I am here before you today to testify to the Marcel Proust method of authorship.
(Yuck. Scratch that.)
How about: I am a proponent of the somnambulists’ school of narrative.
(That’s some awful writing. What does that even mean? C’mon, Sam, get it together.)
Reader, please forgive these overwrought, nonsensical pronouncements and my painfully awkward syntax. It’s just that I have a 7-month-old who is now teething (right as he was starting to sleep through the whole night uninterrupted), and a husband who commutes to a demanding job and our nanny . . . hahaha! There is no nanny, no nearby granny or even a reliable baby sitter for that matter. (Don’t get me started on that.)
Which is to say: The last time I really slept was some time toward the end of December 2008.
Sleep deprivation is, of course, a condition common to all new parents, but my case is particularly acute. I am a writer who relies on sleep as a professional tool, an author who has literally slept her way through her books so that you, Dear Reader, will want to do anything but sleep when you read them.
My experience is perfectly articulated by Robert Olen Butler, who in his book on writing, “From Where You Dream,” proclaims: “Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where we dream.” Associations, images, insights and the language to weave them together arrive, for me, upon opening my eyes after sleep in a way they do not when I am fully awake, coffee in hand, upright at the computer.
I can spend (and have spent, and probably will spend again) entire days torturing sentences, making useless outlines, eking out a paragraph or two of serviceable prose. Yet on waking, sometimes in the middle of the night, I find that words rush to my fingertips and pour themselves onto the page as if of their own volition, spilling from a dream. Greeks spoke of the Muse, St. Augustine wrote of divine inspiration but post-Freud and Jung we refer to the subconscious. Whatever Force that does the heavy lifting seems to want to visit me only in the off-hours.
This state of affairs became strikingly evident a dozen years ago when I was under deadline to complete my second book, a memoir called “Not by Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life.” I would wake at 6, rush to my desk and type frantically, only to drag myself back to bed, exhausted, an hour later. The cycle would repeat itself until the afternoon, when I would leave the house, returning at night so I could go to bed early, sleep for a few hours, get up and do it all again.
The rhythm was so intense I thought I had developed some strange form of narcolepsy. I made an appointment with my doctor so he could give me whatever pills would cure it and let me get on with things.
Although I told him not to waste his (expensive) time because I’d already self-diagnosed, he insisted on running tests, drawing blood and probing various parts, all of which irritated me to no end.
Finally, the results. “Bad news for your career as a diagnostician,” the doctor said. “There seems to be absolutely nothing wrong with you.”
I sputtered my objections, citing again my list of symptoms, i.e. those chronic, daily episodes of falling deeply and suddenly asleep.
“Have you been under any unusual stress lately?” he asked.
Stress? Was he kidding? Reader, let me tell you, I was living the writer’s dream life! I had a big book contract and a fancy New York literary agent and occupied an adorable little guesthouse in Malibu, where my only daily conflict was whether to gaze at the view of the ocean or the view of the garden.
He wasn’t dissuaded. “So what’s this book about?”
The book? About? Well it begins with a horseback riding accident that almost kills me, which leads me to look at why I’m so dangerously accident-prone, and then . . . I start to unravel my family’s dysfunctional, alcoholic past . . . and then my first marriage . . . falls apart . . . but hey, no worries, I get back on the horse. . . .
I couldn’t even get through this recitation without wanting to shut my eyes and curl up on the examining table.
The doctor nodded. “Sounds like a lot to sort through.”
Damn that medical degree of his. Stress indeed. Not only was I trying to make sense of issues that send people into years of psychotherapy, I was trying to make it into a story, beautifully told. Certainly more than my rational mind could handle, more than my intellect could apprehend.
The unfiltered autobiographical nature of memoir writing added another element to my circumstance -- I could see why I literally wanted to go unconscious around this material -- but when I thought about my writing in general, the process was the same. My first novel took years to write, accomplished mostly in the late evenings before bed, or on weekend afternoons that also involved long naps. At the time, I thought this was because I was working during the day as a magazine editor, but now I believe I was finding my writing rhythm.
After narcolepsy was dismissed, I gave in and decided that’s the way I write. So reliable is my dream time that when I am finishing a book I literally sleep with my laptop, day blurring into night. I am the stereotype of the writer who wears pajamas most of the day.
What I didn’t count on was ever having a “normal” life. But now, instead of the sharp edges of my iMac next to me in the sheets, there is a pudgy bundle of love otherwise known as my son, and on the other side the lean form of my amazing husband. Every day I ask myself two questions: How did I get so lucky? And, when am I ever going to get any work done? In so many ways I am living a dream I always dreamed, one of love and fulfillment. But oh, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to . . . write.
Dunn is the author, most recently, of “Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation.”