It’s three a.m., and I’m lying awake after a restless night of not-writing. I’ve wrestled with ideas and lost. I’ve stared from my notebook to my computer and back again, and forced out a few words only to delete them almost immediately. I am a failure. I am useless. I am the worst writer imaginable. I will never amount to anything. The only person who will ever care about what I write is me. (And maybe my mom.) I should give it all up, and become something useful. Yes. Tomorrow, I will hand in my Writer badge, and enroll in an accounting class. After all, you can’t go wrong with numbers.
But in the morning, I wake up refreshed, and somewhat more optimistic. Give up? Ridiculous. Giving up is for wimps. Besides, what would the writer’s life be without a little bit of existential drama?
A few days later …
It’s three a.m, and I’ve just woken up with The Greatest Idea Ever. I stumble out of bed and grab my pen, and for the next few hours I am an uncontrolled, insanely blissful writing machine. My dialogue is sparkling and witty. My characters are brilliant. I am a genius. I am the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Hello, Booker Prize! Hello, Oprah! Worldwide fame is but inches away. Once The Greatest Idea Ever makes its way to that publisher’s door, everyone will be scrambling to get a piece. And so, with this in mind, I write until the world is fuzzy and then crawl back into bed. In my dreams, I sit in a bookstore and sign books for thousands of adoring fans.
But in the morning, a strange thing happens. I open my notebook and am inexplicably confused. Is that my witty dialogue? Are those my brilliant characters, those insufferable idiots meandering about the page? What happened to The Greatest Idea Ever? It was there in the middle of the night. I saw it. I wrote it. Where the hell did it go?
And so, depressed, I dress for work. The Day Job awaits – thank goodness I didn’t phone and quit during my late-night writing rapture. Maybe that accounting class is a good idea after all…
The early hours of the morning, as any writer will no doubt agree, are a strange, unsettled time. A great many writers find their prime productivity in those few hours before dawn – others, like myself, are prone to alternating attacks of anxiety and puffed up self importance. And nowhere is this clearer than during those few dark hours at night, when the world lies silent and there’s nothing around to mute that insistent little voice. You know, THAT voice. The one that says You’re awesome, and then turns around so quick! and slags you off. Edgar Allen Poe and Michael Chabon called instances of this the midnight disease, and spoke of it as the driving force behind writing. Encouragement and humiliation all at once.
I often feel, as a writer, that what I do is not in fact writing at all, but an elaborate game of hide and seek, fuelled solely by a (very small) pot of self-esteem. I do not create worlds so much as look for them, and the only thing that keeps me going is the conviction that sometimes I CAN find something worth writing about. Sometimes I do find that story, or that image, or that brilliant piece of detail from which a whole novel can come. But more often than not the words that I do find are frustrating, insufferable, and just not good enough. Virginia Woolf said that words are slippery things, and she was right.
“[Words are] the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order, in dictionaries, but words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind . And sometimes, they just can’t get out.
Other people call this game writer’s block. People have written – note the irony – countless books about the question, and have discoursed long and hard about what, exactly, it is that drives the desire to write, and on the other hand what it is that blocks writers from doing what they love the most. Who in their right mind would waste perfectly acceptable sleeping hours by lying awake and moaning over the intricacies of plot? Idiots, that’s who. Maybe even insufferable ones.
And yet, the three AM blues continue. I have a great many writer friends, and we all suffer the blues to some degree. One friend hates the hours between seven and nine pm, because it’s just after dinner and the day is almost over and she suddenly feels inundated with all of the writing that she isn’t doing. Another friend, like me, is prone to waking in the middle of the night. She once woke with what she thought was a fabulous title for her novel, only to discover in the morning that it was less than mediocre. Her own inner voice, it would seem, has the same sense of humour as mine.
This is comforting, but sometimes only barely. Margaret Atwood wouldn’t do this! I tell myself, in moments of extreme low. Margaret Atwood would be professional, and finish the novel, and stop complaining. Margaret Atwood would save her nights for useful things, like sleep. Although I do wonder, at times, if the three AM blues still visit ones such as these. After all, they visited Dante. It seemed to me that I had undertaken too lofty a theme for my powers, so much so that I was afraid to enter upon it, and so I remained for several days desiring to write and afraid to begin.
In university, my professor gave a lecture on the 3 AM creativity spout. He also encouraged his students to write while drunk. But not because he thought it would unleash good writing – you should write when you’re drunk, he said, to see how bad your writing can get. Writing while inebriated, like writing at three (or two, or four) AM, can be a wonderful catharsis. It gives you a chance to get those words out and down, free from the editorial self that lurks over your writing during the rest of the day. It’s also a great way to indulge your writerly self-esteem, or lack thereof. Accepting that fake Booker is never easier than when you’re in a stupor fuelled by drink or lack of sleep.
In the morning, of course, comes the clarity, which is its own kind of gift. If writing, as Woolf said, is about capturing and ordering those irresponsible, incandescent words, it’s also about finding that balance between it’s not good enough and there might be something here. It’s about waking at three AM and recognizing that the attacks on your self-esteem always come when it’s quiet, about writing while you’re drunk/high/delirious with lack of sleep and able to appreciate the muddy nature of creation. Writing is a messy, ridiculous process, and the only reason one might think that they’re a genius at four in the morning is because common sense doesn’t function when one is only half-awake.
Writing is also about recognizing when something can stop, and how much farther something can go. Julia Cameron says that perfectionism – long touted as the writer’s ultimate tool – is in actuality nothing more than, _’the pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us nothing we do will ever be good enough – [but in actuality] a book is never finished. At a certain point you stop writing it and go on to the next thing. A film is never cut perfectly, but at a certain point you let go and call it done. _ In the same way, after a prolonged spate of three AM nights, one simply picks up the pen and keeps going, ignoring the whispers of that insistent little voice. Sure, you might have moments of genius. But you’ll have plenty more moments of failure, and how you navigate your way between them is, in the end, what will define your writing career.
So embrace those three AM nights, both the good ones and the bad. Get creative – a Midnight Writing Anthology? Stories Seen Through Lack of Sleep? And remember that sometimes, even the stuff that seems deplorable in the morning can still be valuable. After all — if Dante (and maybe even Margaret Atwood) fought and came out winning, so can you!
Ah, I remember that bit from Julia Cameron. How right she is. I think a lot of fine artists suffer from the block induced by perfectionism (I’m going to put myself in that category). Fear of failing or of doing anything less than absolutely the best (which is, most of the time, bloody impossible) keeps us from doing anything at all.