The Insomniac’s Machine

2 March 2018

Someone once told me this great idea. If you were stuck on a writing problem, they said, all you had to do was pose it to your subconscious before you went to sleep, and by morning you would wake up and the problem would be solved. Your subconscious mind would work all night on the errant plot point, the character flaw that refused to focus, or the title that remained clotted with too many words. You’d throw back the sheets in the morning, spring from bed, problem solved. 

It would be a great idea, but for its own flaw. It’s actually a terrible idea. When I pose a problem to myself before going to sleep I stay up all night thinking about it. Sometimes it does get resolved, but by the time that happens, I’m too tired to get out of bed. 

I have long since stopped trying to resolve plot points or titles subconsciously, but the habit of putting my sleep-mind to work at problem-solving remains. I play out tennis games before I go to sleep, twitching with every remembered shot. I wrangle with scheduling snafus, software issues, and clients. I allow myself just twenty minutes to consider the problem, and they betray me by setting the mind in motion past dawn.

I’m impressed with the power of the subconscious, and even more impressed with seeing the value of saving sleep time for sleeping. These discs of consciousness, one shiny, the other dark, the surface of the lake and its swirling underworld, complement each other.  You can’t have one without the other, any more than you can stay up all night and expect to function the next day unless you are twenty-one and invincible.  (O those days.)

As Pagan Kennedy wrote not long ago in The New York Times, though millions of us struggle with chronic insomnia, we’re not a unified army fighting the same foe. Every one of us is grappling with a different mix of mental and physical dysfunctions.”

There is nothing worse than thrashing in bed to play a game to a better outcome or watching car headlamps drive to make senseless snakes on the ceiling, or waiting as the twin cinemas behind your eyelids play out their pink, flickering show.

I am subject to insomnia, but I have learned to respect the transition time that I need to slip beneath the surface of the lake. Some people, I include my wife, and the child who lives with us, will slip beneath the surface soundlessly. In the single-digit hours, I step into their cool rooms to imagine lake plants undulating carefully on the bottom so as not to wake them. The peace is louder than the blood in my ears.

No matter what I do, it will take me a large chunk of the clock to untangle the knitting of the day. I am still tempted to post a problem and retrieve the answer in the morning, but now the price to pay is too steep. I have my own daylight puzzle pieces to snap into place, my personal plot points to resolve. Characters I am building, fictions I must glue together, the story roads needing to be cleared, all will have to wait until morning. I need a good night’s sleep so that I can see those problems in the light.

Thanks for reading,


(c) Lee Schneider 2023. Take care of each other. Subscribe.