|Melons and Morning Glories by Raphaelle Peale|
"What's the best time of day to write?" This is one of the first questions I started asking professional writers, when I was a nervous young novice in school.
I never did receive a coherent response to that question, but I feel certain that I know the answer now--There is definitely a right answer, but that answer depends upon your individual circadian rhythm. The best time to write (or paint or do any other creative work) is at the hour when you naturally bloom.
Much has been written lately about larks vs. night owls (or, as I like to call them, morning glories vs. moonflowers). Plenty of articles claim that one type is better, or that the best way to be is right in the middle between the two extremes (what I might call a happy sunflower). Personally, I don't buy that garbage. When we are talking about creativity and productivity in society, it seems obvious that a mix of different types is most beneficial--and interesting. Who wants to be creative just like everyone else?
For the individual, the correct time to be creative is the time when we are most naturally potent. When we look for guidance outside of ourselves at famous figures or role models or cultural stereotypes of creative people, we can lose energy, creative mojo, and precious sleep trying to force our blooms according to someone else's rhythm.
The truth is that successful writers and other artists come in every variety, and the way to maximize our creative potential is to discover our natural bloom cycle and mold the rest of our lives around it.
As children, most of us are morning glories (or utter blooming nonsense before we fall into patterns of sleeping through the night and staying awake all day). As teens and young adults, most of us transform into moonflowers. And somewhere in the early-to-mid-20s, we go our separate ways as our genes determine when our energies want to curl up and rest and when they want to unfurl and release their intoxicating power into the world.
My Story of Becoming a Morning Glory
I don't know if I followed the average sleep/wake pattern as a child. Though my parents kept me and my little brother to a normal schedule of going to bed at sundown and waking in time for school, I remember often having a hard time falling asleep at night and waking in the morning. On weekends and in the summer, I always seemed to be the last one up. Other children had been up and playing for hours before I dragged myself out of my sun-flooded bedroom. On special occasions, when I was allowed to stay up late and experience the songs of night insects and frogs, the flash of fireflies or the sparkle of snowflakes whirling beneath golden streetlamps, I felt intensely, electrically alive.
As a teen, my parents allowed me to stay up later than they did, as long as I was quiet of course, so I spent many evenings reading, studying, surfing online, or giggling into the phone well into the night. In college, with more freedom than ever to set my own schedule, I signed up for only afternoon classes and stayed up each night until about 3:00 a.m.--occasionally finding myself having so much fun that I witnessed the sunrise before I had gone to sleep. And by "so much fun," I don't mean partying hard. I mean having a conversation with another weird, creative intellectual or working on an artistic project in my dorm room or finishing up an interesting assignment. Sure, I went to parties once in a while, but I didn't drink or party as much as my peers. I just enjoyed the velvety, mysterious expanse of the night itself.
In college, I did much of my homework and creative writing in a filthy, shady, open-all-night cafe filled with crazies and bums and drug addicts. (My roommates were rightfully concerned about the time I spent at this place and my nocturnal walks between it and our dorm, but luckily I survived.) Nestled within a cloud of cigarette, cigar, hookah, and pot smoke, serenaded by the ravings of familiar crazy dudes from the neighborhood, and jacked up on midnight espresso, I did my best writing.
My evolution from moonflower to morning glory happened literally overnight, in what felt like a magical transformation. When I was 20 years old, at the beginning of my junior year, I went on a study abroad trip to Rome (coincidentally, at the same time author Elizabeth Gilbert was there writing Eat, Pray, Love, which I only realized a few years ago).
Aside: I had a super, um, different experience than Ms. Gilbert. Read about it here!
It had never occurred to me that I might be a morning person; living in the night had become a deep part of my self-identity. But something very strange happened when I skipped one night and landed in a new groove that felt completely right.
My flight was a red-eye across the Atlantic Ocean. The coach seats were torture-grade uncomfortable, especially for a tall girl, and there was no possibility of sleeping during the 12-hour journey. Mercifully, the night was short as we flew through the sunset and entered a new morning that glowed pink, orange, and gold by the time we stopped over in Amsterdam. Strangely, I felt that childhood jolt of electric excitement about staying up late--except this time I felt it in an early-morning airport, surrounded by tulips and fresh-faced Dutch morning people.
I finally arrived at my Roman apartment in the brilliance of summer midday. In the thrill of our arrival, neither my roommate nor I felt any inclination to take a nap. Instead, we filled up our water bottles with the milk of the local Artesian springs and took an exploratory hike around the city.
By the time we witnessed our first fiery Roman sunset, we both fell into an easy, delicious sleep for the night. And I awoke at the explosive break of day, the heavenly glory of a Roman sunrise flooding the white walls of our bedroom, feeling as alive as a phoenix rising into new life.
From that day, I awoke each morning, like clockwork, at 6:00 sharp, without the aid of an alarm. With few exceptions, for the rest of my time in Rome, I went to sleep shortly after each sunset and rose with the sun. And it felt amazing. I took long walks in the mornings, meandering down the dawn-glowing hillsides and through early-morning markets, before going to my classes. I felt like a new and different species altogether--to this day I don't understand why, but during my time in Rome, I never once got sick--not so much as the sniffles, though everyone around me suffered through multiple bouts of various yuckies--and I never once had a dream I could remember. My days were brilliant, hyper-aware, and my nights were blackouts of total oblivion.
When I returned to the United States in January, I didn't know how to be a morning glory in my home country. Everything I used to like doing for fun--going out to plays, having midnight espressos, drinking in the cemetery with strangers, whatever!--happened after dusk. I tried going back to my old patterns, but it was hard. It no longer felt natural. I chalked it up to getting old and tired--ah, the culture of youth that sets our peak at 21!--and tried to power through life as a moonflower. I passed out in classes and started to tremble with anxiety at sundown each night.
Ironically, my natural-moonflower husband helped me transition back into my early-blooming glory.
Sleeping patterns vary among individuals in prime sleep/wake times but also in sleep duration needs. My husband has much lower sleep needs than I do--he can get by on five hours or less, while nine is optimal for me. Before we got married, my husband took advantage of his superpower to obtain and maintain employment doing manual labor at the local airport before dawn. Although he doesn't need as much sleep as I do, he still needs to go to bed around 8:00 p.m. on work nights.
Also, he gave me a beautiful child, who is the most perfect reason to give up trying to have a night life and take full advantage of my morning glory nature. It's still hard to explain to friends and family over and over that we can't do things in the evenings--not even get together for dinner, unless it's early--but at least I have an understandable excuse with a young child, in addition to DaddyMan's unusual work schedule.
Although becoming a mother helped me find a way back to my morning glory bloom, not all mothers are natural morning glories. Parents, whether you try to grab writing time before your children get up, during afternoon nap, or after they go to sleep should have something to do with your natural bloom-time.
What's Your Story?I think that the reigning stereotype is that moonflowers are the most creative people. While this may be true on a demographic level--and there are advantages to each type--social averages mean nothing to the individual. There are writers of literary genius in every category, including morning glories (more commonly known as "literary larks"), and it does nobody any creative good to try to be someone else. Each one of us, whether a morning glory or a sunflower or a moonflower or something entirely different, stands to benefit from crafting a life that allows us to bloom according to our natural inclination.
Tolstoy Therapy highlights some inspiration for Literary Larks, by a selection of successful morning writers.
Friends, how do you identify? When do you do your best writing?