Conventional wisdom says you must get your sleep: next day’s creativity demands it. Repeated tests show that creativity is one of the first faculties to suffer from sleep disorders and deprivation. Twenty percent of the population has trouble with sleep.
Some recent studies of 10- and 12-year-olds in New Zealand showed that kids who scored high on creativity tests were more than twice as likely to have sleep problems as their not-so-creative schoolmates. There’s lots of anecdotal evidence along these lines as well. For creative people young and old, attacks of imagination can come at any time, day or night. Sleeplessness may be one of the hazards of the creative mind. Most creative insomniacs are familiar with the nighttime “spinning mind” syndrome where dozens of images and half-baked thoughts flash in and out of consciousness. Unfinished business in the studio can vie with personal anxieties and deny decent slumber. Pre-bed exercise, mind-numbing television, yoga, pills, crosswords, or bedtime reading often have limited results. Worrying about it only makes it worse.
Some studies suggest fear of sleeplessness itself may be one of the main causes of sleeplessness. Vital imaginations are often able to magnify fears in the same way they are able to make connections and visualize potentials. In my limited experience it’s often, but not always, the dull folks who experience consistent sleep. Artists, with their heightened sensitivity and vivid imaginations, have the golden recipe for tossing and turning. Chronic insomnia, however, can cause depression or be a result of depression. Sleep disorders need to be examined and understood.
Getting control of sleeplessness is a tricky wicket. Ideally, a new plot twist for that novel you’re writing or a way to finish off the painting on your easel would be a benefit — but that and the other stuff need not keep you awake all night. Comes the time you must roll over and drift off. Just as the yoga master masters her own mind, evolved creators learn to channel and organize nocturnal thoughts. Guiding the mind to go inside the minutiae of a creative process is not only soporific but rewarding. But it seems that people with the resource of fantasy are both blessed and burdened. A notebook on the night table catches the good stuff for the morrow.
PS: “How in blazes are you going to get a good night’s sleep when you’re worried about getting a good night’s sleep? For the hard-of-sleeping, it’s sometimes a tossup as to which is heavier — the pressure to sleep well or the pressure to do well in the activity being slept for.” (Dennis Drabelle, correspondent for the Washington Post and self-confessed insomniac)
Esoterica: In the early morning hours I sometimes find myself hopelessly awake, my mind spinning, yet still in need of more sleep. My solution is my own unpatented invention that might not work for everybody. I tell myself that I have enough ideas for now and go down to the kitchen and get my somnambula cup. It’s specially designed with a wide bottom and the mantra “mimim” incised on it. I make myself a hot chocolate using lots of cream and get it super hot in the micro. I prop myself up in bed, put the cup on my chest where it radiates heat throughout my body, and sip while meditating on mimim back and forth (both ways) while feeling the word in the dark. After a few minutes I’m off to Morpheus, no worse for wear. I think it’s mostly the heat, the chocolate, and the cream. I’ve given versions of my special, handmade cup to creative, sleep-challenged members of my family, some of whom are starting to look at me in a peculiar way.
by William Morris, Benicia, CA, USA
I have overcome 12 years of sleep deprivation by using the science of Dr. G Frank Lawlis. He has created a series of CDs that help you relax and sleep peacefully through the night. I had been to the Stanford Sleep Clinic and tried all the medications available. Finally, I came across Dr. Lawlis’s work, and bingo, within 3 weeks I was off all medication and on my way to restoring my life. More importantly, it restored my creativity and allowed me once again to connect with people. A miracle and a blessing I will never forget. I still listen to the CD every night and sometimes 2 or 3 times through the night if I’m disturbed by something. The bottom line is there is no need to suffer. There are solutions and this one is especially sweet because it requires no effort on your part. Just put the headphones on and let the science do the work.
by Elin Pendleton, Wildomar, CA, USA
I use an iPod to chase those sleep ideas out of the front of my consciousness and to put myself on the path of sleep. With a good Terry Pratchett novel going, and the sleep timer set for 30 minutes, I am off to La-La land in less than 10 minutes, ear buds in place. When I wake (as I do nowadays at least twice in the night), up comes the iPod again, and I pick up where I left off. Audio books have been my salvation for painting sessions for years, and now sleep sessions!
Tapping yourself to sleep
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
In my coaching work with clients, using EFT the Emotional Freedom Techniques — and as an insomniac of the worst sort, myself, I have found that using EFT works great for the inability to sleep, go back to sleep, or feel rested after short sleep. EFT uses 7 points on the head and torso that are the same as acupuncture meridian points. One of them is right on either or both tips of the collarbones under that little v at the bottom of your neck.
If I can’t sleep, and really am tired of all the images and ideas on the rampage in my head, I’ll lie on my back and tap lightly on my collarbone tips, and say to myself, something like, “I’m not able to sleep, this is a drag, but that’s OK because I’ll be asleep in three shakes” — and I am! The tapping is done about the same intensity as if you were tapping your fingertips impatiently on a table — try it — it works.
Relax body, bit by bit
by Elaine Fraser, Australia
Oh my. How could you know me so well? How did you get into my head? I am who you write about, the one who cannot switch off, but rather who comes alive when laying in the dark. My mind swims with creative thoughts for many hours, and it takes all my mental energy to get myself to think ‘sleep.’ One thing I do is concentrate on relaxing individual parts of my body. Starting at my toes and working up to my neck and head. I think about each part relaxing the muscles as I go and as each relax I move on up to the next. It doesn’t usually get me to sleep but it does relax me and takes away the exhausting racing feeling my mind takes on when thinking about the half finished canvas in the studio. Oh how I would love to get my hands on your mug!
Stop lying into your pockets?
by Isa-Manuela Albrecht, Ebmatingen, Switzerland
I work with orthomolecular stuff. Get your zinc intake augmented with magnesium etc., but coated against your stomach acidity. You have to look also for your balance of acidity and base — very important. Get some training done to calm down your overactive mind. Get to your knowledge of the book, The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso and stop lying into your pockets. Chuckle and you’ll sleep like a baby.
by Norma Hopkins, Manchester, UK
Chocolate will keep you awake! It’s a stimulant! Your nighttime drink should only be hot milk or Horlicks which is a delicious and nourishing malted food drink, which can make you sleep better at night. My creative friend uses no drinks and assigns any creative matter that she has to deal with to her subconscious mind before going to bed. She sleeps absolutely undisturbed. No tossing and turning, Honest! We go on creative jollies and I have seen her bed. Unlike mine, not a single cover is out of place. The next morning, she comes up with the most wonderful ideas. I am trying to perfect her technique.
Go with the flow
by Hilde Friese, Atlanta, GA, USA
I cherish those quiet times in the middle of the night — no phone, almost no traffic sounds, an occasional nightingale singing — and my mind can wander and be most creative without interruptions. I have written the best poems and letters in those hours. Laid out the whole week (and stuck to the schedule), and emailed most of my stuff at 4 a.m. My best painting compositions happened in those uninterrupted hours. I am not bashful to take a nap if I can during the day and all is well. Who determined anyway when we need to sleep and how much? Aren’t we all different with different needs? Your mind is playing volley ball — go with it. The best hours of sleep may follow. Or you are at the easel and totally zoned out, the energy keeps coming and you don’t even realize it’s 3 a.m. — how wonderful! Go with the flow Then think of how many people make a living being up all night.
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The ‘toss out’ system
by Andrew Sookrah, Toronto, ON, Canada
How timely is this! Just last night (early morning), there I was, active mind trying desperately to find creative solutions to current challenges I am facing on the two paths I am constantly on — the creative director of one job and the creative painter in my other. The constant battle to be the best, entwined with a disjointed marriage and the pre-living of the projected fate for having missed a deadline, results in the wide-awake toss and turn. Oh sure, inspiration has been the result, ideas have been realized and the bedside journal you speak of has been put to good use. But there are times when the whirlwind must be stilled and it is at those instances that I use a technique to clear my mind that is a form of meditation. I visualize my mind, identifying everything I can see in it and then I pick each of these things out and toss them away. Finally, I am left with a clear mind. I am not sure if it is the resulting clear mind or the effort to focus my mind on this meaningless activity which brings on the sleep, but one of them does.
Special tea does the trick
by Cynthia Dudley, Toronto, ON, Canada
I am more creative late at night. For sleeplessness — or for someone like me who loves coffee — I recommend President’s Choice Dreamland Tea. It does have chamomile in it but it has a lot of other things like orange, lemon, peppermint, rose hip and others. Tastes great and I sleep right through with no problems drifting off. So stay up if you have just reread a Chapter of The Painter’s Keys and all kinds of ideas are bubbling, or have some Dreamland Tea and sleep!
Right brains at work
by Tony Last, Oakville, ON, Canada
As a scientist I patented many new inventions and processes. I can remember so many times going to bed with an almost insoluble problem on my mind and waking in the morning with the solution neatly pigeon-holed in the deep recesses of my brain. Even now as a sculptor I retire with an idea for a sculpture only half-baked and wake in the morning with it fully cooked and ready for work. I realize that, essentially, I have, for my whole life, been working from the right side of my brain. I was never a very good mathematician. I had engineers working for me to do the math, but I was intuitive and inventive and now I find that sculpture, in all media, fulfills the need to create and therefore fulfills my life. I’ve always said, in jest, that my headstone should say, “Scientist, inventor and sculptor — this is the closest he ever came to the great Leonardo.”
by David Oleski, West Chester, PA, USA
At one time I thought I should be happier, and a well-meaning friend suggested that I may be clinically depressed, and possibly in need of therapy or medication. I decided to research medication for depression, and I learned that stress and anxiety are a necessary part of our problem-solving mind, that certain kinds of stress are beneficial, like nervousness before a big performance. Any number of calming devices can keep the stress in check, but inside the gears are spinning, and we’re getting worked up to meet the demands of the upcoming moment. The night before a trip, or before an exhibition, I’m wired and spinning, packing and repacking, checking my lists, fixating on last details that are more about ritual than necessary tasks. The day of a show I’m running on almost no sleep, I can feel a crazed animal stirring behind my eyes, but with clarity and focus I’m able to do what I do, almost on autopilot, with the ease of a simple reflex. We get just as much sleep as we really need, to be who we need to be.
by Elaine Martin, North Platte, ME, USA
Some people need to be tested for sleep apnea. Ninety percent of people who have it do not know they have it. Some of the symptoms are: frequent cessation of breathing (apnea) during sleep, choking, gasping, or coughing during sleep to get air into the lungs, loud snoring, sudden awakenings to restart breathing, not feeling refreshed in the morning after a night’s sleep, daytime sleepiness, lethargy, depression, personality changes… and creativity brick wall. Sleep apnea can also lead to strokes and heart problems… after all, you are not breathing (bringing in oxygen) for nights on end.
I finally was sent by my doctor to a sleep clinic about six months ago. The test does not hurt at all; you simply sleep hooked up to numerous wires and sensors. I flunked the test miserably, am now on a CPAP machine and am sleeping like the proverbial log. The machine blows pressurized air into your nose, opening up the blocked air passageway to your lungs.
Being able to get a good night’s sleep has truly helped return my interest in designing, painting and being creative. Being awake with insomnia, having lots of creativity bursts and mind-racing thoughts, does not put the ideas into production. If your body is too tired, your hands don’t work well either.
Restless night scripts
by Judy Kelly, Burlington, VT, USA
My father, Jim Jewell, was a radio adventure writer and a very creative guy with terrible sleep disorder. However, he kept a yellow legal pad and a pencil right next to his bed and as he tossed and turned in a wild dream-sleep, he periodically awoke scribbling something on the legal pad and in the morning saw that he had solved a particular script problem. Later he transcribed what he had scribbled during the restless night and what resulted was an exciting episode of Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy or early episodes of The Lone Ranger, a program he helped create in the early 1930s.
I try the same routine myself for images that occur to me in the night. I don’t get quite the same results Jim Jewell did, but from time to time it works — I am able to translate a dream image into a painting — that is if I am able to make sense of what I’ve drawn in the night. If my father were living today he might put it this way: “I work at my craft twenty-four seven — awake and asleep.” Thanks for the insightful thoughts you send to us. Were they scribbled on a legal pad in the dark of night?
(RG note) Thanks, Judy. No, they weren’t. They were scribbled on the backs of envelopes, on loose file cards, in helter-skelter notebooks or down the side of printouts in the dark of night. Only the morning laptop pulls them together and neatens them up. Regarding my letters, which many people ask about, I like to write them the day before so that I can give a night to “infill” further info or ideas, or remind myself to look up dubious thoughts I might have included. Jim Jewell and I would have got along, although not in the same house. But I have to say I might not be typical. My mind is a crumpled dishrag infested with microthoughtlets. I never know what I’m going to do today until I do it. Painting, when I do the brush-grab, seems to level me out.
by Jane Shoenfeld
Can’t sleep, light won’t go out
In bed, in the dark,
My brain bulb stuck at on
Body wants to sink but
Can’t switch current off
Cat beside me
Fur crackles gently
Lights up as I stroke
Needles of light enter the night
My body an empty envelope
Bulb brain dimmed
Needles of light and
A cat beside me
In the night
Off on Adventure
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Constance Cavan of Mexico who asked, “What does mimim mean, if this is not too personal. (RG note) Thanks, Connie. No meaning, just a mantra that happens to read both ways. The ‘mmmm’ sound is hypnotic and is often included in meditation practice for that reason.”
And also Valerie Kent who wrote, “Night thoughts are poems that need to be written, great novels spun, magnificent paintings painted. The words sing and the colours play and dance freely. Who can sleep when creativity beckons in the quiet and peace of the darkness? It’s 1:14 a.m.”
And also Larry Moore of Orlando, FL, USA who wrote, “So you’re saying I shouldn’t be up reading this right now? Okay I’m going to bed.”
And also Adriane Giberson of Irvine, CA, USA who wrote, “I am a candidate for your cup (and your hot chocolate recipe). If you decide to sell the former and share the latter, I’d be exceptionally grateful.” (RG note) Thanks, Adriane. And thanks to the three or four insomniacs who requested a cup. I’m asking Don Hutchinson to throw a few more and we’ll even put my signature on them as well as his. We’ll take $40 for them, including shipping worldwide. As Don and I go broke; you’ll get your sleep. Recipe is free.
And also Tom Wirt of Hutchinson, MN, USA who wrote, “My personal theory of why we seem to do this mind-spinning at night is that this is when so many of the other stimuli are silent. Darkened room, quiet outside (including the undercurrent hum of traffic and other ambient noise) most animals and birds quiet down, etc. So, undistracted, the mind turns on itself, and away we go.”
And also Tinker Bachant of Sautee Nacoochee, GA, USA who wrote, “I have often gotten out of bed in the middle of the night to shuffle down to the studio to put that one, just right mark, on the dog’s eye or the child’s mouth. This is the time, when the mind is trundling around everything else, the answer to a problem, painting or otherwise, flashes through.”
And also Sonja Billard of Calgary, AB, Canada who wrote, “I have gotten quite proficient at writing without seeing. It is quite cathartic.”
And also Ralph Hislop of Maple Ridge, BC, Canada who wrote, “My own ticket back to the arms of Morpheus is a thirty minute tape of a babbling brook with song birds in the background. I never seem to hear the tape click off, so I know it really is wo…”
And also Karen B Pearle who wrote, “Your sleepless readers may want to check out compact discs Chi-Kung from the Chi Nei Tsang Institute.”
And also Jolene Monheim who wrote, “Oh this is too funny… as I sit here at 12:30 a.m. bemoaning my nasty sleep hygiene and giving birth to yet another image, your letter came in. In my case, is it the OCD or just the bad habit of running off fumes?”
And also Jeri-Lynn Ing of Red Deer, AB, Canada who wrote, “I am creative, I am an artist, I am patient, I am clever, I am talented, I am loving, I am spirit-driven and I sleep well every night. Oh, I forgot to mention… I am not dull!”