Tag Archives: sleep

Reading insomnia 

The irony was far too obvious to be ignored. I was unable to sleep for thinking about the books I was reading about insomnia. I was thinking about writing a post (this post) on the subject. The ideas and words and the books kept circulating in my brain, as those things do when you can’t sleep.

Insomnia

It began, my insomnia, in the time of Covid. My circular thoughts turned over fears about social isolation, especially for those over 60, about falling ill, about what we would lose in this pandemic. These thoughts engulfed me and interrupted my normally healthy sleep. I was not alone. Even without the anxieties over Covid, sleep experts had been referring to the widespread incidence of insomnia as an epidemic.

For the first 70 years of my life I had not bothered much about sleep. It came easily, refreshed in the way good sleep did. The worst impact was to be annoyed by how much time it took out of my life. I had had episodes of not sleeping when I worked in a very stressful job: headteacher of an inner-London secondary school. Then I had developed the technique of noting down whatever was troubling me and adding an action to take the following day which would move me towards a resolution of the issue. And then I would fall asleep. I did not regard this as insomnia, more as an inevitable outcome of the stress of the job. My blood pressure remained low, my appetite remained good but my sleep was infrequently interrupted.

But since March 2020 sleep has frequently eluded me, usually disappearing between 2 and 3 am. I developed several responses, all of which took at least an hour, sometimes two, to get through.

  • I would complete another Sudoku or crossword
  • I would scroll through my twitter timeline, or news apps
  • I would listen to podcasts
  • I would read, frequently this was several pages from Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, or a short story.

After two or three hours of this I would eventually sleep, but when I woke I felt terrible, and even a restorative doze in the afternoon did not make me feel better or avoid the same thing happening again the following night.

My insomnia retreated somewhat with the restrictions we all hoped would deal with the virus. I am aware that Covid is still around, doing its own rising and falling activities. I decided to read a bit more about sleep and what might help me get more of it. 

First up was The Sleep Solution: why your sleep is broken and how to fix it by Dr W. Chris Winter (2017). The title and author seemed to promise everything I needed: a definition of the problem (aka a diagnosis), a solution, provided by a doctor no less. It was quite chatty, full of diagrams, chapter reviews and sub-headings. All very reader-friendly, and full of good advice and sound information. I learned about ‘sleep hygiene’, which is a terrible name for some sensible actions. And it reinforced what I knew about smoking, drinking and other drugs on the quality of sleep. But it did not help me work out why I wasn’t sleeping well, or indeed what I should be doing differently.

More frightening was the second book, because it emphasises the function of sleep in keeping our bodies and brains in good health and I learned I was in danger of damaging mine: Why we Sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker (2017). I’m not sure in what ways the science he is reporting on is ‘the new science’, but I got a good sense of the work being done while I sleep and dream to maintain my health, memory, and wellness. But no diagnosis and no cure.

And most recently I have been dipping into The Shapeless Unease: my year in search of sleep by Samantha Harvey (2020). This describes a year of hell by the author, the effects on her life, her writing, her relationships, her sense of herself as a result of what she calls ‘hard insomnia’. There is little evident structure to this book, and it embraces many different approaches: a case study, a conversation with a friend, a novel she might be writing, straight forward accounts and some consideration of the medical encounters she endures. I think this lack of structure echoes the experience of unwanted awakeness. Although the writer stresses that there is no solace, the book ends hopefully:

This is the cure for insomnia: no things are fixed. Everything passes, this too. One day, when you’re done with it, it will lose its footing and fall away, and you’ll drop each night into sleep without knowing how you once found it so impossible. (175)

My go-to book, however, remains Insomnia by Marina Benjamin. I can start reading it wherever I have left off. I love it for its accessibility, for its artistry, intellectual insights, lateral thinking, gems of cultural disclosure and the picture of the writer and her dog, together on the sofa in the depths of the night. The dog is asleep. 

Related post

Sleep in Fiction (Bookword, March 2020)

Books referred to

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, published by Scribe in 2018.

The Sleep Solution: why your sleep is broken and how to fix it by Dr W. Chris Winter, published by Scribe in 2017.

Why we Sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker, published by Penguin in 2017.

The Shapeless Unease: my year in search of sleep by Samantha Harvey, published by Vintage in 2020.

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Writing in the time of Covid

Many people have reported finding it challenging to write in the time of the pandemic. I know this from my writing group, from twitter and from my own experience. Why this has been so is not entirely clear to me, but I have an idea about it.

Here are some writing achievements that I have managed during the pandemic.

136 posts on Bookword Blog

I have blogged consistently every 5 days (except over Christmas in 2021). On 20th March 2020 I blogged about sleep in fiction and136 posts later I am blogging about writing. Ten days ago, I blogged about books that help me when I can’t sleep. I suspect that not sleeping and not writing during the pandemic are connected.

So, I have been reading a great deal in order to provide material for these posts. I checked on my reading log and find that I have read 150 books since March 25th 2020. And yes, I do keep records of all this.

Co-editing More Gallimaufry 

One of my two greatest writing-related achievement has been as a member of the team co-editing our writing group’s anthology, More Gallimaufry. Technically I am the publisher of this fine volume. Some of the work involved was tedious, and some quite tricky, but overall it was an honour to be involved in the production of such a fine volume. Twenty-one writers from our group provided poems, short stories and memoirs for our project. Three of our writers, who are also visual artists, provided the cover and the internal illustrations. It has been selling well since I posted about it in mid-November. 

Writing a novel with my grandson

In December my grandson, aged 10, tested positive for Covid. We live in the same village so normally if he is ill and off school I am involved in his care. But he had to isolate, so I had to find some other ways of helping him endure the ten days in which he was restricted.

My daughter sent me a photograph of Josh with our dog. The dog is a beautiful cocker spaniel called Lupin and is devoted to all family members. The photo was taken on the first day of Josh’s isolation, and they both look a bit fed up with being indoors. The picture of the two of them sparked an idea. I found an empty notebook, printed the picture, glued it onto the cover and wrote chapter one of a story about a glum boy and his dog who had super-powers. I invited Josh to write the next section.

A couple of days later Josh rang me, read the continuation of the story that he had written, and which he had printed out and stuck into our book. Soon after I collected the notebook and completed chapter 3, and so it went on until Josh was freed from isolation and we had seven chapters in our book. Two chapters were written together during the Christmas holidays. After a walk with the dog during which we discussed some ideas, we went back to my house and completed the story. We gave it a title: Josh and Lupin’s Amazing Adventure. We made the rest of the family listen to our reading.

For me, this was the second of the two productive writing activities since the pandemic began. I especially enjoyed the creativity of the final two sessions when Josh and I wrote together. We bounced ideas of each other – a pitchfork, baddies who couldn’t swim, a host of dogs. Then we developed them and found amusing ways to weave them into our story. And, of course, we left the ending open for more adventures, which will be necessary if I have to isolate. [Sometimes I say when I have to isolate.]

LATE Update: Josh has Covid again, so it is possible there will be further adventures.

Writing in a time of Covid

Once again, I notice that writing together, collaborative projects are often the most enjoyable, and the most creative. These have been restricted as we have endured social distances over the last 22 months.

From this observation I learn that as we reclaim more flexibility, more opportunities, I can pursue more collaborative possibilities to continue to develop as a writer. 

I may be able to finish that short story about Phyllis with a bit of help. And perhaps even get someone to help me retrieve that novel from its drawer. And I haven’t mentioned the poems, a small number of poems, that I have written during this time. Perhaps there is more to explore there too? 

Related posts

More Gallimaufry: another achievement for the writing group (November 2021)

What I did during Lockdown – my Covid diary (June 2020)

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Learning, Publishing our book, Writing

Sleep in Fiction

Through most of my life sleep has seemed a waste of time. Other people seem to relish it, want more of it, but I have always felt that I would rather be reading, writing, knitting, talking or even awake.

I know that sleep has a function for humans, not fully understood, with both physical and psychological effects. So a recent bout of bad sleeping focused my mind on sleep in fiction. Considering we spend about one third of our lives asleep it is strange that it does not feature more in novels. 

It is useful for novelists as a passage into the next scene. It is used when writers want their main character to emerge from sleep in a befuddled state so they can be surprised by something they take time to understand. Another function is that the sleeper when awoken suddenly is more credulous, or more willing to write off what they have witnessed during the night. And the lack of sleep, as we know, can be very disorienting. 

You can find dreams, any number of dreams, in fiction. Dreams that foretell, or warn, or explain, or reveal the turmoil in the characters’ minds. But dreams are not the focus of this post.

Here are four works of fiction in which sleep plays an important role

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 
  2. Night Waking by Sarah Moss
  3. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  4. Insomnia by Stephen King

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

First Edition of Jane Eyre 1847

We know that our heroine is in trouble again when she is awoken in Thornfield Hall by a woman’s hysterical laughter in the night. Soon after this Jane saves Mr Rochester from being burnt alive during the night. She is told that these events are caused by Grace Poole, but the madwoman in the attic is not Grace Poole. She is of course an inconvenient wife. This is how we are introduced to Mr Rochester’s dark secret and the revelation is the cause of yet another reversal in Jane’s fortunes.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011)

As the title suggests the tensions in this novel come from lack of sleep. Anna Bennett, her husband Giles and their two children are spending the summer on Colsay, a St Kilda-like island. She is suffering from lack of sleep. She also suffers from lack of time to finish her book and from lack of internet connection. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.

Anna’s story becomes serious when the skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house. This leads her to spend time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. Her story is interwoven with letters from May, a young woman from Victorian times, who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants. Eventually the two stories coincide.

The novel is written in the first person and the humour is found in the authenticity of her chaotic life and her commentary upon it. At one point it seems as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end all these difficulties are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation. And by the end Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children’s sleeplessness and recommitted to her marriage. Recommended reading by many people I know.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman found society’s attitude to women deeply repugnant and she was a critic of their treatment. In this long short story she describes how a woman is treated (medically and psychologically) in order to bring her to the proper attitudes of a wife. It was based on her own experience.

The narrator undergoes a rest cure, in a room in which the wall paper is a hideous yellow. Her husband is a physician and it is his prescription. She is required to do nothing and takes to sleeping more and more during the day as she can’t sleep at night. The act of sleeping emphasises her helplessness. She gradually identifies with a woman she sees in the wallpaper, and escapes.

Insomnia by Stephen King (1994)

I have not read this horror story, but I refer to it as it came up repeatedly when I googled some variation of novels/fictions and sleep. When I looked up the plot on Wikipedia I was mystified, but it centred on a main character who sees things as a result of insomnia.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (2018)

And I recommend this memoir:

A sublime view of the treasures and torments to be found in wakefulness. Entertaining and existential, the brightest star in this erudite, nocturnal reverie in search of lost sleep, is the beauty of the writing itself. (Deborah Levy)

This slim book sits on my bedside table and I dip into its paragraphs and reflections on insomnia and sleep as required. 

Over to you …

Have you any suggestions of novels where sleep is important to add to my selection?

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