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Writing in the Dark

There is another potential evolutionary advantage to night owls: In every culture and era, someone has had to stand guard after dark. That tradition extends from our earliest ancestors tending their fires to the night-shift nurses, firefighters, and police officers of today. I suppose it extends to my father with that burglar as well, and even to my father and me, side by side in our living room, watching reruns at 3 a.m. The intent is attenuated, but the impulse remains. Staying up at night is, among other things, an act of communitarianism; an act of love.


But really, over the years, I’ve stayed up all night for many reasons. I once abandoned a tent in torrential rains on the southwestern tip of Costa Rica, took refuge under a makeshift shelter, and stayed up till dawn to watch the storm. I’ve committed myself to the lunacy of all-night relay races, wherein you stay awake for 24 hours alternately running at top speed and cramping up in a van with a half-dozen other sweaty, sleep-deprived jocks. A friend and I once waxed so animated for so long in an all-night diner that the waiter asked—not rhetorically; greedily—what we were on. (Milkshakes.) More routinely, I stay up for the obvious suspects: good novels, good dance parties, insomnia, sex.

Mostly, though, I stay up to write. I started doing so in earnest in college, when almost everyone stays up to write—to the dismay of the remaining few, a.k.a. the roommates. Half my memories of those years are bathed in the blue glow of a computer, illuminating an otherwise dark room. (Is it me, or did computers glow more bluely back then? I’m writing this paragraph at two-thirty in the morning, in the dark, on the great-great-etc.-grandchild of my college Macintosh. Its light is as silver as its casement.) I believe I was supposed to outgrow that habit. Instead, I grew into it. Left to my own devices, I write best from ten at night to 4 a.m.

That is not an easy schedule to live with, and so—as I describe in my Roenneberg review—I once tried to train myself into a nine-to-five workday. This was a few years back; I had just signed a book contract, and it dawned on me that, after years of desultory scribbling interrupted every several weeks by manic deadline binging, I was now going to have to write every day—which, if I kept up my usual habits, actually meant every night. Even I thought that seemed like a terrible idea. Thus began the great experiment: I would damn well do my job during the day like a normal human being. What I actually did during the day was stare out the window—diligently, for eight hours, like a ranger in a fire tower or a sailor’s wife watching the sea. Finally, well after dark, I really would spot a spark and get down to work. After six months of this insanity, I came to my senses and went back to writing at night.

There is a word for that, etymologically if not literally: the wonderfully lascivious-sounding lucubrate. It actually means to write in an overly academic fashion, but it comes from the practice of writing at night by candle or lantern. There are, as you might imagine, a lot of lucubrators out there. Proust and Joyce were both self-proclaimed night owls. So was Shelley; so, one assumes, was any self-respecting Romantic. George Sand claimed to routinely start writing at midnight. Edna St. Vincent Millay must have been a late type, with her burning candle and her wonderful “Recuerdo”—surely the best poem ever written about staying up all night on Staten Island. I sometimes make a game of guessing other writers’ hours. Gerard Manley Hopkins: night owl, for sure. Robert Frost: lark, with occasional spells of insomnia. Jonathan Franzen strikes me as a morning bird (and no doubt he knows precisely which species).

As for my own schedule, best to call it like it is: crazy. Those who have shared my bed—when I am in it to share it, anyway—have observed my nighttime habits with reactions varying from indulgence to incredulity. (Almost all of them have been stellar sleepers: not something I actively look for in a partner, but, given my lifestyle, terrifically convenient.) It starts, as I said, around 10 p.m., when something ticks over in my mind, as if someone had walked into a shuttered cabin and flipped all the switches in the fuse box to “on.” For the first time all day, I get interested in writing. As a corollary, I get a lot less interested in everything else. My normal indiscipline, the ADHD-ish inability to keep my head inside my work, finally drops away. For the next few hours, I write steadily, cleanly. If my body is producing a drug during that time, it is a natural methylphenidate—a dose of pure focus, side-effect-free and sweet.