Story and Sleep

I’m an insomniac. Let’s start with that. Sleeping is a skill I’ve never fully mastered and I am subject to both going to sleep too late and waking up too early, as well as occasional bouts of being awake in the middle. In general this is no fun, and actually in specific as well, now that I think about it.

But what does this have to do with writing you might ask. And it’s a reasonable question. I’m not entirely sure it has anything to do with writing, but it definitely has to do with being a writer, or more specifically a storyteller. Not only do I tell stories literarily (my writing) and socially (at parties) but I tell stories to myself in a more or less continual stream.

Someone smiles at me as they drive past me on the freeway? I automatically make up all sorts of things to explain the smile. I can’t help myself, given any starting point and something unknown, my brain starts filling in the gaps. This is one of the two chief sources of insomnia for me–the other being problem solving–I can’t get my brain to shut up and quit telling stories. I seem to need the damn things.

As with most storytellers, I am an avid consumer of storytelling (that might even be the root of being a storyteller–an impulse that says “well, if nobody else is going to tell me a story…). Often this leads to reading–yes, the horror, a writer who reads–quite often at night, when I might otherwise be sleeping. Because of this and the complete exhaustion of some life stress I made a discovery about three years ago.

I sleep better if I don’t finish reading the book. In fact, I can almost always go straight to sleep if I put it down at a cliffhanger moment. If, however, I am so tired I can barely keep my eyes open but I still push on to the finish to see how it all ends, I will then spend the next several hours wide awake.

This is because (I think) when there’s still story left at the time I put the book down, my brain stays in happy reader mode–the story is still in the hands of the author and therefore it is not my problem. OTOH, if I finish the book, the storytelling part of my brain knows that the author is done and realizes that if it doesn’t do something right now the story will end! There will be no more story! Aiee!

And so my brain kicks into high gear telling a new story. It may be the story of what happens in the book after it ends, or it may be the story of what’s going to happen to the stupid cat who is sitting on my head. That part’s not really important. The important part is that story is once more my responsibility. I bring this up because last night, like an idiot, I finished the book.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog March 26 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)