Insomnia Invites my Muse

By Michelle Gunnin

In the quiet, my mind races.  I wish it were not so.  Quiet is made for soaking.  For listening.  Instead, the thoughts clamor for attention.  The cares rise up and scream. Stresses fill every sleeping space. Negotiating with them is futile. Attempting to banish them only incites more. The only way to silence them is to give them a voice.  To capture them in list-form serves as their prison. My bullets hold them back and contain them in one place.  In the wee hours, they resist arrest.  They fight to stay at the forefront.  I wrestle and toss incessantly. I try to avoid the inevitable rising by using stillness as a weapon — to no avail.

My resignation to remain horizontal changes to a decision to rise.  But how far…all the way up, or just part way?  If the screams turn to sentences, it will be all the way up.  Lights on, computer in lap, coffee next to my chair.  If they remain random thoughts, I can get away with a flashlight and the notepad and pencil on the nightstand.

Tonight, it is a coffee and chair morning (My body says it is night, my mind argues that it is morning. I appease them by allowing it to be both.) Before dawn, I am grasping for the ideas with a burdened heart and a racing mind.  There are so many.  How to choose and piece together something coherent is the question. Nothing in my desk-top-writing-idea file wants to be spotlighted.  My rational ideas all go into hiding.  They block the door and refuse to come out. The frustration of having sleeplessness and writer’s block, at the same time, is mind-numbing.

The thoughts that drove me to my chair are howling in amusement.  Their laughter at my predicament is fuel for me to push forward, despite the foreboding that nothing will be accomplished. I pace in front of the coffee pot for another cup, trying to buy myself some time; knowing that if I push through there could be a golden nugget to dig up.  Or not.

Is it possible to go in so many directions at once that there is an enormous crash? One which results in so much noise my brain cannot string together any words at all? It can only stammer.  Bills to be paid.  Taxes.  Job. (The usual suspects.)  Then there are more.  Car trouble. Insurance. Assisted living. Children. Work. Clients. Schools. Office. Computer programs.  Passwords. Laundry. Cleaning. And as if to disguise themselves, the fun words sashay into the cacophony.  Trips. Weddings. Children. Hiking. Friends. In my head, there is a crescendo. It stretches well past what I thought possible, rising-up, louder and louder and louder, until it finally drops off completely, to silence. The quiet I long for…the soaking quiet.  The stillness before the dawn.  Here, I wait.  I listen. The songbirds are tuning up. The possibility of going back into my warm cocoon and nestling in, next to my gently snoring husband, is gone.  The day is already born. I sit in silence and wait for a word.  Just one.  One, which will flow out onto the page and explain itself to me. I long for an inspirational word, but today it does not come.  Today I smirk because the word I get is…INSOMNIA.

I wrote the above piece in the wee hours of the morning.  I believe many of us, as writers, experience insomnia.  Our creative minds do not wish to sleep!  I have always said, when I am sleeping is the only time I am still enough to be inspired! Some of my best ideas come in that space between asleep and awake, if I can just capture them.  I have no trouble falling asleep.  My issue is staying asleep.  At 3:00 a.m., my eyes just pop open and my mind churns. Here are some thoughts on what to do when insomnia visits.

  • Make a bullet list. I keep a pad and pencil beside my bed.  If I can write down those to-do-list things which dance through my head at night, the anxiety which I am trying to forget subsides.  This sometimes allows me to get back to sleep.
  • Put sticky notes next to your computer. This is like making a list in the night, but it’s more preventative.  If I know I have several things to do the next day, I make a sticky note and put it beside my computer before bed.  That way, I know when I get up, I already have a reminder of what needs to be done.
  • Exercise your body. To relieve stress, it is necessary to move your body.  A hike, going to the gym, a walk at lunch, a workout before or after work — all can help release tension which prevents sleep. Wear yourself out!
  • Drink hot tea in the evening. Sleepytime tea is my favorite. Chamomile is also good.  It soothes and helps me to relax. Something about that warm liquid is comforting.
  • Read before bedtime.  Sometimes reading a novel or some other book can take your mind off your own troubles.  I keep several books on my bedside table, and each night I read a couple of chapters until my eyes get heavy, before turning out the light.  Just make sure whatever book you are reading isn’t an adrenaline producing one!
  • Try not to panic.  The cycle that flows through your brain can be brutal.  If you have a stressful situation coming up, like a job interview or a performance review, you know you need to get some rest.  When insomnia hits, the last thing you do is rest. Yet, you know you should be sleeping, and your performance will suffer if you don’t!
  • Talk it out.  Call a friend.  Chat with your spouse.  Visit with your parents.  Sometimes we hold onto our stress without realizing it.  Getting it out by vocalizing it can be enough to remove it from your thoughts.
  • Set a regular bedtime.  I have heard this can help, but I cannot do it! I know on weeks I have attempted to be more consistent, it seems I sleep better.  I think.  However, I haven’t done it enough to be sure.
  • Make it productive time.  I have learned that on some nights, I just cannot sleep no matter how many sheep I count. I may as well get up and make it productive time.  However, I don’t get up and clean house or pay bills.  I use my time for writing since I hardly have time during the day to write.  I have found a quiet sleepy house is conducive to formulating ideas.
  • Keep a writing file. On my desktop, I have a file of writing ideas.  It’s my go-to when I’m stuck.  I can pull and develop ideas from that list when I don’t have a specific piece or deadline I am working on.  On insomnia nights, often, I pull from the file to occupy my brain.

Creative brains are difficult to shut off, and insomnia can be the result.  Trying some of these ideas might help to alleviate the issue, or at least learn to view it as productive writing time.  If nothing else, you will realize you are not alone!

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  1. Loved the imagery in your article Michelle, and I’m glad to find that I’m not alone. One thing that has helped me is to refrain from using my computer or using my Kindle Fire at least an hour before going to bed. And I only read from a real book or my regular Kindle. I read somewhere that the light from computer devices stimulates the brain and can cause insomnia.

  2. Great post, Michelle. My favorite idea, out of the ones you mentioned, is utilizing insomnia as a time to write. I have a regular nighttime routine that works for me, but occasionally I still can’t sleep–that’s when I hop out of bed and hop onto my laptop and write about whatever is on my mind. Writing about our angst and writing out our prayers is as potent as a mug of Sleepy-Time tea.
    Blessings ~ Wendy

    • Wendy, I agree! After I write, I get the best sleep of the night…IF I have time to go back to bed! Sleepy Time Tea is my favorite insomnia-avoider. It works…sometimes. :/

  3. Michelle, Your insight comforts me. My muse is always begging for my attention. Most times than not, I’m distracted from listening to it. When this happens, I get visits in the middle of the night because the noise is overwhelming. So to appease Mr. Muse, I have to scribble down ideas and thoughts so I can rest. However, at times I’m compelled to move quickly because the urge is too strong. My writing progress to best when I enter the stillness of prime time.

    The biggest take away from your post today is insightful advice, and I’m not alone in museland.

    • John, One thing I know for sure…we are not alone in the wee waking hours. I have also found that sometimes, when I get up and write, it quiets my mind enough that I can go back to bed and sleep like a baby after…which is enough motivation to get me up and writing.

  4. Michelle, I wake too often in the middle of the night with something brewing, but not coffee. Indeed at the moment I am writing a poem about that very experience, or more a cumulative experience actually. I will come down and add my note to Evernote, then process it more sanely at another time.

    • Peter, I do find that sometimes the ideas born in the middle of the night need some sanity in the morning! Or the piece that I write in my head while still in the bed, flees as soon as I try to capture it on paper. Daytime brings perspective…but it is not nearly as creative!

  5. Ahh….Insomnia. We have had a love/hate relationship for too many years. If I could, I would will it to vanish forever. However, while it lingers, using those quiet moments for prayer, reflection and writing squeeze something of value from it’s unwelcome embrace.
    Your beautiful description of insomnia as your muse and your ideas for capturing what it brings are both creative and life-giving. Thank you, Michelle!

    • Terry, There is something about the quiet that insomnia crashes into…sometimes I think if not for insomnia my best writing would never have happened because I would have missed the quiet! Still…I am not a fan of my mind spinning when I KNOW I need to be sleeping. 🙂

  6. This is a great piece of advice for writers. That quiet is hard to attain. A lot of times I’m writing furiously just to get to that place of quiet. It’s reverse from what a lot of people do. Sit there in stillness. For my mind to be still, I need to let it unwind like a clock. I wrote about this on my blog once, called it “my write mind” or something.

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