I’m writing this blog entry while you sleep. I wrote all my blog entries while you slept: I can say that with confidence because I’ve written them all in the depths of the night. The past few months I have been suffering from insomnia; sleeping sometimes four hours, often quite a bit less. It’s sometimes a problem during the day. But the silver lining is that it has given me the opportunity to write.
What I have found is that the hours before my family awake, the hours before my work friends get to their desks – the quiet hours, the empty hours – are exquisitely lonely and perfectly full of potential. There is no doubt that I have used them as a blank page on which to write new versions of myself and my ideas. In the silence, there is a chance to hear my own thoughts.
I’ve been given a lot of advice on how to cure insomnia over the past few weeks but the thing I’ve been told again and again is that I shouldn’t be on screens before bed, I shouldn’t take my ipad and phone to the bedroom, I shouldn’t be on email after a certain time of night. Any of you who knows me knows I’m addicted to communication so this has been hard advice to take. I don’t think I’m any different from most of us in publishing; I’ve written before that our industry is all about conversation. Knowing when to stop comes next.
The usual day is all noise: a fast flowing river of information and discussion. Around 6.30am, the first emails start to trickle into my Inbox. By 9am, there will have been a steady flow. At 10am, a flooding is triggered. And so the river swells – me feeding it constantly with replies, enquiries, provocations, questions – until we’re all white water rafting and the river is a roar. It can be an incredibly creative environment – for collaboration, for advice, for ideas. Those publishers currently transitioning into an open plan work environment are all too familiar with the arguments in favour of conversation at the desk.
Yes, we can find inspiration in company. But when we commit ourselves to creating something, we inevitably start at some point with nothing (new notebook, blank canvas, silence, empty room). It’s at that point of nothingness that we can slowly remember the things we didn’t say. The silent time at the day’s end is a chance to ask the questions we were afraid to ask. When we are alone we can usher in the memories we don’t talk about. We can embrace the ideas which seem too audacious or difficult for others to understand. The bitten tongue and the white lie of the daytime can be investigated. Why didn’t we speak? Or: what did we really mean when we spoke? The dark of the night isn’t empty: it’s pregnant with all of our yesterdays and thoughts of all our tomorrows.
In quiet solitude, our imaginations creep in to keep us company. Once the day’s story is at its end, it’s time for us to write new versions of the world in dreams, sleeping or waking. We can pick and choose from life’s familiar faces and places and find new narratives which please us. We can control this story: it’s ours, because there is nobody else beside us to comment or query or contribute. We, alone in the dark, all become authors.
It’s difficult for my clients to find moments of silence these days. There is no need for authors to ever be alone, with friends and fans and peers to engage with on Twitter and in other digital realms. Letters from their publishers don’t drop into the letterbox a couple of times a week these days; emails arrive hourly. It takes a strong will to switch off social media, to turn off the conversation, and just commit to writing something wonderful.
Great writers know that books need both conversation and silence: the best authors communicate to their readers through both the words on the page and the spaces they leave between the lines. They let the reader conquer those blank spaces: become joint creators, dive into the story and add in their own versions of who the hero is, what the ending should be, what the landscape looks like. Reading between the lines is one of the most creative things we can do. Sitting quietly in the gap between days is like thinking between the lines: writing into the silence.
When I start to sleep again, I’ll work harder to make quiet times in daylight hours. When I was travelling recently, I had a gorgeous date alone with a fresh lemonade, looking out from a high window, watching snow fall for half an hour. It was a perfectly calm and empty moment, full of busy potential.
Whether reading or writing, let’s all make the most of the empty places and blank spaces life offers us. Let’s fill the quiet times with bigger, brighter versions of ourselves. Let’s dam the river of correspondence and sit and consider a while, alone and content.