Some of my male friends and I have a standing joke. It goes like this:
“I was up last night at 4 A.M., wandering around, bored out of my skull.”
“You should have just called any of the rest of us. We were all up, too.”
It seems to be a malady/affliction of middle aged men, neither understood nor shared by our happily sleeping wives. I call us the 4 o’clock zombies.
It’s easy to say that we’re the victims of too much caffeine, too much stress, bad diets or bad living. And I’m sure there’s some truth to those diagnoses. But there’s a strangely positive side to these nocturnal wanderings, and it has to do with creativity and problem-solving.
If I’ve had enough sleep — and that means enough to allow me to be fully awake and alert –the early dawn is the most prolific and creative time for me. It’s as if all the dross and complexity of the previous day has disappeared and left me with a wonderfully clear mind. I can entertain a thought in delicious isolation from all other thoughts; address an issue with a singularity of focus that won’t be there later in the day.
This is no great revelation. One of the first lessons in Creativity 101 says to put a problem in your mind and sleep on it, and the solution will often emerge upon waking. But I’m talking about more than problem solving. I’m talking about a fluidity of perception, an openness to the rhythms of language, an ability to catch and ride a thought like a surfer catches a wave.
Thirty years ago, when I was struggling to find some form for my life, I was living alone in a cabin in Oregon, awash in an ocean of angst. I had dreams, but they were so grand that I couldn’t even wrestle them into shape. I remember writing a frenzied note in a journal that said nothing more than “God. Work. Women.” And that was about the best I could do to put form to my struggles and dreams. It wasn’t a road map, but it surely defined the universe through which I was traveling.
But what was so fascinating about this period of inner sturm und drang was the realization that if I went two or three days without talking to anyone — not a difficult task when you’re living alone, without a phone, in a cabin deep in the Oregon woods — I could pick up a book, read for awhile, and begin to write in exactly the cadences and thought structures of the person I was reading. It was both frightening and exhilarating — a kind of literary shamanism that contained an awesome capacity to transform. For by writing in the manner of someone else — with the same rhythms and distances between thoughts — I began to see the world as they saw it. Their language was an externalization of their perception, and by inhabiting their language I was inhabiting their perception. This was not the same as the inhabitation that comes from reading. That kind of transformation of consciousness allows you to see the world that the writer creates through the eyes that the writer offers you. But it is limited to the world inside the book. What I am refering to is a change in perception that extends to your understanding of everything you see and do in the course of your day. It is a transubtantiation of perception, a kind of temporary metanoia, where you become a different person with different eyes, a different intellect, and a different heart. And it only comes from taking on the style of someone else in the actual act of creation.
Of course, with the predictably poor judgment of a young man steeped too deeply in the Great Books and college humanities courses, I gave myself over to Faulkner, Herman Hesse, and a host of other characters who had maturity and insight, not to mention skills of language, that I was far too embryonic to handle or fully understand. I tied myself in creative knots by trying to emulate their styles, thus joining, at least for the moment, the legions of bad Faulkners and Hesses who wander the halls of college literature departments and creative writing programs. But, in the long run, that wasn’t important. What was inportant was that I was gaining a glimmer of their understanding of the world around them, because I was processing my own world through a kind of linguistic/perceptual grid that was born of the world they showed me through their thought and language.
My current four A.M. fluidity of thought is a variation on this same theme — perhaps not as intense, perhaps not as all consuming. After all, there are wives and kids and dogs and cats who will emerge soon enough to break me from any reverie. Louise would not be impressed to find herself sharing her morning coffee with someone who spoke in four page long sentences
But I do remember the transformative power of that state of perceptual and creative openness, and feel in these four A.M. awakenings an echo of that same power. What I do now is use this time to pick up what I have written the night before to see if I can enter into it with the same degree of belief that I possessed when I was doing the writing. If I find myself inside the writing, I trust it and continue from where I left off. If I find myself disengaged, or feel my mind wandering, I can assume that the writing should be crumpled and tossed. This is as close to an absolute assessment of the quality of my work as I am able to get. My four A.M. mind does not lie to me.
I cherish the times when I open my eyes and see sunlight outside the window. It means I slept through the entire night, and, at least for a day, can count myself among the normal people of the world. But when I get the four A.M. zombie call, I no longer try to fight it. I get up and fall in line. It’s not very romantic, and not very poetic, but that four o’clock zombie call is the closest thing to the voice of the muse that I’m likely to hear. The smartest thing I’ve ever done as a writer is to learn not to fight it, but to listen.