How the Miracle of Insomnia Can Unlock Your Imagination

Too many writers quit after their first book. They spend so much time cultivating a great idea that when they finally put it on paper they feel like there’s nothing left in their head. They sit with their notebooks held to their hearts waiting for inspiration, but it never comes.

Here’s a secret people with sleep apnea have known for years: inspiration often strikes in the middle of the night. Sometimes bright ideas don’t spark. Sometimes they’re more of a gentle fizzle. Sometimes a glitch in your neurotransmitters can manifest as a happy accident.

If you’re desperate for new ideas then allow me to introduce you to the miracle of insomnia. Follow me on a vision quest through your subconscious. Together we’ll pry the black diamonds from the darkest recesses of your mind.

The Power of Illusion

Have you ever been driving late at night and mistaken a mailbox for a hitchhiker or a windswept recycling bin for a person lying face down the street? These roadside illusions are glitches in your mind’s ability to recognize things. Sleep deprivation impairs your ability to recognize patterns. The more your cognitive performance diminishes the more objects around you will switch it up.

Say “Goodbye,” to the intersecting evergreen branches and “Hello” to block long spiderwebs. Say “Goodbye,” to the trash bags at the edge of the driveway and “Hello” to a troop of gorillas. Say, “Goodbye” to windmills on the horizon and “Hello” to the giants.

It doesn’t take much sleep debt for you to see things, at least for a moment, but eventually your mind’s eye catches up to your retinas.

These are just recognition illusions, your brain struggling to process objects in a space. Your subconscious has yet to make a creative contribution. If you really want your mind to play tricks on you then you have to be scared too.

Be Afraid

Fright pairs well with these illusions. The sleepier you are the easier it is to trigger your fear center. Stimulate your anterior insula with a paranormal podcast, some scary viral videos, or a good old fashion game of Bloody Marry. Then go for a walk with some Halloween sound FX in your headphones. Now scan the forest for silhouettes.

Haven’t you wanted to see those shadow people that are all the rage on Reddit right now? There’s one massaging that tree trunk with its long twisted talons. There’s another stroking the branch above you, plucking at leaves, and sending them spiraling. There’s one kneeling behind the stump. Can’t you see it slurping that poor turtle right out of its shell? The shadow people are all around you, playing red-light greenlight whenever your back is turned.

The problem with shadow people is that they fade under scrutiny, unless you wake to find one standing at the foot of your bed. Then they’ll last a little longer. Shadow people make guest appearances as waking hallucinations when you’re in the throes of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is like sleep walking in reverse: your brain switches on, but your body is still off. Your fear center goes haywire and manifests a supernatural assailant.

As freaky as bedside service shadows are your brain isn’t really flexing here.

Shadow people are an elementary archetype. They’re featureless because your subconscious doesn’t feel like fleshing them out. It’s still grabbing at patterns, hoping the sudden surge of fear will elevate the material, but as far as visions go shadow people are but stick figures. They’re basic.

Go ahead and shoehorn some shadow people into your fiction if you still find medicine cabinet jump scares, TV static, and black cats frightening, but if you really want to mine your subconscious for A-material you’ll have to go further down the rabbit hole.

Insomnia is an all-natural Hallucinogen

If you want to give readers a boundary pushing experience you’ll have navigate through your own neuromagnetic stormfronts, sail through the fog of delirium, and ram through the glaciers between conscious states. You’ll have to gaze upon the great cosmic maelstrom with your third eye wide open. You’ll have to hallucinate with a capital H.

I’m talking about all natural hallucinations. The kind Tibetan monks spend lifetimes stimulating without chemical agents. The kind you’d usually have to have a severe neurological conditions to experience.

Just like a marathon runner you’ll have to work up to this level before you go pro. Know your sleep needs and gradually deprive yourself an hour each night until you’re not sleeping at all.

Reimagine the Bedroom

Break the psychological association you have between your mattress and rest. The best way to do this is to use your bed for everything but sleeping: spread your yoga mat across the covers, followed by your free weights, and your meals.

Stack lumber on the headboard and whittle yourself some bed knobs. Line the frame with yarn samples and crochet yourself a canopy. Line oil paints on the windowsill and mix colors on the pillow. This is the perfect opportunity to paint that deep sea mural you’ve always wanted.

Use Bright Light Therapy

Order a 10,000 lux LED bright light therapy lamp. Therapy lamps are powerful tools designed to help:

  • people in northern regions get through long stretches of polar night
  • people with circadian rhythm sleep disorders stay awake
  • people with seasonal affective disorder survive the overcast
  • and people with jetlag to resituate themselves

We’re going to use our therapy lamp to experience what Alaskan’s call “midnight sunlight” and trick our minds into perceiving daylight all night.

PRO TIP: A surround sound system looping birdsong will add extra oomph to your therapy lamp.

Use Technology to Pinch Yourself Awake

Smartwatches and fitness trackers can be programed to wake you with a subtle vibration whenever you’re coming out of a nice light sleep. By measuring your pulse throughout your sleep cycle they can ease you up before your alarm clock goes off.

We’re going to use that same technology to keep us from nodding off. Apps like Restlessfor the Apple Watch track dips in your heart rate and jolt you awake before you go under. By programming your watch to give you hyper-frequent haptic feedback you’ll be inviting your dreams to join you in real life.

Drink Up Johnny

Your author identity may require you to consume one alcoholic beverage an hour, but try to avoid the nightcap family: the warm cocktails, the fortified wines, brandies, bourbons, and liqueurs. Those sleepy time beverages aren’t going to serve us here, neither are any uppers.

Avoid the light roasts, triple lattes, and depth charges. Caffeine is your friend, until it isn’t. When you’re tired your brain produces a chemical called adenosine. While caffeine blocks adenosine, your brain doesn’t stop making it, so when the caffeine cycles through you all that adenosine hits at once. You crash.

Coffee dehydrates you too, making your heart work double time, which will ultimately wear you out faster.

That’s why the magical elixir we’ll be using to keep ourselves alert is: water, and lots of it. Water will keep our brain cells firing and our bladder bursting. Native Americans used to drink a lot of water to wake up early for their attacks (or so The Simpsonstells me). We’re going to drink so much water that our urinary tracks will feel like water slides.

Mind Explosion

A study by A.M. Williamson and Anne-Marie Feyer found a period of sleep deprivation greater than 28 hours is the motor performance equivalent of a 0.1% blood alcohol level. While 28 hours of sleep dep would make you legally intoxicated our goal is to get shitfaced.

One study found that 2 percent of people who go without sleep for 112 hours experience the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. Since we’re trying to peak beyond the veil we’re going to have to go a few hours past that, until warp speed signatures trail through our vision and the only thing we hear is the THX test tone. When our physical form is but a bobble-headed husk and our astral body is free to fly away.

We will blast through the hyperspace super highway, where our molecules will dissolve, and our atoms will scatter throughout the cosmos. Our electrons will resonate at the same frequency as the background radiation left by the big bang, and swirl back together through the golden mean spiral.

We will find ourselves reborn, in an interstellar womb floating toward the debris field of the garden of Eden.

Our Chakras will align as we touch down upon the grass. Plasma particles will flow through the divine vegetation. Leaves will sway like guiding hands pointing to the tree of knowledge. There we will find a fresh ripe apple waiting for us. Take a bite and taste that sweet sweet thunderbolt of enlightenment, that uncut truth, that objective reality that mortal minds cannot comprehend.

Now return to your drooling physical form transcribe that wisdom for future generations before sleep deprivation psychosis sets in and they find you naked on the front lawn crawling like a mealworm.

Closing Thoughts

Let your biological clock flash 12:00 and you’ll hit your wordcount goals in no time flat. Let your circadian rhythm pop and lock and your fingers will dance across the keyboard. Let your sleep hygiene go and you’ll be rolling in pungent premises. Let your sleep debt ride and the rewards will pay off in spades.

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Bad Writing Advice: Book Proposal

I’m thinking of self-publishing a collection of my Onion-style bad writing advice columns. The following is a book proposal in that character’s boisterous quasi psychotic voice. If you’re interested in reading more PLEASE LET ME KNOW.

THE LAST BOOK PROPOSAL YOU SHOULD EVER READ

Bookstores are teeming with so many texts on writing they have to cram the extras in vertically. Most of these fire hazards are written by name authors: your Stephen Kings, your Kingston Stevens, and your Stefano Kingsleys.

Meanwhile your Instagram feed is clogged with bestselling authors hawking Masterclasses. Neil Gaiman is teaching writing. Margaret Atwood is teaching writing. James Patterson is teaching ghostwriting. You find yourself wondering: how I am supposed to develop my own voice if everyone is looking in these same directions?

For a unique source of inspiration you need to turn to someone who looks like a failure to the untrained eye, like a Van Gogh, a H.P. Lovecraft, or a Corey Haim. Someone with decades of experience blogging in obscurity. Someone whose publisher once told him, “You look good, you should do YouTube. That might work actually for you.”

Don’t be seduced by authors who tell you storytelling is all about challenging flawed individuals into becoming complete human beings, that structure is a means to a spiritual transformation, and that your duty as a writer is to create a change within your readers’ own self-perception.

Listen to the literary light that’s brave enough to tell you: writing is about one-upping hipsters at cocktail parties. It’s about cutting in when someone is overanalyzing a movie with an allegorical ending and shutting that shit down. It’s a card you play when you want to steer the conversation in your direction.

Allow me to teach you how to be the noun (a writer) who rarely ever has to do the verb (write). Let me to teach you how to be a social media sociopath, someone who clogs their extended family’s feeds with blog spam. Let me teach you how to beat writer’s block by writing badly.

I’ll be the devil on your shoulder.

“Go on, use all those sweet delicious adverbs. I won’t tell Stephen King if you won’t.”

“You should take a big fat exposition dump right here. It’s at the beginning of a chapter. No one will mind.”

“Oh who are you kidding? The twist was always going to be that your hero has a split personality. Lean into it.”

Follow me and I’ll teach you how to:

  • gracefully handle rejection by standing outside a publisher’s house in a clown mask.
  • use the miracle of insomnia to unlock your imagination.
  • promote your novel by interrupting first dates.
  • know if your cat is actively sabotaging your writing.
  • guilt your parents into reading your novel.
  • bait the NSA into following your blog.
  • write a literary masterpiece with a paper fortune teller.
  • purge proof your writing space.
  • and how to trick beautiful people into asking if you’re a writer.

Established authors are all too happy to separate fools from their money, to convince them there’s room on the bestsellers list for everyone, and that their methods for success can be reproduced.

But be honest. You’ve been struggling at this writing game for a while now. Isn’t it time you turned away from your superiors and started taking advice from a peer, someone who understands you not because they’ve surpassed their failures, but because they’re still in the throes of them?

Join Drew Chial on this journey into oblivion and together you will get there faster.

BAD WRITING ADVICE

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Interview Ghosts before Writing Insensitive Haunted House Stories

I believe that if a writer wants to represent a person from another background they must experience that person’s plight firsthand. Just as a method actor might move into a drug den to better understand addiction so too must the writer. They must live without electricity or running water to portray colonial villagers. They must glue their eyes shut in order to properly portray the blind.

If you want to write about a delinquent who undergoes a perversion treatment, you should inject yourself with toxins whenever you get turned on. If you want to write about a convict who pleas insanity to get out of a felony, you better get yourself put into a facility that offers lobotomies. If you want to write about a salesmen who metamorphizes into an insect you better strap on a pair of antenna and develop a taste for rotten meat.

And if you want to write a ghost story you better prepared to die for your art.

APPROACHING HAUNTINGS WITH UNDERSTANDING

When I set out to write about a haunted house I wanted to cast off the negative stereotypes that plague the genre. Most enchanted establishments aren’t gauntlets full of deathtraps, most of their residents aren’t averse to hosting, and most of their guests don’t find their hair turning white overnight.

Spirits are portrayed as these portrait-stretching chandelier-shifting armor-inhabiting menaces, because too many of their stories are told from a pulse-centric perspective. I set out to change all that by sitting down with some of these marginalized manifestations myself.

PHANTASM OUTREACH

I spent a pretty penny on an authentic Victorian waistcoat with long pigtail coat skirts. I eased it out of the box, draped it across my ironing board, and took a pair sheers to the hem with the reckless abandon of a toddler cutting out a snowflake. Then I slipped into a ruffled shirt, tight pantaloons, and tasseled boots, all of which were in the appropriate shade of grey.

I smeared baby powder across my brow and blue blush down my cheeks. I drew faint teeth across my muzzle. I brushed out a white wig until I achieved the right volume and secured it with handkerchief.

Then came the chains.

With an assortment of padlocks and skeleton keys dangling from my ensemble I practiced my spirit shuffle. Ghosts have always had a light footed swagger that I’ve so admired. I spent hours on the treadmill watching myself in the mirror.

When I was certain I’d mastered my footing I ventured out to the Reinhold estate. The Reinhold estate sat on a cliffside overlooking what was supposed to be the town of Clensington. “A Penitent God-fearing Community.” Or so the WELCOME sign read on the way up the dirt trail.

Zachariah Reinhold built his estate under the presumption that it would be the mayor’s residence once the rest of the town had settled in. The problem was Zachariah wasn’t good at networking and the townsfolk never came.

One night Zachariah called his wife Florence and nine children into the dining hall where they took communion. He had laced the wine with strychnine. It was decades before their skeletons were discovered by urban explorers. They were still sitting at the table in their Sunday bests. The property has since been abandoned, left to the crows and the vines.

Raccoons scurried into the shadows as I staggered into the entrance hall. When thunder rattled through the windows and I was certain the mansion had accepted me as one of its inhabitance.

It was time to meet the Reinholds, to ascend the master staircase and start a dialogue. I went up the steps in a series of herky jerky motions, as a sign of respect toward the residents. One of my chains got caught on a cherub carving at the foot of the railing and jerked me back down. I rolled end over end until I slid across the floor. Then a bird’s nest landed upon my cap, and the eggs ran down my face.

The Reinholds weren’t embracing me as the ally I’d wanted them to see. I wandered through the west wing, zigzagging through the trees that had sprouted through the floorboards, trying desperately to address the spirits in their native dialect, “WhoooOOOooo aaaAAAaaa whoooOOOooo.” But I couldn’t get a dialogue going.

My chains got caught on a coat of arms.

I tried to pry them free without realizing one the padlocks had gotten wedged under my collar. It tore through my waistcoat all the way down through my trousers, leaving me with nothing but the neckerchief wrapped around my head. Then I crashed through the floor and landed in the dilapidated cellar.

It wasn’t until I’d crawled my way back out onto the lawn that I realized it wasn’t my place to go moaning through those cobweb stricken hallways. It was my place to listen.

AN ESOTERIC EPIPHANY

Here I was thinking I was embracing ghost culture, but I was really just appropriating it. Each footfall I’d taken into the Reinhold estate drove them further and further from the realm of the living. These disparaged deities didn’t want anything to do with me.

I was a “breather” flaunting my mortality for all to see. Worse still, the material I’d gathered would only reinforce the toxic stereotypes I was trying to challenge.

REVISING MY APPROACH

I had rethink my presentation before I went back to the house again. I needed to make it clear that I was an apparition advocate, not some thrill seeking, ghost-hunting, tragedy tourist. I needed show the spirits that I was a safe person, not a performative spiritualist who’d go reaching for the sage at the first temporal disturbance.

The first thing I had to change was my problematic outfit. While it was true to the period it was geared toward Zachariah Reinhold, the patriarch of the household, when it was Florence, the matriarch, I should’ve been dressing to impress.

It took forever to find a Victorian nightgown, tights, and slippers that fit me, but once they arrived I splattered them with motor oil. I lathered my biceps in grey body paint and drew lines down my veins in blue eyeshadow, until my arms looked like sculpted marble.

Then came the long black wig.

I hit the Stairmaster hands-first, with my palms on the peddles, and refined my crawling motion in the mirror.

I was almost ready, but I had to perfect my ghostly vernacular or my in intentions would remain unclear. “WhoooOOOooo aaaAAAaaa whoooOOOooo.” Was not a suitable greeting. I had to evoke a lower register, like the gurgle of a mother whose strychnine exposure lead to slow and painful raspatory failure.

PHANTASM OUTREACH PHASE 2

In no time I was back in the Reinhold estate at the foot of the master staircase ready to have another go at meeting the residents. I crawled, foot over shoulder, one step at time. Erosion had warped the wood’s dimension and the effort proved more challenging than it on the Stairmaster. Still, I let out a long low gurgle. Groaning with a wig seeping into my throat proved challenging, as did crawling in oil based body paint, but I managed.

I stood at the head of the stairs and attempted to stretch a knot in my back without breaking character. When I turned toward the hall I saw Florence Reinhold staring at me from around the corner. Her straight black hair hung in front of her face, just as mine did. Her head was bent at a right angle and her ear was grazing the ceiling. Her feet were pointed downward. She was floating.

I was relieved to find I wasn’t filled with an overwhelming urge to slide down the railing and dive into my two-seater smart car. Instead I merely bowed.

When Florence gurgled her head shook like a maraca. I took the intonation to mean. “What are you doing here?”

I explained that I was an author and that I was there to listen and learn so that I might share her unique experience with the world.

Florence sunk her long nails into the baseboard until a crack shot across the woodwork, ceiling tiles rained down, and burst into powder all around me. Florence gurgled. That gurgle became a moan as her jaw clicked free of its hinges one by one. When her jaw sunk down to her chest that moan had grown into a howl. It rippled through the wallpaper, sent cracks through the windows, and shook the estate to its very foundations. Then her jaw retracted, clicked back into her face, and she floated off into the dark recesses of hallway.

I took that long protracted moan as Florence’s blessing and you have her to thank for what you are reading.

Ghost Illustration by Bryan Politte

Continue reading Interview Ghosts before Writing Insensitive Haunted House Stories

Everyone Else is Further into their Manuscript than You (Video Reading)

At some point every writer feels like an imposter. What if there was a study that definitively proved that you were one?

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