This was around the time when I can recall my parents tucking me in and then edging out of my room with, ‘I’ll just leave the door open a bit, so it won’t be dark.’ This meant that I suffered from night light envy. Other kids had night lights that glowed fondly, or revolved endearing pictures round their bedroom walls, that played tunes, even. I had the door open a bit – which, very obviously, was going to let the monsters in – and also provide just enough illumination for me to be stricken by the sight of them as they pounced. I’ve slept with my head underneath the covers ever since. Sheets are impervious to monsters, everybody knows that.
By the time I went to school, my twin causes of sleeplessness: over-excitement and monsters: were already well-established. I was a pupil in the same institution for thirteen years – primary, junior, secondary – and until I became an occasionally carefree senior my education seemed based around a core curriculum of shouting. The primary school shouting was especially intense. To be sure, I was usually much too spineless and translucent to be shouted at myself, but there were always the wholesale excoriations of our class as a nest of imbeciles and ne’er-do-wells to be endured and I never did know when some unforeseen regulation might not be personally transgressed, or my inability to handle sums or swimming or shoelaces might become finally intolerable. Sunday nights – already full of the chill and flinching that were a natural part of Monday morning – became ill-fitting and pushed me into a habit of wakefulness. When I finally did drift off, I would dream of uncompleted homework and werewolves and shame.
But the stronger push was always from varieties of elation. I could read before I went to school and – as soon as narratives didn’t simply involve the variously hapless animals of Blackberry Farm – I would be found and held by book after book. I wouldn’t be able to stop reading – all comfortable and uninterrupted and what could be wrong about staying in this or that beautiful world until three in the morning? I knew that I’d wake up tired, I knew that I’d feel queasy if I had to run about in gym or if – since my school was obsessed with the moral and physical benefits of Scottish country dancing – I were required to disport myself through a gauntlet of dashing white sergeants and reels – and shouting – but I’d also worked out that the world was full of books, that centuries and continents of books were heaped around me – enticing and funny and scary and hypnotizing and overwhelming books and how could I possibly read them all – never mind the new books mushrooming up on every side – if I didn’t keep putting in the hours?
And more overwhelming still was the unmistakeable drive towards writing. It wasn’t at all that I believed I could do better than any of the authors by whom I was surrounded, it was only that writing my own words was the most overwhelming experience of all. Given the horrible standard of my early scribbling – ramblings through a pseudo-Celtic mythical kingdom, mildly satirical songs for the school magazine, years of utterly inexcusable poetry – I can be entirely certain that no one else would have been overwhelmed by anything other than nausea in its clumsy, purple, self-important presence. But it made me elated and, after dinner and schoolwork and dog-walking and the rest, even if I’d put the light out and laid myself down for definite rest, little ideas and scraps and nonsenses would tickle in and start to shake me. They would make the nights too bright to resist. I remember once, long after school and university, being in possession of my first laptop – I’d pottered out to the kitchen and left it by itself in a darkening room and when I walked back in with a coffee, it was there and shining – this word-holding thing just quietly glowing like a window into somewhere else and better and more wonderful and I remember thinking, ‘Yes, that’s how a good page would look if you could really see it, that’s how it always did look in my head.’ It’s a light that I hope will always wake me.
But, of course, not being a creature of moderation, as soon as I was able to earn my living by writing and nothing but, I and my ergonomically disastrous laptops – I burned through one every couple of years – would work too hard and too long and too late into the lovely and undisturbed nights – finally being paid to do what grown-ups had told me not to. So I got ill. My spine – like every other human’s – is still mainly designed for activity, hunter-gathering, swinging in trees. It grew tired of unnatural compressions, poor posture, self-employed stress and carrying the staring weight of the brain to which I had retreated. I developed a herniated disk. Six months of misdiagnosis and increasingly desperate alternative therapies only harmed me further. Finally, an unwise business trip to London meant I folded up in my publisher’s offices and was shipped to an A&E – as it happened, on my birthday. After an afternoon of ‘If you’ll just hold still . . . oh, and happy birthday . . . press the button if you feel claustrophobic . . . and I see from the form it’s your birthday’ I was X-rayed and MRI-ed and diagnosed with both the dodgy disk and muscle wasting. I emerged with one week’s pain relief, a neck collar and the temporary ability to flag down cabs no matter what.
Immobility and muscle-wasting and pain, pain and immobility and more muscle-wasting – I spent a decade in that loop. Waiting lists, physio, a diminishing income. The first time my range of movement was assessed I wanted to cry – I could barely lift my arms. I was wearing slip-on shoes, buying my groceries one tin at a time. And there was no sleep. I would pass the nights watching Sci-Fi and stand-up comedy. There was no light left in the darkness, only the thought that going to bed exhausted me, that this was my life now, that kissing hurt. And I was angry – I’d given my life to a vocation and been rewarded with this – a pain which made even typing almost intolerable.
And I hope I will never forget that slowly, slowly friends and strangers suggested remedies and tiny advances were made and that gently the pain of unaccustomed exercise could replace the pain of being me and the fear of getting worse again, being knocked back into more days of lying down. I was offered places to stay and recuperate, advice, concern – the world was bleak but also generous. And I did recover. A few years ago I could be in New York and arrange to meet a friend across on the other side of Central Park and I could amble over in twenty minutes and then have to waste time in coffee shops. I’d planned that my journey would take an hour – when I’d last been there, it had.
Naturally, I promised myself that I would be sensible thereafter and never overdo things again. I would take breaks and holidays. I bought a special chair to support me, I practised Tai Chi almost every day, I took vitamins and went for long walks, lots of long, long walks. I tried to remember to be grateful for mobility, for the mercy and simplicity of comfort, and to make up for being antisocial and bad-tempered on so many, many occasions when the pain was too bad and too boring to mention.
But I’m me – I love what I do, I love to sit up late in my wonderful chair and drink too much caffeine and make something mildly dramatic out of endless typing – the all-night sessions, the two- and three-day sessions, only interrupted by baths and black and white movies. It now seems traditional that I’ll finish my novels in an all-out dash, running just ahead of them and hoping I won’t fall. I spent last year bundled up in a New England barn conversion, supplied with Diet Coke and Jimi Hendrix, grinding the hours away between summer storms that whitened the whole sky, that flashed me into somewhere else, drenched me in warm rain when I stood out on the deck. I write, God help me, very much according to the model set out by Honore de Balzac – a man who habitually woke at midnight, who lived through love letters rather than love, who killed himself with black coffee and overwork.
Which means that, as I write this, I am recovering – I hope – from months of viral labyrinthitis. It’s a condition which produces a kind of profound seasickness and anxiety, which leaves you clinging to your spinning and ducking bed while savage possibilities rage over you, every thought you shouldn’t have: loss and permanent ill-health and hurts to those you love. For the last few months sleep has been either unobtainable, or a long, hot succession of nightmares, often with the illusion of having woken, but being paralyzed while yet more fears unfold. And it’s my own fault, entirely. In the last ten years I’ve taken precisely two holidays – during one of which I had to work. I should know better. I should do better. I have to do better.
I write at night, because it’s the proper time for dreaming – emails and essays during the day, journalism, correspondence, payment of bills – but I wait for the sun to weaken and set before I can find, as old William says, that ‘. . . imagination bodies forth the shapes of things unknown and gives to them a local habitation and a name.’ Unfortunate when the shapes are monsters, their names familiar – ‘What if I don’t get better? What if I fall even further behind? What if the work is failing and I can’t see it? What if he doesn’t love me in any way? What if my life won’t work? What if he’s gone for good? What if, as usual, the little joys are wasted and go wrong?’ Everyone has their 3 a.m. tribunal of mistakes made and damages received and threats that are more or less credible, but all insist on being heard. It’s perhaps why, when we care for each other, we so often ask, ‘How did you sleep?’ We know what a terrible place the edge of sleep can be. It is perhaps one of the quieter reasons for making love, or rather for being each other’s companions in our beds – we try to be present when the people we need most have to drop into the other little death and we like to feel them there for us when we surface badly, when we are afraid and pulling the sheet up over our faces will make no difference, will not save us.
And we wish each other ‘Sweet dreams.’ Of course we do. And, sometimes stupidly and sometimes sensibly, I will spend my professional life and night after night attempting to build dreams for other people and for myself, trying to sing and elongate the day. Trying to make the words that shine, the way so many other people’s words have always done for me.
This was an original commission for BBC Radio 3’s The Essay, broadcast on 5th October 2011 as part of a series on sleeplessness.
Photo by Random Letters