Saturday, March 24, 2012

An early morning dance with words

I often wake up long before the sun rises. Not because I don't like to sleep. I do. Probably more than I should. To the point that some days I'd stay in bed all day if I could. Yet despite my apparent addiction to sleep, I still routinely find myself staring at the ceiling at 4 a.m. as words swirl in my head.

It isn't a process that I can seem to control. It just happens, and it's up to me to either get up and do something about it, or fall back asleep and lose the words for good. My late grandfather used to wake up in the middle of the night, too, also with words dancing in his head. His creative weapon of choice was a pencil and a stack of index cards, left conveniently on his nightstand. He'd scribble whatever came to mind, then go back to sleep. This process often repeated itself multiple times through the night, to the point that some mornings he'd awaken to a floor covered in a chaotic blizzard index cards. Of the many things I absorbed from him in the too-few years we had him, this is one of the most powerful legacies of all.

I use somewhat different tools these days: a MacBook Pro, a set of headphones, a beloved old Logitech mouse that just seems to fit me, and a mousepad with colorfully animated beetles all over it. I like to set up my little mobile office on the corner of the kitchen table before I tuck in for the night, ready for me in case I find myself awake a few short hours later.

While hauling myself out of my cozy bed is hard, actually getting down to work in the kitchen-cum-office isn't. Once I flip the laptop open, settle into my chair, get some tunes going and ease into the comfortable groove of guiding random synapses into tight, flowing text on a screen, I have to admit it feels really good. I don't bother turning on the lights, as the glow from the screen and keyboard backlight is more than enough for my nighthawkish eyes. I hate bright light, anyway, and will often work in dim or underlit spaces, much to my wife's chagrin.

There's a poignancy to writing this early in the day. The kitchen windows look out on a dark, still landscape. My email, Twitter and IM clients are silent, as pretty much everyone I know is dreaming for the night. Beyond the occasional ducking into a browser session for a quick fact-check, there's no surreptitious surfing the web for inspiration, no background online noise to clutter the process. Just me, a cursor and an idea that I need to turn into a finished, publishable article before the kids get up.

Most mornings, whatever I'm working on is done, read, re-read countless times and polished to a fine edge long before the kids are up. If there's enough time, I might sneak back upstairs and grab a few more winks, but usually I stay there, waiting for the windows to slowly brighten, listening for the telltale signs of a house rousing from the night. Eventually, someone - my wife, one of the kids, or even the dog - quietly pads into the kitchen and discovers me there. The inevitable question - "When did you get up?" - followed by a scrunched brow when I confirm some ungodly hour.

But here's the thing: sleep deprivation or not, I can't imagine doing anything else. I can't imagine not having this brief, precious time to myself, not having the ability to do something that isn't so much work as it is a calling, something that naturally seems to spill out of my head and into my fingertips.

I don't know how the hell I came to have this ability to write, but as long as those voices inside my head continue to buzz in the middle of the night, I'm thankful enough to appreciate the fact that I can. Rolling over and going back to sleep would seem like such a waste. So I don't.

Your turn: I haven't written like this on the blog in a while. Not sure why, as it's always felt, I don't know, right. More like this?


Kelsea said...

Yes, please! Writers all have their own 'morning dace with words', when the words seem to dance within us and there's nothing we can do but to write. There is something beautiful about it. But to read about other writers journeys, how they got to be where they are, is inspiring and also very encouraging. I really enjoyed this post.

Mark said...

It was great to read your writing again. The photos are neat, but the writing is the meat. Okay, that sounded more visceral than I intended.

H said...


Jessica said...

When I'm battling insomnia, I often get up and turn on my laptop and let my hands hover over the keyboard. Something interesting usually happens. In my undergrad degree, I wrote some of my best papers at those ungodly hours. I think my brain actually works differently in that state: I seem to be able to forge unusual links between totally disparate thoughts. It's like my creativity is freed by sleep deprivation.

I loved this post. Yes - more, please!