The Sleep Myth


I woke up in the middle of the night last night (and let me clarify, I usually go to sleep between 3 and 5am, so “the middle of the night” falls accordingly,) and was appalled to find that the daily post on the Writer’s March blog was already written and posted by 7am.

Most of the successful writers I know wake up (freakishly) early and often write first thing in the morning.  Every writing professor I’ve had has sworn by this schedule.  What the hell, writer friends?!  How do you do it?!  I often worry about this, since I tend to write very late at night before bed, and I’ve never been able to develop a proper regimen.   

When left to my own devices, my natural sleep schedule seems to be to go to bed around dawn and sleep into the afternoon.  A couple summers ago, when I was unemployed and housesitting for a friend of mine (meaning no job, no rent, no time committments,) I quickly fell into this schedule and watched the sun rise every day before bed.  Now that I’ve graduated and I no longer have classes in the morning, I’m gravitating back to this schedule, but I’ve been having a hell of a time sleeping through the night.  I often wake up for a few hours before being able to fall back to sleep.  I fill those hours doing mundane tasks, like the dishes, shuffling around in ugly old lady socks with the grippy things on the bottom.  I often make tea and read or write until I can fall back to sleep. 

I was starting to feel really crazy until a friend of mine sent me an article about the myth of the eight-hour-sleep.  Turns out, before industrialization, it was perfectly common to have “biphasic sleep,” sleeping for four hours or so, waking up for a few, and then going back to bed to finish your rest.  When spaces had to be lit with candles or fires, it made sense to stretch out your night of sleep to fill the darkness, and people’s sleep schedules were flexible to these seasonal changes.  Once the industrial revolution hit, people’s work schedules no longer catered to these long, fractured sleeps, and spaces could be lit with electric light.  Thus, the myth of the eight-hour-sleep was born.  Waking up in the middle of the night, which, for people with strong circadian rhythms, may be completely natural, is now diagnosed as “maintenance insomnia.” 

There may be some advantages to biphasic sleep.  For one thing, with biphasic, or polyphasic sleep patterns, you spend more time in REM sleep, so it’s easier to acces and recall dreams.  This is definitely true for me, and probably explains why I have such vivid dream memories.  (I often lose track of which memories are mundane dream memories and which are mundane life memories.)  I also find that I feel more aware and inspired between my first and second sleep.  Slight sleep deprivation seems to remove some the ego and leaves you to experience sensory perception without your pesky intellect getting in the way.  One 16th century doctor’s manual suggested that couples try to concieve after the first sleep when people “have more enjoyment” and “do it better.”  Makes sense to me. 

For the most part, careers these days require a solid eight hour sleep, and an early start time.  I’d love to teach some day, but I can’t really imagine working on that schedule.  Am I doomed to be a failure for life because I can’t grasp the sleep status quo?

Creatively, cultivating this biphasic sleep might be a great thing.  Much of this post was written between my first and second sleeps.  Since I’ll probably never manage to be a true morning person, this may be the key!  Maybe I can be a real writer someday after all! 

***The photographer responsible for that photo can be found here.  And they have prints for sale!


~ by Lenore Gusch on March 5, 2012.

8 Responses to “The Sleep Myth”

  1. Well, here I am replying at 2:15 am….

    I’ve always remembered that the Seth entity strongly advised sleeping in more than one, shorter chunk, rather than a single long stretch. And I’ve always wondered if that was true. In high school, I had to get up so early that I only slept 4 hours at night, but I was often able to get 2 hours after school as well. It seemed like I was able to get by on much less sleep that way. I’d like to try that again, but haven’t been able to work it out.

    George Sand wrote through the night– apparently developed that habit because she needed to wait till her kids went to sleep– and it worked for her over a period of decades. I bet there are a lot of nocturnal writers.

  2. Lenore: Two things: First, while I do wake up early and write in the morning, I have to admit: I schedule the blog posts for 6am… Second, this is maybe my most favorite blog post of all time.

    • Oh good god…that makes me feel so much better. : ) I thought you really were waking up and writing these great things at like 6am. Though I know you and Randi do wake up early. And thank you! It’s good to have you and Randi reading/commenting. Makes it feel more like we’re really seeing each other.

  3. Reblogged this on A Writer's March and commented:
    Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I read this post the other week and liked it so much I asked Lenore to be another Guest Blogger for Writer’s March. Here’s a precursor, and look for a fresh blog from Lenore this coming Wednesday.

    Be lucky. Write more.

  4. I love this post!! and if you’re into sleep… you should check out my friend’s blog, she is writing a book about sleep 🙂

    I don’t know if I am a night owl or what… I stay up very late, but also try to get up by 7:30 (which isn’t crazy early). and I too schedule the blog posts

  5. I prefer to write at night. I used to think I was a failure as a writer because I would try to get up early and just couldn’t do it. Even if I managed to wake up, I was grumpy as hell and felt totally uncreative. It was miserable.

    Then I read an article in a magazine written by a woman who was the daughter of a famous novelist. In passing she mentioned that her father would have dinner at 10 pm and then write until 4 in the morning and sleep until noon. I thought: I can do that! And for the most part, that’s how I’ve done it ever since. Or close. I put my daughter to bed, change into PJs, and start writing. Given that I have to get up around 7 to take her to school, I tend to run out of steam by 2 am. But pre-kid I often stayed up until the sun rose. For me, that’s my most productive writing time.

    Sometimes I sleep in “shifts” as well and have written until I get tired again. I say do whatever works for you. Just be consistent.

    Jenn and Sam–How do you schedule posts??

  6. Cynthia,
    In the “Publish” box on the top right of the “Add New Post Screen,” it will usually say “Publish Immediately.” Hit “Edit” and then you can put in a date and time. The “Publish” button will then change to a “Schedule” button.
    Hope that works,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: