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.
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.
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.
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.