Mark attempts to make sense of the world for his grandson – and for himself. Theo was four months old at the time of writing this.
I want to have a word about not sleeping.
Now, I don’t want to appear unsympathetic here but it seems to me that you’re under no great pressure in your life. Demands are not exactly overwhelming, expectations not unrealistically high. As I understand it, all you’ve got to do to delight everyone around you and be judged a success are two simple things: you’ve got to feed and sleep.
Believe me, it doesn’t get much better than this.
And let’s face it, these are things that come automatically to most of your peer group. That teenagers then spend years perfecting: raid the fridge, go back to bed. And that adults look back on, nostalgically: there was a time when the world was young and easy when we could sleep all morning, eat what we liked and never put on an ounce.
But an honest sixteen week appraisal? Well, you can’t deny that there have been some hiccoughs with the feeding – literally, metaphorically – although, credit where credit’s due, you seem to have pretty much got the hang of it now. But when it comes to sleeping, it’s not such a happy story, is it?
A few broken hours at night and the occasional twenty minute nap during the day just doesn’t cut it. You’re behind the game, off the pace, falling short.
It’s not clever.
And I should know. Because when it comes to not sleeping I’m up there with the best – or the worst: I’m a grandmaster, a heavyweight champion, Pulitzer standard, Nobel prize material. I’m world class.
And the strange thing is that I used to sleep. Like a baby.
My insomnia only began a few years ago when I started this writing business. Before – when I did other things like running organisations that employed thousands of people and had budgets sufficient to fund the economies of small countries – I slept. Wonderful deep untroubled sleep. However bruising, damaging and demanding life might have been during the day, and whatever difficulties I knew the next day would bring, as soon as my head touched the pillow, I went to sleep. And I stayed asleep.
But now? Going to sleep is still no problem. Staying asleep is the thing. Three nights out of four at 3 a.m. or earlier, I snap awake, my mind racing, working , turning on characters, plots, sentences, single words. However hard I try to stop myself, I can’t. If I’m lucky, I will find sleep an hour before the alarm wakes me. And the fourth night? Utterly exhausted, I sleep heavily and through.
It’s no way to carry on.
I’m not, of course, the first writer to suffer like this. In fact, although it doesn’t make me feel any better, the company I keep is illustrious: Proust, Dumas, Kafka, Dickens to name just a few.
Each dealt with it in their own way: Kafka, as of course he would, kept a bleak journal of his suffering; Proust wrote most À la recherche du temps perdu in his head while lying awake; Dumas and Dickens tramped the streets for hours.
Mark Twain was another. On one occasion, in desperation and frustration at his inability to sleep in a stuffy room while staying at a friend’s house, he threw a pillow in the general direction of the bedroom window. Hearing the shattering of glass, he finally fell asleep convinced that cool air was playing on his face. In the morning he discovered that he had in fact broken the glass front of his friend’s bookcase. Not exactly the house guest you would want.
The poet, Amy Lowell meanwhile needed total silence. It was an expensive business. Staying in hotels she would rent the rooms above, below and to the left and right side of hers.
All of which begs some questions: are insomnia and writing somehow conjoined? And, if they are, is it that insomniacs are drawn to writing or does writing make for insomnia? Is it cause or effect? That’s something to think about one night in the creaking darkness before dawn, isn’t it?
Not that insomnia is the exclusive domain of writers, of course. There are and have been many others and some sought desperate and increasingly unlikely cures. Abraham Lincoln was another midnight stroller; Theodore Roosevelt would take a glass of cognac with a glass of milk before bed; Benjamin Franklin had two beds and would switch in the night to the one that was always freshly aired; Vincent Van Gogh applied heavy doses of camphor to his mattress and pillows – and slowly poisoned himself in the process; Marlene Dietrich swore by sardine and onion sandwiches; W.C. Fields could only fall asleep under an umbrella being watered by a sprinkler hose.
Groucho Marx’s insomnia was apparently triggered by the stock market crash of 1929 in which he lost a fortune. His cure for boredom in the middle of the night was to call up strangers and insult them. But we will forgive him that because he also wrote a classic insomnia joke: ‘Q. What do you get when you cross an insomniac, an agnostic, and a dyslexic? A. Someone who stays up all night wondering if there is a Dog.’
But however amusing all of this might sound it’s not good.
Thomas Edison reckoned that: ‘Sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days’. Margaret Thatcher said: ‘Sleep is for wimps.’ They are both wrong. Sleep is good: it restores, it renews.
Anyway, writing is my excuse for the constant restless exploration of the small hours. But what’s yours, Theo, I wonder? What is it that’s going on inside your sixteen-week-old head when, after just a few minutes pause, your eyes open again and eagerly light up. Is it that the world is so new that you simply can’t get enough of it? That you are hungry for every new sight, sound, sensation? That you’re frightened that the world is going on without you?
Whatever the cause, whatever your reasons, trust me, you can’t carry on like this. It erodes, exhausts, diminishes.
So, can I suggest that you give this wide-awake-and-at-the-world business a rest? Promise me at least that you’ll think about it? Carefully. Give it some serious consideration?
Perhaps you could even sleep on it?
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