I don’t keep it a secret that I am most productive between the hours of 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. That’s when I get almost everything done: it’s when I draw (I almost never draw at any other hour), it’s when I read, and it’s when I write long, long pieces of writing. I truly believe that 4 a.m. is one of the best-kept secrets of the creative world. At 4 a.m. you can’t get distracted by loud music (because it would be rude to play it), or checking your Facebook or your emails (because no one is sending you any). You have some very real space to make the things you want to make.
Sometimes, though, people ask how I manage to get up that early every day. I don’t do it every day, actually. My 4 a.m. self exists for long periods of time and usually for days or weeks on end before she turns into a normal 8 a.m. person (or worse). And for those long stretches of time, the method to my waking-up-early madness is simple, but tough to superficially replicate: insomnia.
This last week has been a good example. I’ve been able to roll into a sort of muted sleep state around 10 or 11 every night, which I can only accomplish by listening to (not watching) Gilmore Girls, The Office, or Parks and Recreation on my phone. If I wasn’t listening to a television show, I would be stuck with my thoughts, which are way too loud to sleep over. “Focusing on my breathing” makes everything so much worse. Focusing on my breathing is extremely stimulating; it is also a rock’s throw away from an existential crisis for me.
I sleep until 3:30 or 4 a.m. Then, for reasons I can’t explain (or because my cats start making noise), I wake up. There is no going back to sleep from a 4 a.m. wake-up. This is something I learned in college, and have since then capitalized on by getting straight to work as soon as the tiny anxious creature inside my body starts knocking on my brain telling me there’s too much to do, and too little time.
This morning, on the train, I read this wonderful (but too short) New Yorker piece on the subject of time, and it spoke directly to 4 a.m. Sophie. It is the kind of piece that is comforting because it pinpoints many of the often-un-uttered questions that are so deeply troubling. Namely: What is time, anyway?
There are a lot of great spots in this odd little essay, but this one was particularly resonant. It’s about the writer’s own tendency to wake up every single morning at 4:27 a.m.:
As worried as I am in these waking moments, I also find them oddly calming. It’s as if in falling asleep I’d fallen into an egg and woken as the yolk, cushioned and aloft on an extended present. It won’t last, I know. In the morning, the hours and minutes will reassert themselves and this seemingly limitless breadth of time will seem unreal and unreachable—the dream of boundless time, dreamed from the confines of an egg carton.
I don’t know what makes my body so afraid of what it doesn’t understand, or why those questions light up and swirl around so noisily at night. The fact that it happens is also a mystery; something loosely tied to the delightfully enigmatic concept of circadian rhythms.
But these days, I am finding all my comfort in the exact centers of the things that make me most scared. I am looking into the eyes of the things I can’t possibly understand to say “You are not something I will ever really be able to see. I give you permission to be that. I give myself permission to let you remain unsolved."
Bodies do need sleep. I’m working on learning to nap on floors (like the one in the newspaper office, or in my studio). Napping feels to me a lot like taking a dietary supplement when you can’t get your hands on any real food. It’s not the same, but it’ll do for now. Life is full of mysterious waves; times of excess and times of surfeit; questioning and resting. Survival has to do with how you are able to flow with them.