The moon is maybe one sixteenth full—or empty, really, thin as the rim of a shot glass, clear and high in a very black sky. The stars are out in layers, not like the desert or the mountains but unusual for the northeast, millions of distant acquaintances amassedbehind the more familiar constellations; Orion in his swaggery stance, Cassiopeia watching sideways from her chair in the sky.
Not that I am seeing any of that, now. I keep my eyes on the ground. I’m moving fast, and it’s dark, and I don’t want to fall. There’s a hill in front of me: up, and steep. I hear my feet and my breath. They should disrupt the nighttime quiet but instead they amplify it. Up, up, up, up, and then a sharp turn, then rocks and gravel, louder underfoot; then a downhill dip, the black hulks of two familiar trees, a flagstone patio, a door. I stop infront of it, lean against it for a moment, let my breath slow, look up. It is one-fifteen in the morning. I have just come home from a run.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a night owl. As a kid, I read in bed until hours thatwould have horrified my parents, had they known. I can recall staying up until 2 a.m. to finish (of all things) Ballet Shoes—a cliff-hanger, apparently, when you are 8 years old. A few years later, I stayed up past three reading The Mists of Avalon, my usual late-night alertness enhanced, no doubt, by the sex scenes. I pulled my first all-nighter halfwaythrough sixth grade. I was 11.
There was no particular reason for it, that first time. I didn’t have homework, wasn’t behind on any project, wasn’t in the grips of preadolescent angst. I just wasn’t tired. I read for a while, then put U2’s Joshua Tree into a tape deck, turned the volume as lowas possible, and—okay, yes, I realize this is going to sound insane, but I was teaching myself to juggle at the time, and so I did: three and four soft, hacky-sack-like objects, conveniently quiet when I goofed and they hit the ground. The music was quiet, too.It’s a funny thing about music, something I’ve had occasion to observe many timessince then: When you are the only person awake in an otherwise silent house, you canturn the volume so low that it wouldn’t register on a VU meter—so low that it becomesimpossibly, asymptotically close to off—and you will still hear it just fine. I was listeningto “One Tree Hill” for probably the fourth time when I realized that the sky outside mywindow was paling over to day.
Predictably, getting up in the morning—not that morning; every morning—was a misery. By seventh grade I walked to school, and I was never not late, which was unfortunate, because I hate being late. (As an adult, I am scrupulously punctual; but then, I also scrupulously avoid early-morning meetings.) On weekends, liberated, I routinely slept until eleven or noon. My oldest childhood friend, a kind of temporal negative of me, often slept over at my house; without fail, by the time I woke up, she would be dressed,breakfasted, and 140 pages into a book she’d started that morning. This annoyed me. Even more annoying, though, were family vacations, when my parents, sister, and I would all share a hotel room. In the mornings, called upon to rouse myself, I would burrow under the covers and play dead. I can recall my father, who is among the most congenial human beings ever to walk the planet, throwing pillow after pillow at myburied, groaning head.
I should have thrown them back, because sleep patterns are genetic, and my father isto blame for mine. Once, wide awake at 3 a.m., he ambled downstairs and scared thedaylights out of a would-be burglar. He was indulgent about my bedtime infractions,partly because he is indulgent by nature, but also because he’d committed plenty ofhis own. As a teenager, he once stayed up all night, chain-smoking, to finish Heart of Darkness, then moved on without pause to Lord Jim. At least I didn’t smoke. In my own teenage years, I would occasionally look into the living room in the middle of the night, find my father watching TV, and plunk down to join him. I currently have, in my in-box, an e-mail from him time-stamped 1:54 a.m.
Like father, like daughter: For how many generations, I sometimes wonder, has this internal clock been keeping my relatives awake—and why? In his book Internal Time (which I review in this week’s issue of the magazine), German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg advances some speculative but plausible evolutionary explanations for the existence of night owls. Across cultures, early birds get all the credit for hard work—catching worms, etc.—but according to Roenneberg, the real bacon was likely brought home by night owls. Some of our natural prey is nocturnal, and some of it’s just easier to catch after dark. One reason warm-bloodedness was such a triumph of mammalian evolution is that the ability to regulate our body temperature meant we could function at night, when the air gets cooler—and our cold-blooded predators, competitors, and prey get sluggish. Night-owlishness was a further adaptation, a chance mutation that proved useful for feeding the tribe. I sometimes think about this when I find myself staring into the fridge at 2 a.m.
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, illuminatingan 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: Iwould 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 mightimagine, 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 alate 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.
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 3:30a.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 capturesthe 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 beholdcreation—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 themany 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.