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Writing in the Dark

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Then, around one in the morning, something shifts. My brain gets funnier, in both senses, and much more associative, and about a hundred million light-years from sleepy. If the 10 p.m. shift is a trip to the wilderness—quiet, expansive, a solo hike with mountain views—the 1 a.m. shift is Six Flags. I get loopy and voluble, like a kid mid-birthday-party, hopped up on sugar and something like glee. It lasts about two hours, this new drug—crack to the quieter shift’s Ritalin—and then it dips, just slightly, sometime after 3 a.m., and that’s the Rubicon. If I put my work away and go to bed, I will fall asleep almost instantly, and can be up and functional again at nine. If, instead, I cross the 3:30 a.m. threshold, I will write all night. Eventually I will start to hear birds and the whistle of trains coming down from the north. The sun will fill my bedroom, and I will close my laptop and cover my eyes, and sleep maybe two hours, from six to eight or eight to ten—I have lost, alas, my childhood ability to sleep till noon—or sometimes not sleep at all. Either way, I will be awake the rest of the day, and utterly destroyed.

And yet—further craziness—I even like that soupy, half-speed, sleep-deprived next day; at least, somewhat, sometimes. If you can hold it, as one holds liquor, exhaustion is its own kind of drug. I often go for a run after pulling an all-nighter, partly because I know it will boost my flagging energy, but also because it sometimes provokes a kind of fugue state, as saturating and otherworldly as a dream. On one such run last month, I snapped back into full awareness at a familiar intersection, fully six miles down the road from the last place I could recall. Runners, who among you wouldn’t kill for that? Later, back at home stretching, I noticed that my legs felt unusually hot; then, quite suddenly, they seemed to sink several inches into the floor. Some people pay good money for such experiences.

But yes, I know, I know: It’s sick. It’s hell on your social life, bad for your body, contraindicated by every piece of emotional and physical health advice you’ll ever see. I sometimes think I would give anything to be a morning person—one of those writers who wakes naturally at six, does an honest day’s work by noon, and is free to socialize all evening. As such a person, I could, for once, see the sun rise from the right side of the day. I could enjoy the moral kudos showered on the ostensibly hardworking and virtuous lark and withheld, across all cultures, from my own kind. Roenneberg captures the common sentiment thusly: “Owls are at best, extroverted artists and intellectuals, or at worst, people who engage in dark arts and exert evil powers.”

Well, mea sorta culpa. The truth is, I love the dark arts, or anyway, the arts in the dark. I love the quiet and the solitude; love, especially, nighttime’s strange combination of adventure and calm. Once an hour or so I’ll step outside to look at the stars, to let them turn my mind like a kaleidoscope, like a key in the tumblers of a lock. It makes me elated; it makes me, at the same time, somber. The seventeenth-century Anglican minister Anthony Horneck put it well: “Now is the soul nimbler, subtler, quicker, fitter to behold things sublime and great.” He was speaking of midnight prayers, but tell me what writer doesn’t crave exactly that: to be nimbler, subtler, quicker, fitter to behold creation—fitter to create.

I’m with the minister: All that is better done at night. And I will muster for this claim, if not exactly empirical evidence, then at least a relevant bit of history. Of the many radical rearrangements of knowledge brought about by the Copernican revolution, my favorite is one that most people today take for granted but that, back then, blew everybody’s minds. It is this: The universe is dark. Before Copernicus, the cosmos was presumed to be awash in infinite, celestial light. Look at the brilliant blues on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Renaissance painting lagged behind Renaissance astronomy), or read Dante, who declared that beyond the spheres of the planets lay the “Luminous Heaven.”

With the shattering of geocentrism came the realization that we do not look through night’s darkness into infinite day, but through daylight into infinite darkness. Understood this way, it is at night, not by day, that we most truly see the world as it is. We humans have drawn an unlikely hand: We are creatures with photosensitive eyes, on a planet that can sustain life, in rotation around a dazzling sun. Outside our own wildly improbable coordinates, the rest, to paraphrase Hamlet, is darkness.

***

I do not usually run at night, if you’ve been wondering this whole time. Two, three, maybe four times a year, max, the mood will strike me. I would do it more often—I deeply love it—but I am low-level afraid of it, although as much because I worry about turning an ankle as for the reasons you’re probably thinking.

Still, I’m not insane, and I am a member of the human species—specifically and saliently a woman. I understand loud and clear both the existential and practical risks of making one’s home in the night. But I do it anyway: because I must, as Roenneberg and genetics would tell me, but also because of its rewards. Running, you may have noticed, is a terrestrial activity, pretty much one hundred percent about gravity. And yet, when I run at night—or walk at night, or write at night, or do almost anything at night—I sometimes seem to slip its bounds. In darkness I am freer, less weighted down, my perspective wholly altered: a kind of noctonaut. I wouldn’t trade my schedule for the universe. Or rather, I have traded my schedule for the universe. You early birds can keep your worms.


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