Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Mind, intractable thing

The Mind, intractable thing

even with its own axe to grind, sometimes

helps others. Why can't it help me?

-Marianne Moore

That I suffer from periodic bouts of insomnia is well known to family & friends. It’s the result of bad sleeping habits, an irregular schedule, stress and an overactive mind that takes a while to shut down all its spinning wheels.

Over the years, I’ve developed some effective tactics against insomnia that don’t involve sedatives. Having a firm, comfortable mattress in a cool, dark bedroom. No caffeine after 4 p.m. Nothing to eat after 8 p.m. No excitable television (e.g. news, action movies, horror movies, etc.) before bed. No running mentally through the next day’s events, “to do” lists or preparation steps. A little quiet time before bed. Creative visualization when the mind is running wild.

Sometimes I use melatonin, which helps shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and deepen the sleep I get (no matter how small) but which gives me odd dreams.

But at some point of tossing and turning, I give up, get up and stop fighting war against IT. I resort to reading from few books that reliably relax me. Not that they are boring, soporific books, it’s just that, for what ever quality they possess, they drain away the insomnia.

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton. I have a small Modern Library edition from the 1940s I keep near the bed. The descriptive prose and the involved plot, made familiar by repeated viewings of the Scorese film and rereads of the book itself, are so comfortingly evocative of 1880s New York society that it’s like falling into a John Singer Sargent painting.

I also love slipping into any of the many collections I have of Guy de Maupassant’s Short Stories, the master of the short story set during the Franco-Prussian War. Although some of his stories have a twist or a barb at the end, it’s his unrushed telling of them that I like.

Collected Short Stories of Eudora Welty. I usually go for the less showy authors after midnight, like Welty or any other of the New Yorker short story school, like William Maxwell, John Cheever, etc.

Any work by Australian writer, Peter Carey. Carey, who won the Booker Prize for Oscar & Lucinda, writes with this intelligent, precise prose that it’s easy to get lost in for a few hours.

Sometimes I’ll pick up one of my favorite children’s novels, like The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis, or The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, or Padraic Colum’s telling of the Norse myths, Nordic Gods and Heroes, complete with art nouveau illustrations.

Then there is the anthology The Literary Insomniac, edited by Elyse Cheney and Wendy Hubbert which is chock-a-block with tales of sleeplessness by famous writers. My favorite entry is "Waking Up" by E. Annie Proulx, who, when she gets up in the middle of the night, does literary research, reads her weeks old recently delivered New York Times or clog dances (she lives alone).

If I’m desperate, there’s the various technical reading I have. The manuals for my Mac, for Office 2008, for my camera, for my phone. Some pedestrian nonfiction on a subject I like. Grammarians. Trivia and fact books. Books to learn a foreign language.

And if those fail, I get up at 2:35 a.m. and write.