Sleep and Creativity

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I'm going to get a little personal this week, though I think it'll focus on something a lot of writers can relate to; sleep and creativity. For the past year, I've had trouble sleeping at night. No matter when I go to bed, I always seem to wake up two or more times a night and stay awake anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and a half. Having that happen once or twice is one thing, but dealing with it every single night tends to wear a person down. When my doctor checked the stats on my CPAP machine, it registered I was getting maybe about 4-6 hours of sleep a night with all the waking up. 

You can probably imagine what the lack of sleep has done to me: 

  • Exhaustion

  • Irritability

  • Trouble staying awake

  • Depression

  • Worse Anxiety

  • Memory issues

And so on and so forth. Not exactly fun things to deal with when you're trying to write/publish a book. 

I've worked with some people to get my sleep under control, but it wasn't until I met a cognitive behavior specialist that I started to actually notice some changes. For the first two weeks I met with her, she asked me to track my sleep. I was shocked when I realized it looked like a checkerboard. I might get a couple hours of sleep before waking up, but for the most part, my night was "asleep, awake, asleep, awake, asleep." Worse, when I would wake up in the middle of the night, I usually went to food for the comfort, which just doesn't help with weight loss and staying healthy. 

My sleep doctor describes it as maintenance insomnia. I can usually fall asleep within about 5 minutes. Heck, I've fallen asleep standing up before! But staying asleep, yeah, that doesn't happen much for me. All the sleep I had started to get by using a CPAP machine just went out the window and left me a miserable mess. Frankly, I think the lack of sleep is what led to my emotional episodes in February of this year. 

After tracking my sleep, my doctor told me that my circadian rhythm is off kilter. Her solution? Condensed sleep. Okay, so what does that mean? Basically, her idea was to focus on forcing me to get quality sleep over quantity. She wanted to retrain my brain to understand what it was to be "sleepy" and to be so tired that I would just sleep through the night. She had a few other stipulations as well: 

  • No caffeine after 2pm

  • Sleep for 6 hours from 1:30am-7:30am

  • No naps

  • No resting in your bed

  • No phone in your bedroom before sleep

Our plan was to do it for two weeks before I saw her again, mostly because she said I would hate her by the second week. I thought she was kidding.

She wasn't. 

It's officially been two weeks, and except for two nights when I accidentally fell asleep a little early on the couch, I've followed the rules closely. Each night I've gone to sleep and stayed in bed. Anxiety remained quiet. My hunger ebbed. All I wanted, all I craved was sleep! And by the second week, oh yeah, I hated her. I still might throw a shoe at her when I see her on Wednesday. I never thought fighting to stay awake until 1:30 am would be so hard. It has some benefits. I get more downtime for myself. I caught up on shows and finally watched Good Omens. 

But the costs more than outweigh the benefits. I'm exhausted all the time. I'm grumpy, depressed, stressed, and a complete bundle of emotions. And for those of you who know me well, I don't like not having control of my emotions. I've actually started to cry because I was so tired and so angry that I couldn't just nap. Even know as I type this, I can feel my eyes getting heavy and my body just begging me to go to sleep. 

I will say this, the practice has really made me appreciate sleep a lot more. Our plan on Wednesday, I believe, is to add time onto my sleep schedule so I'm getting closer to 7 hours. I personally think I function best on about 7 1/2 - 8 hours, but even that hasn't been enough when I'm trying to recover from many sleepless nights. 

By now you're probably asking, but Erin, what does this have to do with creativity? 

Everything. 

For some people, staying up late or lack of sleep can create a drive to write. For me, my muses have basically shut themselves off and my characters are giving me the cold shoulder. I have this extra time at night, but the idea of putting a single word on paper is almost unbearable. Thinking hurts. Trying to be creative is too exhausting. It takes all my energy just to stay awake. How I managed to edit and publish a book last year is beyond me. 

Though it would probably explain the emotional roller coaster ride I felt during the process. 

I want my creativity back. I want to be able to curl up at night when I'm sleepy and know that I can rest through the night and rise with enough energy to create my worlds. Sleep is so important. Like, I didn't realize how important until I went through the past two weeks. And I know, 6 hours may not sound bad, but for me, I need more sleep. Technically, you can function on 5 hours of sleep a night for an extended period, but that doesn't mean that your creativity will work. Take care of your mind and bodies. Give them the rest they both so desperately need and crave. I'm hoping once I add on the hours, my passion for writing will resume. and I'll get out of the very tired writer's block clouding my mind. 

Musical Musings

There's nothing better than curling up on the couch with your novel and a good song to set the mood. While not everyone likes to write with music, there are plenty of us who need that additional inspiration to guide us through our craft. I'm one of those people who can listen to the same song on repeat for hours on end because it elicits a certain emotion that keeps me going. 

Music has always been important in my life. When I was a kid, I remember listening to the Little Mermaid soundtrack. I could tell my mom what was happening based on the music. And I'm not talking about the songs with lyrics. I mean the instrumental pieces. I played the clarinet in middle school. My dad introduced me to the world of opera and operetta (still love it that Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street was the first operetta I attended). I also loved musicals like Cats, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Sound of Music, Rent, etc. I learned how music can tell a story, not just in the lyrics, but with the instruments alone. 

As I got older, I started creating my own stories to the music. I'd pick a song like Vivaldi's "Winter" and I'd sit back, close my eyes, and try to imagine a story that was happening through the music. Characters sprang to life. Icy forests caught in a snowy storm. Snow fairies darting through tree branches and bushes. It wasn't just music to me; it became an entire world. 

So I started collecting songs that did several things for my writing; created the world, represented my characters, and quieted my mind. I made playlists that were 40 songs long because they all reminded me of my characters or world in some way. Right now, Naomi Scott's "Speechless" from the new Aladdin movie is my song of choice. The lyrics remind me of one of my characters who survived an abusive relationship and came out stronger than ever. Some of the lyrics like "I will take these broken wings / and watch me burn across the sky" make me think of my character who literally has a phoenix living inside of her. 

So what can you do to help you get into the creative mood using music? 

Character Playlists: Find music that reminds you of characters. I pick out lyrical songs for most of these because the words invoke feelings about the characters and what they've gone through in their lives. I used to create separate playlists per book, but sometimes when I don't know what to write, I just put them all on shuffle and see which character speaks to me the most. 

World-building Playlists: I mostly choose instrumental music for these, but having lyrical songs that represent your story's time frame or world can be just as useful. James Horner's "Avatar" and Howard Shore's "Lord of the Rings" soundtracks are definitely ones I use for my fantasy/medieval stories. On the flip side, I might use pop music or gothic rock (thank you Within Temptation and Evanescence) for my urban fantasy world because it just fits the setting and the characters. Play around. See what catches your attention. 

Mood Playlist:  I also create playlists that have nothing to do with my characters or worlds. These are generally songs that I know won't distract me from writing and will actually sooth me if I'm stressed out. Some easy choices are meditation soundtracks with water, music, and soothing chimes or bells. Another day, I might replay the "Night King" from the Game of Thrones' season 8 soundtrack 15 times. Right now, I'm listening to "Lord of the Rings Music & Ambiance." Most of my mood music is a mix between gentle or sad. It's rare, but sometimes I'll have louder, head banging music. Again, it depends on the mood. But this might help you get into the groove of writing. Turn on your playlist, settle into a comfortable spot, and get writing! 

There are also fun programs out there where you can create your own ambiance.  Check out Ambient Mixer. Maybe you want to spend an afternoon in the Gryffindor common room or explore Rivendell. Perhaps Loki's quarters are much more to your liking. You can listen to premade background music or make your own. 

Everyone has their own tastes in music and their own ways to get into the writing mood. What do you do? Do you have favorite songs that inspire you? How do you find them? Feel free to post below.

Happy writing and listening! 

Colors and Symbolism in Writing

Color and imagery play such important roles in all forms of media. They can enhance how we might view a character or act as a device for foreshadowing. Some colors can blatantly symbolize who's good and who is evil, or denote where the character's loyalty resides. While it's easier to see on tv and in film, it's just as important in books. 

First, what do the colors mean? Taking a look at Judy Scott-Kemmis' website Empowered by Color, she outlines the different emotions created by color. 

  • Red: Generally this is the color associated with passion, sex, energy, and ambition. But it's also the color of anger (which is generally why people might have heightened emotions when sitting in a red room). 

  • Orange: Social communication and optimism. It can also be a more negative sign of pessimism. 

  • Yellow: Color of the mind and intellect but it can also suggest impatience and cowardice. (Maybe this is why the mind stone in Avengers is yellow). 

  • Green: This is the color of balance and growth. Though it can also be a sign of jealousy/envy. 

  • Blue: Tranquility, trust, and peace. Some rooms are painted this color to help people feel calm. 

  • Purple: Imagination (both creative or impractical) 

  • Pink: Unconditional love as well as immature and girlish 

  • Brown: Down-to-earth, protection, and comfort

  • White: Purity, innocence, completion 

  • Gray: Compromise 

  • Black: Mystery, secrecy 

Keep in mind, this is one person's view of color, but it seems pretty universal in other studies (though with some minor differences). 

How do these colors come to play in stories? 

Good vs Evil

Let's start with Star Wars. Generally the Jedi Knights wear white/beige clothing while the Sith are dressed all in black. As a character slips to the dark side, their clothing color seems to change (ie Anakin Skywalker). Of course, it can be argued that Luke was wearing black at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, so was that meant to throw us off or hint that perhaps Luke could still slip to the dark side? 

Their lightsabers, as well, seem to play a part in good vs evil. Jedi wield green (growth) and blue (peace) lightsabers while the Sith use red (anger). 

When we're told stories, it's not uncommon for the good character to wear white clothing to represent purity while the villain is cloaked in black/darkness. Obviously this has led to discussions about how this just reinforces racism (white = good, black = bad). So some writers have tried to move away from this trope. Or, so-called bad characters are starting to have redeeming stories told about them (ie. the film Maleficent). 

Color and World Building

Color also plays a big part in world building, as some societies are built directly around color. Let's address Avatar: The Last Airbender. Each of the nations (earth, fire, water, air) have different colors to denote their different kingdoms. Earth Kingdom wears brown, yellow, and green. Water Tribe wears blue, purple, and white. Air Nomads wear orange and yellow. The Fire Nation wears primarily red, brown, and black. They each have their own distinct color, and it works well with what we've learned about what the colors mean. Green/growth and brown/down-to-earth seems very fitting for the Earth Kingdom. Blue/peace, purple/imagination, and white/purity works well for the Water Tribe, while red/anger and black/mystery embodies the Fire Nation. 

The world of Harry Potter does this with the houses as well. Gryffindor is red and gold. Ravenclaw is blue and bronze. Slytherin is green and silver. And Hufflepuff is yellow and black. 

Star Trek also plays around with colors. Now, each ship or generation kind of varies their uniforms, but in general blue = sciences, yellow = command, red = you have a death wish. But in all seriousness, if you look at articles about Star Trek like "The Take" you'll find that every person wore a specific uniform designated to their station. Unfortunately, the red shirts just often went down to the planet and never came back. 

Foreshadowing 

Colors can also be used to foreshadow events, or show a character's progression or regression mentally. The big example I'm going to use is from Season 8 of Game of Thrones. You can skip ahead if you haven't seen the season yet and don't want spoilers. 

***Begin GOT Spoiler****

In the case of Daenerys Targaryen, her color scheme changes drastically along with her mentality. In Episode 1, she wears pure white clothing. She is in the north, with her lover, ready to fight a battle to save the people. She still has her best friend, her mentor, and her two dragons. Her intentions are pure. Between episodes 2-4, her white clothing takes on red lines. They just fought a battle and she watched someone she cared for deeply die before her eyes. Not only that, she starts to realize she doesn't have the support of the people like Jon Snow. Then she loses her best friend and another one of her dragons. Episodes 5 and 6, her clothing shifts to red and black during the burning of King's Landing and her ascension to the throne. In previous seasons, she had mostly worn white, blue, and browns (purity, peace, down-to-earth), and in the end, she goes mad while wearing red (anger) and black (mystery). It was a beautiful, though tragic event, of what was to come. 

***End GOT Spoiler***

Another element of foreshadowing comes, again, from Star Wars. When Anakin first starts his training, he's in the traditional white or brown Jedi garb. But as the story progresses, and he starts to slip towards the dark side, his clothing changes to black. The last time we see him whole, he's fighting in black attire against Obi-Wan in white. After that, he's left in his Darth Vader suit just so he can survive. We watched through color as he slipped away from the light to darkness. 

These are just a few reasons why you might consider using colors in your story. For lack of better words, you paint a broader and more beautiful picture of your world when you add in these elements. From color meanings, to symbolism and foreshadowing, there's so much you can play with.