When are you most creative? Or, should I put it more profoundly: When are you most yourself? In the early hours of the day, before most others have awakened, or after midnight, when most have gone on to the rest of their labors? Anne Fadiman, in At Large and At Small, essays into a meandering set of thoughts about being a night owl.
I defend her before I reveal my preferences. “No one faults,” she observes about the natural world as she sets us up for defending her custom, “the bandicoot for prowling after dusk; no one chides the night-flying cecropia moth for its decadence; no one calls the whippoorwill a lazy slugabed for sleeping by day and singing by night — but people who were born to follow similar rhythms are viewed by the other nine tenths of the population as a tad threadbare in the moral fiber department” (63). I would add to her list one of my favorite childhood memories in Freeport, IL: the nighthawks circling for bugs and other flying objects. They were nocturnal birds and evoke for me a good memory that my day was about spent.
“The child who reads at night is likely to become the adult who writes at night.” The habit began early for her: after her mother tucked her in and cut the lights, Anne tells us she turned the light on next to her bed and hoped her mother wouldn’t detect the light. Only a child thinks a parent wouldn’t notice … unless, of course, one lives in a sizable home. Her mother would leave … “Her steps would grow fainter, the book would grow shorter, and I would fall asleep at an ungodly hour, suffused with the goody-goody’s secret pride at having sinned” (72).
“Something,” she know so well, “amazing happens when the rest of the world is sleeping.” I agree, only I prefer that rest of the world to be still sleeping instead of just sleeping. Kris and I awaken early. On a Saturday, a day we are called by conscience to “sleep in,” I am happy to make it to 6am, but rarely do. And if I do, my back is still and I begin to feel lightheaded. No reason to fight it. I arise, say Jesus Creed to kick-start the day, shower make my coffee and have breakfast. Kris normally arises about 15 minutes after I do. We can’t sleep in.
There was a time when I preferred going to bed late — midnight or so — and getting up early, but I managed such a schedule only by a nice afternoon nap. If I nap now it’s only for 10-15 minutes, and it’s like clockwork. Rarely more.
Perhaps what I like most is not so much a late night when a single light suffuses its light for some reading (I can’t write any later than 4pm) or an early morning visit to the desk and computer, but the routine of pulling up to the desk by 7am or so and not pushing away from that desk until 11am or so and then back again from 12 to 4pm — when a little stiffness sets in because the concentration has been so intense and the clicking of the keys so constant. “I am suspended,” as Fadiman puts it so well, “in a sensory deprivation tank, and the very lack of sensation is delicious” (73).
Ah, it’s not about the time of day or even the place but the feeling of the muse landing lightly on the shoulder, about as heavy as a hummingbird, to ask me if I might like company for the day.