Advice on insomnia

Can you convert sleeplessness into a creative asset?

Welcome to my monthly advice column. Previously: Advice on art paralysis with guest columnist Beth Pickens. Note: I’m taking next Monday (Memorial Day) off, returning to your inboxes June 7.

Dear Subtle Maneuvers,

Reading your books, it seems evident that many creatives suffer from insomnia, as have I for many years. I do CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] for it, which is effective but no quick fix. The dilemma, I find, is how to keep this ongoing issue in perspective, for sometimes sleepless nights provoke great insight, other times just a headache. I am curious how others deal with it, both physically and psychologically. —Lois in Boston

Dear Lois,

Sorry to hear about your sleepless nights! At least you’re in excellent company—as you say, so many writers and artists through the ages have suffered from insomnia, and not a few of them have said that they’ve been able to put that time to good use. My favorite quote on this subject comes from the novelist Marilynne Robinson, who told The Paris Review:

I have benevolent insomnia. I wake up, and my mind is preternaturally clear. The world is quiet. I can read or write. It seems like stolen time. It seems like I have a twenty-eight-hour day.

That sounds . . . kind of wonderful? The psychologist B. F. Skinner was a similar case. He wrote in a 1963 journal entry:

I usually wake up for an hour or so during the night. I have a clip-board, paper pad and pencil (with a small flashlight attached to the board) for making notes at night. I am not an insomniac. I enjoy that nightly hour and make good use of it.

Skinner says this nightly hour of wakefulness does not make him an insomniac, and that’s probably right. A better example may be the artist Louise Bourgeois, who said in 1993: “My life has been regulated by insomnia. It’s something that I have never been able to understand, but I accept it.” Bourgeois, too, learned to use her sleepless hours productively, propped up in bed with her “drawing diary,” listening to music or the hum of traffic on the streets. One series of these nighttime works, created between November 1994 and June 1995, was later published as The Insomnia Drawings. In an introduction to the book, the critic Elisabeth Bronfen writes:

[Bourgeois] presents herself as a lady-in-waiting, silent and patient, with the night promising to save her from the array of desires such as love, faith, faithlessness, tenacity, ambition, while her sleeplessness prevents any salvation from her psychic distress. . . . Because her insomnia brings states of ambivalence to the fore, she keeps returning to the question of being suspended between two emotions—between plentitude and lack, proximity and absence, agreement and contradiction.

I like that idea of being a “lady in waiting,” suspended between various emotional states—with “ambivalence to the fore”! Maybe that’s one way to think of your own sleepless nights?

In an earlier installment of this advice column, I quoted the following line from Susan Sontag’s journals: “Writing means converting one’s liabilities (limitations) into advantages.” I love that, and I don’t think it applies just to writing—I think it’s a useful way to think about our daily 24-hour cycle and how we try to make use of it. This is the reason I continue to be interested in reading about people’s daily routines: Often, you can see how they tried to take a limitation and convert it into an advantage—like turning chronic sleeplessness into a zone for contemplation, reflection, reading, writing, drawing, whatever.

Writing the above paragraphs, however, I can feel myself straining to create meaning for you, to recast your predicament as some kind of a gift. Like: “Just use your sleepless nights to read and write and draw!” I don’t mean to be so facile about it; I realize that insomnia also just sucks, and there may be plenty of times that there is no meaning to be extracted from it. As you say, it’s not always an insightful experience; sometimes it’s nothing more than a headache. Unfortunately, not all suffering is deep or meaningful or capable of being transformed into art. (I’m reminded of a line from Emerson’s “Experience”: “The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.”)

In acknowledgment of that, I’ll leave you with a series of quotes from Franz Kafka, patron saint of this newsletter, who endured frequent bouts of insomnia. He generally did his writing (letters and fiction) late at night, before bed, and then once in bed he often found himself unable to sleep. (“Thus the night consists of two parts: one wakeful, the other sleepless,” he wrote in a 1912 letter.) Though he sometimes exulted in his late-night writing sessions, he found the insomnia a miserable, infuriating drain on his patience, energy, and optimism. For instance, here he is writing from a work trip in 1913:

Impossible to keep a diary at the moment. . . . Insomnia, insomnia! First time in this condition while traveling. At night cold compresses around my head, but still toss about in vain, wishing I were lying several storeys down in the ground. I refuse invitations whenever possible, but still meet a tremendous number of people and sit at meals like a ghost.

I found the above passage in Kafka’s Letters to Felice, which is full of similar laments. Here’s a few more examples:

I am permanently tired, my craving for sleep goes around and around in my head. (December 1912)

Only in sleep is one among benevolent spirits; too much wakefulness plagues you to death. (February 1913)

How little sleep I have had again this week! Much of my neurasthenia and much of my gray hair are due to too little sleep. (March 1913)

I am desperate, like a caged rat, insomnia and headaches tearing at me; how I get through the days is quite beyond description. (March 1916)

I offer this litany because I know that when I’m suffering from a particularly intractable problem, it gives me comfort to read about someone else who went through the same thing and persevered (even if just barely). So I hope you find some solace in Kafka’s complaints, and maybe even some humor too. And I hope that, whatever amount of sleeplessness you must endure going forward, it is closer to Marilynne Robinson’s “benevolent insomnia” and not the desperate, caged-rat vibes of poor, bleary-eyed Kafka.


Readers, do you have your own advice for Lois about how to put her insomnia in perspective? By all means, please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Leave a comment

Struggling with your own creative dilemma? Email it to (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

Email me

(Read my past advice here.)


Looking for more about Bourgeois’s life and work, I ran across a questionnaire she answered in 1971, consisting of 61 questions submitted by a Yale University student with answers written by the artist. (The whole thing appears in the book Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, 1923–1997.) I especially love this portion of the Q&A:

51. How do you spend your days?

I work like a bee and feel that I accomplish little.

52. How much time do you spend on housekeeping?

About one-third of my time.

53. How much time do you spend on child care?

Now, none.

54. How much time do you spend in relaxation?

For me, relaxation is not separate from the rest of my life. I find most relaxation in talking and spending time with certain persons.

55. Is your painting world separate from your living world?

My sculpting world and my living world are one.

56. How do you measure personal success in art?

Personal success in art is measured by how nearly you have arrived at what you want to say in your work.

57. Do you feel sexual satisfaction through your work?


Thanks for reading! This newsletter is free, but if you’re feeling generous you can support my work by ordering my Daily Rituals books from Bookshop or (if you must) Amazon.