The napping novelist

I’m a big fan of the afternoon nap, although it’s not something I generally admit. Also, of the late morning nap, and even, on occasion, the lunchtime nap. And just sometimes, the early evening nap. Fact is, I’ve been a closet napper for most of my writing life. And since napping probably has as much to do with how I write as picking up a pen does, in the interest of nappers (and writers) everywhere, and as part of my personal contribution to knowledge about creative work, I’m coming out of the closet. Once I wake up, that is.

I love science most when it agrees with my beliefs, and when it comes to napping, I am well supported. Naps make us smarter and healthier – you can see where I’m going with this. A nap of even a few minutes improves memory, suggesting the act of falling asleep itself does something good to our brains. It takes you to heaven is what is does in my view. A half-hour nap will do more to improve memory, mental acuity and alertness than a semester at uni, not to mention make you feel lovely all over. Pilots on long-haul flights nap nowadays – while a co-pilot flies the plane, I guess. The bottom line? With my capacity for napping, I should have been a pilot.

Seriously, when I’m writing a novel, I find napping the most creatively regenerating thing I can do, better than research or reading, better than walking in the bush or swimming, better than, well, writing. I spend the early days of the process in a fugue state of alternately napping and writing all day. If it didn’t sound so flaky, I’d say I dream a novel into life. It’s actually not a process I subject to careful scrutiny. It works and so I keep doing it.

I was heartened to learn that while a 20-minute nap will boost alertness and concentration, you need at least 45 minutes to enhance creative thinking. With this firmly in mind, I’ve often succumbed to the longer nap. Unfortunately, any longer than 45 minutes puts you into deep or slow-wave sleep which means – unless you keep going for 90 minutes to two hours – you’ll wake sluggish and tired. Slow-wave sleep isn’t all bad though. You just need to stay asleep longer to reap the benefits, which include clearing your mind and regaining lost memories as well as catching up on any sleep deficit, and we’re all in sleep deficit (well, the rest of you are. I sleep all day so I’m not). I have on occasion, I’ll admit, succumbed to the extended nap. Some days it’s tricky to fit any writing into the schedule at all.

A thing I’ve noticed about napping is that sometimes I will go to sleep with a creative problem. I won’t think about the problem but I’ll wake up with the solution. Again, science has shone its kindly light on the benefits of napping. There are certain neural links we only make in sleep. Isn’t that great? It means if I don’t have a nap, I won’t solve the problem. It’s a no brainer. Where’s the doona? And it gets better. Recent research in mice shows that sleep flushes the mousey brain, a little like a toilet, removing all the… things the mice don’t need, their brain waste, if you will. This brain draining, the researchers postulate, may be the reason all creatures need their sleep.

Napping also has a precedent. A nifty piece of historical research analysed diaries and letters and found that in the days before electricity, in many places people favoured two long naps at night rather than the single sleep of eight hours we now tend towards. They rose in the middle and ate, read, worked or even had sex. A 1990s experiment that subjected people to fourteen hours of darkness a day for a month showed that people fell into the old pattern, sleeping four hours, waking for a couple of hours and then sleeping another four hours. The siesta, or afternoon sleep, is another version of two sleep periods, separated by activity. I love science, really.

The take home message in all this? I’ll let you know when I wake up.

Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 23 November 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!