This is the first time I’ve written a post’s title prior to writing the post.
As usual, though, I don’t have a fully formed idea of what I’m about to write, or even if what I’m writing will ever see the light of day, which I mean quite literally, because I’m writing well before daybreak on this Thursday morning, April 19, 2023.
While I’ve always naturally been an early bird, it wasn’t until 1998, approaching 30 years of age, that I first encountered the ability to awaken hours before I typically would, sans alarm clock, and to work nearly all the live long day, six and sometimes seven days a week, for weeks and at times, months, before returning to a more normal sleeping pattern. Right around the clock if necessary, such as the time I was on a deadline and needed to do a complicated glue-up involving dozens of pieces of wood, or when there was a looming “drop dead date” where a project just had to be completed, no if’s, and’s, or but’s.
I’m not sure what the words “drop dead” refer to; possibly the death of the overarching project, such as a film or video shoot where multiple crew members are all converging on a specific date and if any of the critical players, such as the set builder (my role at the time) failed to complete critical pre-production work – “Where’s the set?!?” – the project itself might fail. But just as likely it refers to the person responsible for said critical work (ditto) and how it would be better for them to commit hara-kari than to miss that deadline. You’re only as good as your last job, and if you committed such a “crime”, you’re as good as dead.
Whether schedule-driven or not, because at times, such periods of early waking for me don’t coincide with any time-based pressure whatsoever, eventually, my regular sleeping pattern resumes. I used to figure that it was 20% of the time that I would have periods of wakefulness but now I think it’s closer to 50%. (Reading this to my wife just now, she said, “Are you kidding? You always get up early.” She’s always exaggerating.) Ok, so I’ll concede 60% of the time. Anyhow, I’ve been in such a period for at least a couple months now.
What’s behind such periods? And where did my “normal” schedule of needing a good eight or nine hours of sleep per night go? How can I sustain extended stretches of time when I get five, four, sometimes three hours or less of sleep, night after night, with plenty of vitality through the day?
One thing I am certain of is that it’s not insomnia. No matter whether I awaken at 2 am or 6, I am able to fall asleep quite quickly – in well under a minute, and often under fifteen seconds of turning out the lights.
And it’s not, near as I can tell, a disorder like bipolar. Whether I’m getting my full contingent of sleep, I don’t notice any change in my mood.
The change seems to have to do with whether or not I am engaged in “play”. My mind is engaged in creativity, absorbed in projects, ideas, goals. It may not be quite as fervid as the feeling I had when I was a boy on Christmas morning, when I’d awaken much earlier than I’m sure my parents had hoped, eager to start unwrapping my presents and excited to discover what I was about to receive. But there are parallels.
According to the eminent scholar John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, there are two mental modes we can be engaged in, the open mode and the closed mode. While we need both, it is the open mode, which Cleese says is best described in that same four letter word, play, that allows creativity to flourish. I’ve written about this before, and included a speech Cleese gave on the subject, which I personally transcribed one morning a few years back. (Ed note: Andy intended to link to his post “Open Road Mode” here, but it looks like that post is among the hundreds of decommissioned posts that are currently hibernating in the ether. May have to remedy that with a repost.)
When one is in the open mode, with their creative gears engaged, it’s as if there’s an internal dynamo producing not only enough power to tackle the task at hand but an electrical excess to boot – energy that needs to be expended somehow. In my case I don’t especially feel an excess of energy during the times I awaken early. It simply feels like I’ve been given a couple extra innings to play. This morning, I thought I might as well use some of that sans-somnolence in a creative pursuit like writing about being sans-somnolent. Again, though, it seems the energy is processed as extra wakefulness rather than discomposure or euphoria.
Have you experienced such periods? Search the way back files. Perhaps it was pulling all-nighters in college.
Maybe another artist pulled out of their scheduled show and you were invited, last minute, to fill their slot in an art gallery’s schedule. You went on a tear for weeks, accomplishing what might’ve taken months for you to do under “normal circumstances”. (Incidentally, everyone seems to have at least one story like this, and if you do, too, and if you feel self-conscious about receiving this or that opportunity under such circumstances, it’s high time you realize that you’re not alone and welcome yet more such good, nearly universal, fortune.)
Another thing that’s nearly universal and often portrayed to be evil incarnate is procrastination. When and if I write a book (I keep putting it off), a couple of the chapters will delve into this further. One’s tentatively titled “Stress Good, Stress-Free Bad”, followed immediately by, “Procrastination Is Great”. Procrastination is an internal awareness that an “artificial” predicament is often required to get your conscious mind engaged (though again, I’m quite familiar with the concrete reality of some deadlines).
While we’re all wired differently, in general, most creative people I know require some level of external pressure – a deadline; a commission; financial straits; the knowledge that they are, or will soon be, in the public spotlight – to rise to the occasion. Of course, extreme procrastination can have commensurately detrimental effects, but there’s nothing like a healthy time crunch to start the internal epinephrine drip. I’ve found that the drip of the Mr Coffee also helps.
But blessed is the one who is fully engaged in a creative pursuit simply due to the pleasure of creating. They will find that as they focus on the work, their ideas will spark further ideas, as well as complete the circuit that powers the doing of the work. It’s a bit like a perpetual motion machine.
When I returned to creating art in February of 2012, this is how I felt for months. Each morning, well before sunrise and often prior to midnight – I recall passing my older kids, who’d be watching a late movie in our living room as I headed to the studio at 10 or 11 pm – I’d experience this wave of wakefulness due to the sheer joy of creating art again after a 23 year hiatus. It was, I imagine, like surfing and finding the perfect wave, only this wave lasted for five months. I’d work on art all night in the studio, typically blasting 70’s rock, return home around the time my wife and the kids would be getting up, shower, sit and have a coffee with Nan, kiss her goodbye, and then head off to my then day job at the Colorado College. Later that night, after returning home around 5 pm, hanging and having dinner with the family: rinse and repeat.
In my experience, however, the energy doesn’t precede the creativity. Again, it’s a bit like surfing. First, you have to do the hard work of paddling out against the surf. To switch gears, the power to accomplish something may be the engine that moves you, but like an engine, power needs to be engaged. The mental use of creativity is the gear shifter, where P stands for passive and N for nowhere, as in “getting nowhere fast”.
To extend the analogy, D currently stands for daybreak, and I hear movement in the house. Time to wrap things up.
I’ll do so with one final series of thoughts: if you desire to be more fully engaged, creatively, you simply need to start to engage your mind in a creative task. Give it a problem to solve. Don’t be general or vague; be specific. Give your mind a worthwhile task to chew on. Something, perhaps, that you don’t know if you can possibly accomplish. A worthy challenge. Hold that problem in your mind. Dwell on it. Desire it. Focus like a laser beam on it. Concentrate all your thoughts on it.
Perhaps you need a project with a deadline. Again, gallery or museum shows, especially solo shows where only you can fill the walls, are wonderful ways to kick yourself into gear, creatively. Public art projects can be as well. Be careful that you don’t overcommit, but do try things that cause you to stretch. Aim high.
Next on my lengthy (but enjoyable) to do list: the daily grind. Double-meaningly (see the opening pic and the one below) and double-shottedly.
A nice present from Alison Santa-Maria a couple years back