Testing the Sleep Habits of Famous Creatives

Written by Laura Brooks

Those who know me know I love to sleep — like really love it. Sure, everyone but little kids enjoy climbing into bed after a long day, but the sad truth of our reality is that far too few Americans are getting the amount of shuteye they need. I, on the other hand, am unwavering in my commitment to giving my body and brain as much rest as they say they need. Aside from the rare early AM flight or DMV appointment that prematurely boots me out of bed, I simply wake up when I wake up. And on the rare mornings following a late night of work or play where I require a few more hours of unconsciousness, I don’t feel one iota of guilt about claiming them.

That said, please do not confuse me for a sleep-til-noon slacker. In no way does my REM routine impede my contribution to society. Though a lifelong night owl, I nevertheless almost always rise at  respectable hours, typically waking naturally before my gentle nudge of a backup alarm needs to step in. But even when my phone does the rousing, I’m more often than not fully rested and ready to tackle the day.

Frankly, adjusting my work/life schedule to my sleep rather than the other way around has been nothing short of a revelation. My mind is sharper, my mood is elevated, and my energy finally lasts all day, as nature intended. Furthermore, I credit my devotion to slumber as the Fountain of Youth that’s kept me from looking as haggard as I should, somehow negating the myriad abuses (physical, gastrological, chemical) I’ve put my body through.

Obviously, my ability to live like this comes from a position of extreme privilege for which I am incredibly grateful. For all the drawbacks that come with my profession, the unrivaled benefit of being an independent one-man operation is near-complete schedule autonomy. After years of school and office job hours imprisonment, my circadian rhythm’s finally free to live its truth. Of course, I’m not so naive as to expect this lifestyle will last forever. If I someday have kids, switch careers, or find myself scuttling between safe houses in the Climate Wars, I know sleep will have to take a back seat to more pressing issues.

Rather than find myself unprepared when that inevitable moment arrives, I figured I’d prep in advance by testing out other unorthodox sleep practices. And who better to take rest recs from than my creative peers, past and present?

Salvador Dali
I love the surrealist painter’s work, but Sal and I are on opposing teams when it comes to sleep. The Spanish artist apparently thought sleep was such a waste of time, that he devised a creative way to stave off the onset of the afternoon siesta so beloved by his countrymen. In his memoir, "50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship," Dali describes a nap-avoidance system that kept his drowsy mind awake in the liminal, mildly-trippy state of hypnogogia that aided his work. For this, he would sit upright in a chair painting with one hand and holding a key over an upside-down plate with the other. When he’d start to succumb to the nap’s siren song, his grip would loosen, and the sound of the dropped key would startle him awake.

One recent afternoon, when my post-lunch coma was coming on extra strong, I put Dali’s micro-Rube Goldberg contraption to the test. Though I didn’t understand why the plate needed to be upside down, I wasn’t about to question a master’s specifications. He’s hanging in museums; I barely hang outside of my place these days. Once set up, I unproductively typed with one hand and tried to will myself to be sleepy. Unfortunately, the task of holding the key was so novel that it was having the reverse effect of intensifying my alertness. Determined to not have the experiment be a total waste of time, I stopped trying to work and closed my eyes, hoping to eventually brute-force a nap. Who knows how much later, but at long last I heard the sound of metal on ceramic. Because I wasn’t being “jerked” awake in the desired way, I began to wonder if I’d subconsciously been loosening my clench over time just to get through the trial. You really can’t trust anyone these days, not even yourself. Regardless, microdosing is now a thing, so Dali’s convoluted route to hypnogia is a tad obsolete for my liking.

 

Ernest Hemingway

When I first started writing, I thought Hemingway’s famous advice to “write drunk, edit sober” was pretty cool, even if I couldn’t pull it off myself. When I learned that he not only never said that, but also talked shit about alcohol enjoyers, I was shocked. And when, in my research for this piece, I learned he was also one of those freaks who religiously gets up at the crack of dawn… Well, let’s just say I hope there’s no other info out there about this man’s personal life that might negatively impact my opinion of his work.

I figured if I could make it through even a few days of Hemmy’s regimen of getting up at “first light” followed by six straight hours of cranking out words, I’ll have written a novel before the end of the year. I looked up when the sun was set to rise the next morning and set an alarm. Before long, 6:38 AM and the horrid digital klaxon were attacking. I angrily got out of bed and trudged to the computer. After a few minutes of staring slack-jawed at the screen, waiting for my synapses to warm up and start pumping out content, I decided I didn’t want to take advice from a guy that had become so inspirational to the toxic “Rise and Grind” culture. It was time to go back to bed. Maybe The Sun Also Rises with Ernest, but I shan’t be joining them again.

Charles Dickens

Legend has it that Dickens slept facing north to improve his creativity and carried a compass with him wherever he went to make sure his aim was always true. Despite this bit of trivia being included in many a serious and scientific-looking research report, I couldn’t find a true source for this assertion. No amount of sloppy citation practices were going to stop me from tackling one of the oddest (and easiest) sleep habits I’d come across yet.

None of the rehashes of the same two sentences clarified how Chaz defined “facing north.” Did he point the top of his head at it or was he situated so he’d be staring straight toward it if he did that move where vampires stiffly rise out of their coffins? I erred with the later option as it actually involves the face. That night, I pulled out my phone and used the compass to align my head with the foot of the bed and my feet toward the headboard at a slight diagonal angle. As I was falling asleep, I realized my usual face-down starting position kinda cancelled out the coffin-rise justification thing. When I woke up the next day feeling no more or less creative than usual, I gave myself a pass. A more reasonable conclusion for the failure than my creative juice receptacle angle being slightly off was that Charles Dickens believed dumb, made-up nonsense like so many other historical figures.

Leonardo Da Vinci


Dan Brown was wrong. The real Da Vinci Code was the one Leonardo allegedly cracked that allowed him to get by as an artistic genius on just 2 hours of sleep a day by taking six 15-to-20-minute power naps, each four hours apart. This “Uberman” sleep cycle, as it would later be dubbed, theoretically added 20 years of productivity to the OG Renaissance man’s life. Nikola Tesla also purportedly operated this way. If I was somehow able to sync my snoozes with these titans, joining them in the history books couldn’t be too far behind. At the very least, my productivity levels would have to improve.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to wrangle my naps into submission if they weren’t showing up so I made sure to get an awful night’s rest the night before I went full Ubermensch. I’ll admit this might have been an overcorrection. Rather than sketching out prescient vehicle prototypes or photorealistic anatomical models, I spent the first 4 hours of my Da Vinci day in yet another groggy state of sub-peak performance. The first nap was an oasis that I took to easily. Then the alarm blared and I returned to my unproductive fugue state hell. I tried to do some work but the futility of the attempt was immediately apparent. How did Da Vinci think coherent thoughts like this? My IQ was nosediving with each passing minute in this hellish existence. After the second nap, when my zombified late afternoon run failed to give me an energy boost, I began to doubt the veracity of the claim that anyone, let alone a prolific artistic genius, could live like this. When the alarm went off after nap number 3, my frustration gave way to despair. I wanted to cry. How the hell did Da Vinci channel our Abu Ghraib torture tactics into The Last Supper? Then I remembered that I was the only one forcing this on myself. Foolishness dispensed with, I bailed and went back to bed for an indulgent 9-hour sleep. The Louvre would just have to find some other use for the wall space it was saving for me.


Mariah Carey
In 2007, the “Heartbreaker” diva told Interview magazine that, on nights before performances, she sleeps 15 hours straight in a room with 20 humidifiers blasting. Revealing the secret to her amazing vocal range may have also cleared up questions about the perpetual dream-like state she seems to exist in. Good for her and even better for me. I finally had a celeb sleep habit that might not suck.

I didn’t have enough humidifiers on hand to create a bedroom rainforest like Mariah, but I was able to borrow a friend’s to tag-team with mine. Dials at 11, the two little fog factories chugged along all night as I enjoyed a long, deep, and slightly damp slumber. Cursed by my natural inclination to sleep only a reasonable 8 hours, I woke up fully rested long before the 15 hour mark. I couldn’t squeeze more than another hour or so of filler sleep out of myself. I compromised by refilling the spent humidifier tanks and returning to bed with my laptop, where I spent the remainder of Carey’s sleep routine finally getting some work done. And while I got my day going, I noticed that the throat dryness and soreness that so commonly plagues my first hour awake (and the reason I bought the humidifier in the first place) was absent.

While cheerily working beneath my covers that morning, I learned that Truman Capote also loved to write in bed. While this tidbit wasn’t exactly a “sleep habit” like the list I found it on seemed to think, it was a relatively novel mode for me that I could see myself exploring further. And when paired with the Queen of Pop’s rejuvenating throat coat, I felt like I’d stumbled onto something.

These modifications weren’t going to replace my current sleep practices, but they could certainly be folded in. With knowledge now secured that proved this whole experience was not just a pointless exercise in masochism, I ended my trials more confident than ever in my abilities to get a good night’s sleep — at least until the Climate Wars.



Try it for yourself