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Christine: Sleepless in the Studio

As I get older, I realize just how important getting enough actual sleep is to my creative process.

Long ago, one of my dance professors explained the concept of the personal well of creativity, and how sleep is a key to replenishing it. I thought I understood at the time, I mean, of course you need to get enough sleep in order to dance. Tired dancers get hurt, do not serve the choreographer’s artistic vision, and are not strong.

What she really meant was that the source of your personal artistic stamp on creative work comes from a place that biologically requires rest, but also spiritually requires it. Rest allows the re-ordering of thought processes, the ability to plan and integrate ideas, see various perspectives, make connections, find meaning, and use the tools of your art more skillfully. You reach down into your personal “well” for the tools that make your work your own expression, and you apply them to the project at hand. When you’re tired, it’s harder to reach and there’s less there to grasp.

So, in order to make better work, you have to sleep adequately to refill the well.

My husband is probably laughing right now, reading this. I never nap unless I am totally, completely exhausted or ill. I always put sleep aside for other things, even those that aren’t really important, because they seem important to me, like I somehow need to be present and conscious, even if whatever task I’m trying to do can be done by someone else or not at all. Somewhere along the line, I was taught or I learned that sleep = lazy, unmotivated, unfocused, unproductive. Terrible, isn’t it?

Of course, this particular post comes from my own current significant sleep deficit. I am faced with many projects, and plans for projects, but running on less than five hours of sleep a night for the past four nights is making starting those projects nearly impossible. We’re well past the infant stage in this house, but that doesn’t mean that the little kids don’t have nightmares, or potty needs, or the dogs don’t get sick and need to go out at 3 a.m. Little kids get up early, too, regardless of their bedtime or mine.

The end result is that I can’t find that sweet feeling of sitting down at the table and creating the vision that’s in my head. I’m overwhelmed by the tools and the materials; there are too many choices, and not enough focus. I get distracted by household tasks, music, the kids, Facebook, and the refrigerator. I know I eat too much when I am tired. I can’t get off my stool at the kitchen island and get into my workshop, and I feel like I will never make another thing again. I know it’s not true, but it feels true.

If I literally cannot nap (I’m the only adult with the kids, for example), then I try to stay mindful of several things: One, I am tired and although I am searching for an energy boost, I will not find it in the fridge unless I am honestly hungry. Two, this, too, shall pass. Three, this does not mean I will never make another piece of beautiful jewelry/art/collage/whatever again, it just means that I am tired and can’t do it right now. And four, sometimes the better part of valor is just to stay away from the workshop and not put myself in a position to get overwhelmed and upset. And sometimes, I just have to drink another cup of coffee and get on with the day.

I hope I get an opportunity to nap later today. But first, I think I’ll make another pot of coffee.

What do you do to manage your creative wellspring? Have you noticed a difference in your creative work when you get less sleep than usual?

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. thank you for the reminder, christine. this is an ever elusive goal for me, too, for all the reasons you mentioned. it’s good to hear it again.

    when i do get more than usual shortchanged sleep, the main thing i notice is just feeling ‘like my old self’ or should i say, younger more capable self, rather than like i’m moving through molasses in my mind and body, which is most days.

    August 4, 2011
    • Cath,

      Oh I hear you on the ‘younger, more capable self’. I feel that way too. And for me, since turning 40 last year, I notice just how many more hours that base requirement is than it used to be. I distinctly remember 5 or 6 hours a night being PLENTY for weeks, whereas now, six hours more than once a week is “I need a caffeine IV”. :D

      August 4, 2011
  2. This is such an interesting post, Christine — and I really liked the linked articles you included. I’m still mulling it all over.

    I’ve long been guilty of sacrificing sleep in the name of getting things done, especially when on a big deadline — but like you, I’ve learned with age that this isn’t sustainable. Staying up late just means I’ll be far less coherent the next day, so will lose any ground I thought I’d gained. I’ve finally figured out that there’s no free lunch where sleep is concerned. And when I’m overtired I too tend to look for energy in the fridge, which always turns out badly.

    Last year I started taking a daily prescription that (as a side-effect) makes me sleep very heavily. I have to take it at night, because I’d be lethargic if I took it during the day. In a way, this rx is a blessing, because it ensures that I sleep well every night. I dream vividly and remember my dreams. I never experience insomnia anymore, and even my husband’s snoring rarely disturbs me. Being well rested makes a big difference in daily life, although I don’t like knowing that it’s at least in part the by-product of a drug. For now, I’ll take advantage of the situation for as long as it lasts. My creativity and productivity levels are without a doubt elevated.

    Oh, and for the record, I LOVE napping. When my kids are old enough (yeah, like when I’m retired) I’ll definitely nap on a daily basis :-)

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking post!

    August 4, 2011
    • Miranda,

      Sometimes I wish I could be ‘forced’ into a deep sleep, like your situation with the rx! My biggest problem is that I can’t turn off my brain at night — constantly thinking, planning, analyzing…gah! :)

      The articles I linked are only a small bit of what I actually found on the topic. It fascinates me, the whole study of creativity and how it works on a psychological/neurological level. I’m glad it inspired you to think on the topic as well. :)

      August 4, 2011
  3. Jo #

    I am a dancer who writes, and I’m not sure I agree with this theory re sleep and creativity. I have found the most driven creative times have been in response to the sleep deprived state of the infant years (I have three little ones!). Each baby seems to have born a major creative project that has been relentless and ongoing though little sleep was managed. I think maybe it has something to do with the displacement of ‘time’ as we are used to it – that the days roll into nights roll into days with a new babe. The unsettling of routine has absolutely provoked new ways into thinking and responding for me. Words would write themselves in the sleep/awake state of 3am up and down the hallway…and now the ‘habit’ of working on til way past bedtime is still with me, and I find I sleep so much easier having accepted the need to work in the late hours. BUT, things are definately lost on the way…and every now and then I want to sleep for a day (i still have an 18mth old so impossible). And like you Christine, I snack when I’m tired which is not fab for my physical practice and probably serves to keep me awake longer than my natural body would like. I am still looking for a balance…but for now I just go when I have the energy and accept defeat when it hits the wall. Thanks for a such a fab post. I’m going to bed!

    August 4, 2011
    • Hi Jo!

      In some cases, I would agree that some people are far more creative in that sleep-deprived state. The stereotypical ‘artist’ persona is often depicted as working at all hours of the night — or all night! It’s never really been the case for me, as I tend to get overwhelmed and can’t make creative decisions when I am exhausted. I have three kids, too, and I found that, when they were really tiny, the times when I knocked out some really impressive work was after I had some significant sleep. :) But, as with anything, each person is an individual and what works for one certainly may not work for, or apply to, all. It’s great to ‘meet’ you — thanks for your comments!

      August 4, 2011
    • Jo, I wonder if those periods of creative overdrive weren’t so much to do with the sleep deprivation but more to do with the intense creativity that many women experience after having babies and into toddlerhood. It’s a strange paradox, as these are months (years) when we have almost zero time to actually USE all that inspiration, but many women are practically flooded with ideas and creative impulses during those early months of motherhood. For me, I’m not sure that this is due to the sleep deprivation (although perhaps being chronically tired loosens the inner critic) but more to do with the hormonal flood and transition into caring for a child that triggers deep changes within us (same for adoptive mothers). There is something about early childhood that forces us into the moment — savoring each fleeting week as our babies grow like weeds — that pushes us into presence (and the displacement of time, as you mention). I think that dwelling in the moment, the way that early childhood requires of a mother, is part of the key to creative abundance.

      We also learn that we don’t have the luxury of wasting time. If the baby takes a nap for two hours and you have a creative idea knocking down the door, it’s amazing how much you can accomplish in those two hours when you jump in. Many have written about how the structure (or constraints, if you will) of motherhood actually make us more productive, because of the stark light that gets thrown onto windows of opportunity.

      As my children have grown (well, and yes, I kept having more of them — 5 — which perpetuated the sleep deprivation beyond an accumulated decade), I have tried to leverage what I learned from those early days (presence and opportunism) to my creative advantage. When I can, I reap the benefits, and my creative abundance continues to increase, despite the fact that for the most part I’m fairly well rested. (I can’t believe I just tempted fate by writing that AGAIN. I’m simply asking to have my household struck by a stomach virus that precludes decent sleep for a week, aren’t I?!?!)

      August 6, 2011
  4. Jo #

    Hi Miranda,
    5 children! I take my sleepy hat off to you. Funnily enough I had a conversation with a (male) writer today about what happens to creativity when you have young children. His response was that he hit the wall with the tiredness and intensity of the situation and his creative work suffered. I feel it is definately different for mothers due to the profound physicality of the connection between mother and baby, the associated endorphins and the incredible experience of being pregnant and literally growing new life. For me it was/is that unmatched intensity and range of extreme emotional states that provokes unexpected landings into creative process.
    The practice of presence is central to my work as an improviser and dramaturge, and I agree it is this particular kind of ‘paying attention’ that is crucial in sustaining creative focus. I think this ‘noticing’ makes it faster for me to recognise when I am in a creative state. However, I think motherhood (and the associated lack of sleep) has also made me work more effectively in the studio time-wise and has made me be able to push past the ‘it’s too hard’ part to get to somewhere interesting faster (nothing is as hard as caring for a sick or overtired little one! – and right on cue the littlest sickie wakes and takes me back to her particular presence…bye!)

    August 6, 2011
  5. A thoughtful, provocative (in the best sense of the word) and interesting post. Sleep deprivation is dangerous to creative and judgment–or maybe that’s the same thing.

    August 7, 2011
    • Thank you! And I agree; as a lampwork glass artist, I am absolutely not safe working with my tools and equipment when I have not slept enough.

      August 7, 2011

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