Hi folks! So I was very anxious this whole quarter about posting on the blog. I think my irrational fear of blogging and my fear of writing outside my genre had a baby and it was terrifying. But, here I go! This is an essay I’m working on. It’s still very rough, but I would love love love your suggestions. Also, since it’s about creating a writing hygene, I’d also love to hear some of your writing practices.
I light candles every night before bed. A trail of fire leading from my bathroom, muggy from the shower’s steam, to the bed—scented in vanilla to bring fatigue. The other lights have been off for two hours, the phone and computer shut down, the place is silent but for the sound of moving into pajamas and then in between sheets, but I can hear my mind churning.
I’ve started this routine because I can’t sleep (as I write this, I have to wake up in three and a half hours and get my mind to speed with teaching and to do lists). When insomnia hits for several days, my week is strung together by a brief memory of lights dimming and then waiting.
Almost a year ago, I stopped sleeping. I was living in an artist co-op in St. Paul, MN with two college friends. The building had been converted from an old box factory—what was once industrial brick was now artistic flair. A default period had just expired on one of my student loans and I knew I couldn’t pay the new bill and keep my room in the artist’s fantasy that had been my home. I knew I had to leave and I knew it would pressure on my roommates, who were artists after all. But I had to step out for myself. Intellectually, I understood that, but still I felt guilty.
A few weeks before I moved out, I began to feel the walls resenting me. One night, after what should have been an easy transition to sleep: working on my feet at the Café/Wine Bar for eight hours, a hot shower, a light dinner, and as many pages of a Hemmingway novel I could squeeze in before my eyes began to droop. I turned off my daylight simulator and the faux sun set over my brick-lined room.
Three hours later I was still lying in bed, but my mind was working. It ran through moving strategies, the search for a new job, and conversation starters that would repair the natural rift that had occurred between my roommates and myself. No matter how I turned, how twisted the bed sheets became around my legs, and no matter how many ways I placed my pillow, I couldn’t sleep.
I opened the Hemmingway again, but I couldn’t read. I was still tired. I felt the hours of work and the lateness, but my mind still ran, unable to turn it off. How did I ever do it before? I thought around four am. How does it work? How do you close your eyes and then suddenly stop thinking? I didn’t seem scientifically possible. Biology doesn’t explain that kind of magic.
At seven am, after the sun had risen, I fell asleep and woke at nine to the sound of breakfast-making in the kitchen and the reminder that I would return to work in a few hours. My sleeplessness continued, but I figured it would return when I moved out and away from the increasing tension in the apartment.
I moved in with my boyfriend to cut costs. The first time we had lived together, we still lived in Switzerland and it was the hottest summer of my memory. All of southern Switzerland experienced one of my worst fears: getting locked inside a sauna. But we had just fallen in love and made the best of it. We both worked from home, so we became nocturnal, sleeping through the hottest part of the day, moving the mattress right under the one window, Italian-style shutters flung open, and then emerging right as the sun set to walk around Lago di Lugano and catch the gelato stands before they closed. Though our hours had dramatically shifted, I don’t remember any sleepless nights and I don’t remember him snoring, but apparently he does.
What was once the slow comfortable descent into sleep held in his arms was replaced by nights in our living room, listening to a slow rumble from the bedroom and trying various tactics to induce drowsiness: reading dense texts with cups of tea flavored “sleepy time” and “bedtime” followed by yogic awareness of breath activities.
I was lucky if I got four hours a night.
Two and a half years ago, I stopped writing. I had graduated from college and all the structure and deadlines had dropped from underneath me. I didn’t step up to the challenge. I didn’t transition gracefully.
I kept journaling and occasionally I would go to a café and squeeze out a few pages, but I didn’t finish anything and I didn’t look to publish it. Whenever I thought about writing, I always found something else that I could do, something more urgent: laundry, bills, and friends to call.
I still called myself a writer. When customers at the Café/Wine Bar (that employed mostly artists) asked what I did, I told them I wrote. When they asked to see my work, I told them I was very private.
I began to feel my writing deprivation physically: a nervy edge to my movements, a recoiling like from pain or a bad smell, a weight that pulled at my feet. I began to eat more, cry more, and a feeling of disappointment sunk in each night before bed.
The last time I’d finished a story I was still in Switzerland. The story was about a subway line and a slaughterhouse. It was creepy and magical at the same time and I had fallen in love with it. The night I finished, I had to pick up a friend from the train station. The night was clear and starry. The mountains reflected a glowing blue the way the Alps do. I walked down a small path between ancient villas feeling light as if the story carried me to the station. Overcome with happiness, I began to sing out loud. I am normally a shy person in public and try to avoid public attention at all costs; it was the first time I had ever sang in public. In my memory, that night glows. I wouldn’t feel that way again for another three years.
The time in between then and now was filled with a lot of whining about writing and a lot of worrying about writing, but absolutely no writing.
A few months ago, I started seeing a therapist for anxiety. I told her about my trouble sleeping and she gave me a handout titled: GOOD SLEEP HYGIENE. At first I felt like I’d been caught neglecting to shower or wash my hands, but after I read the bulleted list I realized that falling asleep was more than laying down and closing your eyes. You have to:
- Maintain a regular bedtime and waking schedule.
- Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine.
- Avoid going to bed after midnight.
- Sleep in a cool room.
- Take warm baths.
So now I don’t drink coffee after noon. I don’t take afternoon naps and I try to set an alarm everyday at seven. I make sure my last glass of wine is at least two hours before bed. I take a shower if I need to relax. I wash my dishes and clean my house at least an hour before bed to reduce any stress caused by a mess. I light my way to sleep with candles. Now, I sleep most nights, some I still don’t.
Now that I’m in graduate school with the structure back into place and the deadlines to obey, I’m writing. I have too many ideas to keep up. When I finish a piece, I again feel like I’m floating for the rest of the day. I just finished making my first chapbook and, boiling over with excitement, I rushed down the hallways of the English Department greeting everyone I with, “Look! Look at what I just made!”
When I graduate, I still want to feel that. So, I’m making up a hygiene. I’m making it like brushing my teeth and combing my hair: write once every day and write to finish, even if I don’t like it. I take Hemingway’s advice when I get stuck: one true sentence at a time. Before I think of something better to do, I try for one sentence and then slowly put one after the other until I look down and, brick by brick, I’ve built a wall; a hygiene; a trail of fire leading to bed. Once I write, I always sleep.