I’ve been having insomnia again. I don’t know if it’s an integral part of a creative life, or the consequence of too much stress, but I know that this is a problem shared by many writers.
With me, it’s not just a matter of not being able to sleep, it’s a matter of not being able to direct my mind away from specific worries, whether immediate or distant, specific or abstract. Those thoughts become loops, spinning around the same problem, without resolution.
One night recently, I got sick of worrying about the state of the world, and managed to refocus the thought loop onto analyzing the problem of insomnia itself. Why wasn’t I sleeping? What was I thinking about? What was it that kept my mind churning when it needed to rest? Were they things beyond or within my control? Were they all the same? Were they about the past? The present? The future?
Then, of course, I did what writers who are stuck in a manuscript that has flat and bare spots do with everything—I turned it into a question about my story problems.
I asked myself what would keep my characters awake at night? What would their 3 am thought loops be? That line of questioning proved to be a novel and fruitful strategy for resolving the flat and bare spots in my story.
For me, the insomnia-fueled thought loops start with a focus on specific problems for which there is no clear or immediate solution (leaking pipes; tensions with the teenager; job insecurity). Those specific problems tend to fall into a few, emotionally resonant categories: things I wish I had or hadn’t done or things I wish weren’t happening in the larger world or in my small portion of it. There is obviously regret involved in these thought loops. There is also frustration, a feeling of helplessness in my own lack of action on or ability to influence problems.
The insomniac in me, however, turns those problems into small kernels at the center of spiraling worry loops which progressively churn in memories of related past traumas or fears of future catastrophes. This incorporation of traumatic backstory and future fears encapsulates a current (and initially soluble) difficulty in layers and layers of insoluble worry.
That layering of thought was also a gold mine of understanding who I was–not just in the moment, but in my past, and in the future. The layers of worry laid bare the things from my past that still bothered me; unwanted behaviors that I still had not purged; events that I had still not accepted; fears and weaknesses that I had not conquered. It showed the worst of me, not just the parts that I liked to shine up and present in the light of day.
What if my characters had insomnia? What current moment would be the one that woke them up and occupied their thoughts? What kind of regrets and frustrations would tinge that current moment? What could I learn from them about how they thought about themselves? How would that impact their actions in the daytime? [Read more…]