Creativity and sleeplessness – Hannah Tunnicliffe
By Hannah Tunnicliffe
Here is something you might not often get asked – wonderful, creative souls : How do you sleep? Like a baby? Lights out, brain out? Within five seconds? Waking up perfectly rested and refreshed? I’m going to hazard a guess you are laughing at those suggestions.♥
I’ve always had a problem with insomnia. I assumed it must be genetic, passed down from my father who tosses and turns and grinds his teeth. I would always go to bed late, take a while to get to sleep, sleep well some nights and then have (long) nights I was hopelessly restless and staring at a ceiling until the wee hours. During those nights my mind would chase thoughts, like leaping monkeys, up, down and around till I was psychologically exhausted I‘d fret I’d be wrecked for school the next day, that I would never get to sleep and that the next night would be just as bad. My Mum, who can fall asleep on the couch, watching TV, at a party or practically standing up, was not helpful in providing solutions.
Finally, once I had a regular writing practice and was older (+ a tiny bit wiser), I started to notice a pattern with my insomnia. I would have a night of sleeplessness at least once a month, sometimes more frequently. No matter what I tried – meditation, getting up for a snack, lavender oil on the pillow – the insomnia came and the insomnia went. And then came again. I started to wonder if it was connected to hormones or the moon, perhaps both, and those factors still remain a strong explanation. But now I have also started to connect the sleepless phenomenon with creativity.
My creativity works in cycles and ebbs and flows. Though I try to keep some kind of writing schedule and routine, my creativity is inconsistent, no matter how much I try to be. Some weeks writing is slow and painful, other weeks I’m on a roll. Bashing out 3000 words can be as easy as pie and then the next time I sit in front of my computer 500 words can feel like an extraction of teeth. Sometimes I have so many ideas, for new plots and new characters, it’s all I can do to write them down fast enough. Other times I feel empty and wonder if I will ever have a new book idea, if the one I’ve finished was my absolute last.
On the nights I just cannot sleep, it feels like my brain is literally sparking with thoughts. It’s easy enough to fall down a rabbit hole of worry, but sometimes, if I guide it gently towards a story, an idea, a character, it can zoom and zing like a deranged firecracker. It’s restless, it’s fizzing, it feels a bit like madness, but if I choose not to fret about it, to just let it fly and spin and shoot, it can feel a bit magical. On those nights my brain does not work in straight lines or happily follow a trail. It’s uncontrollable and impossible, a toddler after too much sugar. It zips from brilliantly strange idea to worry, from writing to which colour sofa I should buy. It certainly doesn’t feel like I’m being productive.
But what I have come to conclude, whether for my own sanity or because it is truly true, is that this restlessness and sleeplessness are simply part of having a creative brain. A creative life. That this regular sleeplessness is part of the price we pay if we are the type of person who wants to make something new for the world, who needs to create. Insomnia is just part of the deal, whether an essential ingredient of the creative process or an unfortunate result.
I have been given all the tips and advice for bringing on slumber. Mulberry silk sleep masks, homeopathic sleep drops, left nostril breathing and blackout blinds. I don’t drink tea after 3pm or eat cheese too late in the evening. I know the folk remedies and have read the scientific articles. But now, mostly, I just surrender to my insomnia. I think – This is my sleepless night. This is part of being a writer. A result of being a person with too vivid an imagination and too many ideas. Tomorrow I will probably sleep, tonight I cannot. I do not fight it and without the concern, I feel much, much better. Still tired but better. I acknowledge that for whatever chemical, hormonal, astrological reason my brain has bouts of insomnia and if I can guide it, just a little, away from worry the sleeplessness can play a role in the wonderful, magical creative process that I value so much.
Born in New Zealand, Hannah Tunnicliffe is a self-confessed nomad. She previously lived in Canada, Australia, England, Macau and, while travelling Europe, a campervan named Fred. She currently lives in New Zealand with her husband and two daughters, having ditched a career in human resources to become an author. When she is not writing or reading she can usually be found baking or eating and sometimes all four at the same time (which is probably somewhat hazardous). She is founder and co-author of the blog Fork and Fiction, which, unsurprisingly, explores her twin loves – books and food.