Sleeplessness and the menace of creativity

by Anne Moore

We’re moving house on Tuesday, and with this new beginning, I’ve taken on a reading project that I’ve wanted to do for a long time: Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. When you move, there’s always the chance that you’ll be full of new energy and vigor, right? I see myself waking up early, finding a sunny window spot or curling up on our gigantic new sectional and losing myself.

So I thought I’d start tracking my responses to the book. My initial intent with this blog was for it to be something daily, with little overt critical pressure on each entry–just collected observations and thoughts, and I could see where that took me over time. Proust seems like the perfect example/sounding board to return to that intent.

I started yesterday, and one of the first things that struck me about the book is how the opening scene is impossible to place in time. He’s writing about his seemingly lifelong struggle with sleeplessness, one that I share, and I assumed that he was describing childhood insomnia (which he is, but only kind of). I suppose there’s something about that sense that you can’t quite ascertain your relationship to the world that is endemic to childhood, when you have so little control over that relationship. Some of my clearest memories of childhood are of lying in my darkened room, attempting to will myself to sleep, listening for action outside the door. I tried to read under the covers like you hear of people doing, secretly placing the flashlight next to the bed, but I could never handle the airlessness of spending extended time in a little homemade tent under the covers.

As I got older, my insomnia became a more noticeable problem, and I started taking on strategies for sleep. Counting was the big one–I’d get into the two or three hundreds and would get worried about losing my place and have to begin anew. Upon the suggestion of a doctor, I got a hypnosis tape that, while it didn’t really work, did provide some sense of companionship in the night. A deep, taffy-like man’s voice would encourage me to relax each muscle group, moving progressively up my body from my feet. “Picture the muscles in the ball of your left foot, like a handful of loose rubber bands.” The secret was that the two sides of the tape were different–the first side just encouraged sleep, but the second included a brief pep talk at the end, presumably after you’d been lulled into slumber. “You are a good person. People enjoy your company.” I wasn’t fooled, but I recognized it as a nice gesture.

It’s possible that these long lonely nights were when the seeds of my writing life were planted. At our house in California, there was a lot of action in the sky at night, and it set my imagination to work: the searchlight announcing a new car dealership looked like a beacon, and the dim orange glow of the sodium lights made the familiar trees outside seem full of uncanny possibility. One of the things I love the most about the early bit of Swann’s Way is how Proust captures this surprising menace of creativity. He describes how he’s given a magic lantern by a well-meaning relative, and how the intended kindness backfires:

Someone had indeed had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lanterns, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come; and, after the fashion of the master-builders and glass-painters of Gothic days, it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colors, in which legends were depicted as on a shifting and transitory window. But my sorrows were only increased thereby, because this mere change of lighting was enough to destroy the familiar impression I had of my room, thanks to which, save for the torture of going to bed, it had become quite endurable. Now I no longer recognized it, and felt uneasy in it, as in a room in some hotel or chalet, in a place where I had just arrived by train for the first time.

As my daughter is starting to demand more and more dolls in her crib before she falls asleep, I’m remembering how I insisted on having all my dolls in my bed with me as well, arranged in a specific and rotating pattern around my head. My mother found this adorable, and has a picture of me sleeping in a photo album, explaining my strict rules. But the truth was that the pattern was carefully set so that I could combat my fear that some of the dolls might know that I preferred another. Every night, I would have a different doll closest to my head, but never for more than one night in a row. I felt a similar responsibility for the feelings of my furniture, and would sit on uncomfortable chairs so they wouldn’t feel left out.

So that’s the most evocative bit for me from this first piece of Remembrance of Things Past: the way that creativity, perhaps because it offers a way out of melancholy, is inextricably tied up with it.