November 9, 2009

Karen White's ZZZs of Writing

Karen White is the author of THE LOST HOURS, who I interviewed a year ago. Her newest release is THE GIRL ON LEGARE STREET, the sequel to THE HOUSE ON TRADD STREET. (Expect my review soon-ish.)

It turns out authors, like college students, sometimes have trouble getting enough sleep. And it turns out that Karen agrees with me that 20 minute naps are wonderful things! (Most of my friends don't settle for anything under 3 hours.)


The Zzz’s of Writing

I’ve done a lot of blogs and written about a lot on the subjects of writing, the life of an author, my career, the pros and cons of plotting vs. pantsing. But I’ve never written about something near and dear to an author’s heart. No, not fame, fortune, or becoming a NYT bestselling author. I’m talking about sleep.

At the moment, I’m bone tired. Deep down, mind-meltingly, brain-freezing tired. This isn’t because I have sleep problems. On the contrary, all I have to do is think about my bed and I’m fast asleep until my alarm rudely awakens me at 6:15. My family thinks I might be narcoleptic because all I have to do is be still for seven seconds and I’m out for the count.

The truth is that I need more sleep (obviously). But with a busy family, a husband who travels and all the hoopla of family life, combined with writing two big (100,000+ words) per year, there simply isn’t enough hours in the day to get everything done—so I steal from those hours that most people devote to sleeping. My bad.

Unfortunately, I’m also one of those people who can drink a pot of caffeinated coffee and fall asleep immediately. I know this because it’s happened before. More than once. How fair is that? I’ve tried everything: caffeinated gum, loud music, exercise, apples, hydration with water, standing on my head. And that’s when I realized that it’s more than lack of sleep—it’s the actual activity of writing that is so fatiguing.

I don’t know about other writers, but writing a page is more mentally exhausting than an hour of Pilates. My books tend to be pretty emotional, so I suppose it makes sense that writing them can be emotionally draining. Like an actress, I immerse myself into the character’s point of view and “become” that person when I’m in their head. I think it lends itself to more real emotions and dialogue. I’m also a very visual writer and when I’m envisioning a scene, I close my eyes and, yep, sometimes I’ll wake up an hour later realizing too late that a sleepy person shouldn’t spend too much time with her eyes closed if she doesn’t want to fall asleep!

I have spent completely unproductive afternoons nodding over my laptop, and have a permanent crease in my forehead from the laptop lid. (My kids say it’s a wrinkle because I’m old, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).

And then: a break through. While trying to stay away while eating breakfast, I usually attempt to read one of my many periodicals that come in daily that I rarely get to peruse because, yes, I fall asleep if I sit down in a quiet room to read.

I can’t remember what magazine or newspaper it was (sleep deprivation also interferes with memory, apparently), but in it I read about the wonders of napping. Now, as the mother of two teenagers who were once adorable toddlers who, thankfully, were good nappers, I already knew about the joys of napping. But this article talked about how famous people in history—Ghandi and Winston Churchill to name just two—recharged their brains in the middle of the day with a mere twenty minute nap. I couldn’t believe it—two icons in world history NAPPED! Surely, I thought, if it worked for them it could work for me.

Luckily, I’m one of those people who can lie down anywhere and fall asleep. So, after lunch one day, I went up to the guest room, drew the shades, put in my earplugs and set my alarm for 20 minutes. As always, I didn’t even remember falling asleep. All I knew was that when the alarm rang, I was a new person. My mind was clearer, and I was no longer sleepy. I felt refreshed—something I hadn’t been in a very long time. I was able to write with passion and clarity, really focusing on the story and characters instead of how many sentences I could get out before my eyes closed.

The secret to the twenty minutes and not longer is that it doesn’t allow a person to get into REM sleep while still offering the restorative qualities of sleep. If you sleep too much longer than that, you’re doomed to a day of grogginess. But 20 minutes seems to do the trick without any side effects. I’m now a huge proponent of adult napping, even contemplated a move to Spain where napping is a national past time. OK, so I didn’t really consider it, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could live in a place where you could nap and not feel guilty that you should be, well, working?

Napping is now a daily ritual for me. And, living with two teenagers, it can be the highlight of my day. Even my dog knows when it’s naptime, because he heads upstairs with me at the appointed time and settles himself either at the foot of the bed or on the floor next to it. He’s a professional napper himself, and I’m sure he feels he deserves the credit for my newfound restorative habit.

I just looked at the clock. I’ve been up since 6:15 and it’s time for lunch and then my favorite twenty minutes of the day. Then it’s back to writing for me. And I’m just left to wonder why this wrinkle in my forehead won’t go away now that I’m no longer using my laptop as a head prop.


  1. maybe I should take Karen's advice. I wake up at 4:45AM every m-f, and don't go to bed until 10PM some nights. I think I need to fit a nap in there.

    great advice and I love her books.

  2. What fun! I'm a firm believer in naps, myself. And although Spain has does have a 'siesta' planned into the work day, I never met anyone while I lived in Spain who actually slept during it. Most people used the time to eat big lunches at home with their family, or to run to the gym, or to have an early glass of wine at a corner cafe. It was relaxing all the same, though!

  3. Good for you! I like naps too. I have terrible sleep habits because of health problems and I'm still up now at 3:00 a.m. Luckily I don't have to be at work so I can sleep in but I'm sick of having vampire hours. It sounds like you've come up with a good system for you and your dog! Enjoy and relax!

  4. Hail to the nappers! I'm glad to know I'm not alone (excluding babies and toddlers) who need their rest time in the middle of the day.

    I hope you enjoy the book!

  5. Good for you! I like naps too. I have terrible sleep habits because of health problems and I'm still up now at 3:00 a.m.

    Lingerie Affection

  6. Oh I wish it was so easy for me to fall asleep! It takes me at least 30 minutes to an hour and that's when I'm actually bone tired. It's so hard for me to get my mind to shut off.
    Great guest post! I'm really looking forward to read The Girl on Legare Street.


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