Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Many writers, facing insomnia, choose not to fight it, but instead use it to write.
Many writers, facing insomnia, choose not to fight it, but instead use it to write.

Russell Smith: Forging the bond between creativity and anxiety Add to ...

Magazines and television shows typically interview famous writers in their studies: peaceful, book-lined rooms that usually look onto gardens. The writers say they spend most of their days there, thinking, reading. Then we see the writers walking with their dogs along the riverbank of the placid village where they live.

In this season of literary awards, we see a lot of little video sketches such as this, profiling each of the happy finalists.

They make writing look like the calmest and healthiest life one could live, a life of contemplation, silence and free time for healthy exercise in nature.

If you want a more realistic look at the mental calm of a famous writer, all you need to do is post, on Facebook, as I did, the day before the Giller Prize winner was announced on Monday, a casual query about dealing with anxiety. I wrote, “Every day I wake up at 4 a.m. with intense anxiety. I cannot sleep again until the alarm goes off at seven. Advice from fellow sufferers?”

The response was basically a CanLit conference. I had a who’s who of prize-winning authors clamouring to tell me about herbs and healing, about misery and melatonin.

I had Michael Redhill, Zoe Whittall, Kathy Page, Marni Jackson, Zsuzsi Gartner, Anakana Schofield, Elyse Friedman, Michelle Berry, Timothy Taylor and many more, giving me advice.

There were poets and short story writers, gay and straight, commercial and underground, from coast to coast. And they all can’t sleep.

The airy study and the quiet afternoons look awfully nice in the videos, but the life described by my correspondents was one riven by fever and fret, a life of staving off panic and the harsh voices in one’s head. Don’t believe the videos: The most famous writers in the country can’t get over their divorces and take a lot of pills.

The tips themselves were confusing. There were the hard-core pharmaceutical team on one side. Just mix zopiclone and Ativan and a little vodka, a few cheerfully suggested – this faction being what you might call the Michael Jackson School.

Then there were the gentler yoga/meditation/deep breathing types, and then there was the alt-medicine school, with their herbal tinctures and not-quite-science theories (make your body less acidic, have more carbs, avoid carbs). And then there were the disciplinarians, insisting that nothing other than psychotherapy to address the root cause of your anxiety can overcome it. I had pages of suggested music, podcasts, meditations, binaural beats, concentration exercises, diary-writing, acupressure mats, perfect snacks.

Everyone has tried everything – and everyone knows this hour, the Hour of the Wolf, the blackness before dawn when fear of the future and remorse over the past stalk the brain, invincible. The novelist Farzana Doctor described it as “grief time” – she, like many of my correspondents, believes that this is the hour at which one should confront one’s sadness, not resist it. Kateri Lanthier sent me her poem “Small Hours” that ends, “I will never graduate from/The School of Late Clocks.”

Of course, it is not only creative people who suffer from this extremely common waking hour and overwhelming panic. I just happen to hear from writers. There is no convincing scientific evidence to link creativity and psychological distress – and many have tried, for the society at large wants to believe the myth of insanity as necessary to artistic creation. Artists themselves want to romanticize their own perfectly common ailments, thinking that those are somehow evidence of their greater sensitivity.

What interested me in all this, though, was not so much the frank dysfunction of so many successes, not their impressive pharmacological wisdom, but one recurring piece of advice: don’t fight the insomnia, said many; use it to write. Several authors said they did just that when the 4 a.m. willies hit. They just got up.

The poet Damian Rogers pointed out that Sylvia Plath wrote her monumental collection Ariel by rising at 4 a.m. every morning, before the kids were up. This was not, apparently, because she was particularly disciplined, but because that was when her sleeping pill from the night before wore off. She had no choice.

The writing done at that hour is going to be particularly focused, I think, and it might well be tinged with unpleasantness and fractured in a most honest and true-to-life way. In other words, the bond between neurosis and creativity is not an inevitable one, but one that you must forge yourself, consciously and willfully.

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeBooks

Also on The Globe and Mail

Madeleine Thien calls Giller win an 'unexpected gift' (CP Video)

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular