Sunday, November 7, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Insomnia

Things get lodged in my head wrong sometimes. For instance, for a long time I could have sworn that Fitzgerald's statement "In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o'clock in the morning" was "Insomnia is the state in which it is always three o'clock in the morning."

This illustrates why the teacher under whom you did your first research paper was such a stickler for footnotes even of common knowledge. Ideas, facts, and insights we get from exterior sources bounce around in our heads, making connections with our own experience, and transform into something that makes better sense in our contexts. My reformulation is a natural one, since the second version is an almost literal description of my experience of insomnia. The clock's ability to hang up indefinitely at or around three o'clock is a long-standing source of despair to someone like me. There's nothing random about three o'clock, either - it's the point of the sleep cycle at which most organisms hit a biological low, the real "witching hour" mediated by our material substance.

So one day I sat down to put the truth of insomnia into a short story. It was one of those moments that suggest possession as the source of creativity, when you sit down and the words pour out without forethought. My character is a middle-aged woman with two children, a husband, and a frustrating job who can't turn her brain off on an airless August night. She lies beside her husband, a champion sleeper, reviewing everything that's gone on; the computer her boss won't fix, the project she has to finish by noon anyway, the squabbles of her children, the broken air conditioner. She tries counting sheep, gets up to $103, recognizes the amount in the checkbook, worries about what to get her husband for his birthday, and realizes he's not breathing.

At this point, suddenly, I crashed. Because time has in fact stopped for her at three in the morning. She can't get past that point.

Which means she can't interact with anybody or anything. She can't prod her husband because movement is a function of time. She can't get up because how can she generate enough friction to lever herself off the sheets? I could not get past that hump, and therefore this story - which I would appear to be overqualified to write - stopped at page 2, without utilizing any of the brilliant vivid images I could see hovering past that point in the concept: the bat frozen in mid-air as it chased moths through the neighbor's security light, the long complaint of the air conditioner that produces more noise than air and now is stuck at a single unit of noise, the intense dark solitude of a sleeping house with one unsleeping person.

But no time = no movement, and no movement = no story. I can pose her question, but I can't solve her problem. Because I don't know how to solve it myself.

If you figure it out, let me know.


  1. For some reason, one of the most memorable parts of _Black Like Me_ took place at a monastery where they went to bed at six in the evening and got up at three in the morning. This struck me as a schedule chosen for its eccentricity, like a friar's tonsure. But perhaps there was something about what getting up at three, when the body is primed for deepest sleep, does to the body and the brain which the monks had learned to make use of.

    When I was working nights, I could certainly tell the difference that three in the morning made. And at present, when due to family obligations I am getting up at four, I know it isn't a natural hour to awaken -- but better than three.

    I wonder -- was her husband dead, or had time simply come to a complete stop that night?

  2. I know in the version of the story I'd write if I could get past that conceptual hump, time had stopped and if she could get back into the time stream everyone around her would continue as if nothing had happened. In your version of the story, who knows?