Writing in the dark

Silk’s Post #7 — I love to write at night. Not in a civilized, disciplined after-dinner session, rationally timed to finish off a chapter before the late news hour. No, no, no. I mean an all-night, insomniac marathon conducted with the red-eyed passion of the addict.

I love to write during that unclaimed time of darkness, when the world is sensibly asleep, leaving the empty hours to those who relish the void. This time belongs to me. My mind runs free. I’m a night hunter pursuing words, insights, patterns, ideas that lurk in the peripheral vision. I feel like a day-shy vampire who rises unafraid in the silent time unwanted by others, stalking the hours until I fall into bed with exhausted satisfaction as the sky begins to blush.

Is my night writing my best writing? Not necessarily. It often needs a good slap in the face when I re-examine it in daylight. But it is certainly the most imaginative stuff I write. It’s more like play than work. There’s something about breaking the rule of circadian rhythms that encourages rule-breaking in general. At night, my writer wakes up while my self-editor goes to sleep.

I don’t do this every night, of course. This behaviour is episodic. First, I literally have to have the energy to stay up. Second, I have to feel obsessed. Third, I have to have the time to sleep in the next morning. But lately – driven by this crazy 5 Writers deadline, which is rushing at me much, much faster than the pages are accumulating – I’ve been thinking about how to discipline my work habits to be more productive. And I realized that night writing is when I seem to be capable of churning out serious wordage.

The writing nation is filled with stories – apocryphal and literal – of great night writers, literary giants who burned the candle late, and, in our romantic imaginations, burned themselves up at the same time. There’s an iconoclastic appeal to the image of the tortured, driven writer pursuing his craft alone, in the dark, with only the muse looking on. This image works best if one imagines the writer scratching out a manuscript on parchment with a quill pen. Perhaps with a raven tapping on the window and a lone wolf howling in the distance.

Yet, writing at night is more common than one might suppose after reading all the claims of advice-giving writers who promote the first hours after waking as the optimal time for creativity. (These tend to be the same writers who chant the mantra “write-every-day-write-every-day-write-every-day,” preferably to a quota). But a bit of research found a surprising number of references to night writing and the famous authors who indulge(d) in the practice.  First, let’s remember that many authors – successful and aspiring – must pursue their writing in ‘spare time’ not taken up with commitments to working for actual money, raising children, feeding themselves, looking after various matters of hygiene, or engaging in social intercourse. Most of that spare time can only be found late at night.

Then, there’s insomnia and other circadian ‘abnormalities’. Charles Dickens’ 1861 essay, Night Walks begins with a gorgeous premise:

“Some years ago, a temporary inability to sleep, referable to a distressing impression, caused me to walk about the streets all night, for a series of several nights …

In the course of those nights, I finished my education in a fair amateur experience of houselessness. My principal object being to get through the night, the pursuit of it brought me into sympathetic relations with people who have no other object every night in the year.”

I learned – in a wonderful blog on The Guardian website contributed by Matt Shoard (who wrote the post between 4:00 and 5:30 am) – that not only Dickens, but also Robert Frost, Alan Ginsberg, Pablo Neruda, Carol Ann Duffy, James Tipton, Richard Brautigan, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, TS Eliot, JD Salinger and many other luminaries famously wrote at night. I learned “Why You Should Be Writing at Night” from Jonathan Manor, guest blogging on Jeff Goins’ website devoted to writing practice.

And I also learned the secrets of circadian rhythms – what I call the Circadian Cha Cha – in an inexhaustible series of articles by psychologists and chronobiologists who have studied this thing to death. It seems each of us has a natural biological clock – our personal time zone – which is genetic as well as environmental. Scientists like to classify people as ‘Larks’ (morning people) or ‘Owls’ (night people), with many variations between. I took a quick survey to determine which type of bird I am, and came up with the result that I am neither a ‘Lark’, nor an ‘Owl’, but a ‘Hummingbird’: “ready for action both morning and night, in sync with our culture’s demands” (lucky me).

Given that finding the time, and the will, to get words on paper is a perennial obsession of writers – especially those of us on a frightening deadline – it might be worth your while to learn the steps to your own Circadian Cha Cha. Writing is about more than discipline and determination. You have to work with your own rhythms. So figure them out.

Check out this simple test on the Psychology Today website to find out what kind of bird you really are.

Then fly with it!

9 thoughts on “Writing in the dark

  1. Hmm. I’m a moderate owl. No surprise there. My opinion is that 7 am is the middle of the night. Also, Madeleine L’Engle talked about doing face plants on the typewriter – she wrote after all the day’s work was done, which in her case was operating a small grocery store, raising several children and being a pre-feminist housewife. I suspect she’d have been a owlish type of person if her other commitments would have let her stay up long enough.

  2. I spent 25+ years commuting from Saltspring Island to Victoria on the 6:15 am ferry (usually not getting back home until 8:00 pm), so I’ve been forced to adapt. Thankfully, my commuting days are over, but left to my own devices I have not truly found my natural rhythm yet. I have to admit I also used to like to get up and write very early in the morning before the rest of the world woke up. But I find it a lot easier these days to stay up late than to pry myself out of a cozy bed at some ungodly hour of the morning.

  3. I’m a moderate Early Bird. No surprise, which is good from the POV that I understand my energy levels. Thanks for the great post. Happy writing.

  4. I tried to think of a clever way to suggest that it’s no wonder you’re an expert in getting worms, but no matter how I put it, it sounds yucky. See you soon Dawne – thanks for dropping by!

  5. Loved this Silk. For the nine years that I worked for you at MGI I got up at 4:00am to write my novels. I thought I was just getting up very early in the morning. But after reading your post I’m thinking that maybe it was actually night time. Some people – like everyone in my family – thought it was. They also thought it was nuts. But then, they aren’t writers.

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