a deep sleep, meaning recovery can take longer and leave you with long-lasting sleep inertia. In other words, you’ll be grumpy.

Napping certainly doesn’t work for everyone. Neither does hiking, cycling, running, driving, knitting or whatever other pastime you do besides writing. The point is to find the activity – or, in the case of napping, lack of activity – that suits you, that helps you crack those character problems, fill those plot holes and see your setting.

There is probably just one thing all writers can do, next to their writing, to improve their storytelling, and that’s reading. Every author – and every editor – will benefit from reading as much as possible. Especially, I’d say, if that leads to a little snooze at the end of the chapter.

Does napping help you in your writing? What other activities boost your creativity?

About Jim Dempsey [4]

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing [5]. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading [6] and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation [7]. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [8] website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist [9].