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writers and insomnia

John Elder wrote in the Age this morning about how often sleep disorders are wrongly diagnosed. One of the interesting points in the piece related to questions of causality in insomnia and mental illness: insomnia tends to get treated as a symptom of depression rather than the other way around.

Anyway, it made me wonder about the number of writers you run into who suffer from crippling insomnia. When you think about it, writing seems to be designed to prevent you from ever sleeping. It’s a job that’s never finished, so you always go to bed thinking about what you’re supposed to be working on. It encourages all the habits you are supposed to avoid: a sedentary lifestyle, caffeine, alcohol, etc. And most people do it on top of another job, and so the perpetual struggle to find time means lots of early mornings and late nights.

Of course, the Australasian Sleep Association claims that 80 per cent of Australians experience an issue with sleeping that adversely affects their waking life, so it may well be that writers are no more tired than the rest of the nation. Personally, though, I’m perpetually thinking that, if only I get a good night’s sleep, I’ll suddenly be writing pages upon pages of luminous prose. And then, of course, it happens — and it doesn’t make the slightest difference.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. There are so many different kinds of sleeplessness. I actually know that my writing is going well if I can’t sleep, that is, the book is so alive for me I’m working away and it’s very productive. I end up feeling quite cheerful the next day – but impossible to work conventional hours when you’re in this phase of writing so I can only go with that ‘creativity’ if I’m on a writer’s retreat and can just write and nap whenever the mood takes me. There is no doubt this is disorientating and I sometimes feel that courting this phase of the process is courting madness.

    And, of course, there are a whole lot more prosaic reasons not to be sleeping which have no up side at all.

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