What Virginia Woolf Forgot To Say

One cannot write well if one has not slept well.

Author on Page Street, San Francisco. Photo Credit: James Manyika

Authors are often asked: what is your writing process? In other words, can you share any tips or secrets on how the writing gets done? Philip Roth allegedly writes standing up, Zadie Smith only uses a computer, and Hemingway famously wrote with a bottle of kirsh, roasted chestnuts and mandarines. Then there’s Baldwin, smoking his way to all that fire on the next page. And what do I do? As a fiction writer, in the business of make-belief, I’m tempted to claim as my secret, a daily diet of desserts or the rubbing together of two magic stones to start my writing day. A writer’s life is frequently stylized or mythologized, characterized by carefree days spent in cafes or bars followed by sleepless nights when the muse decides to strike. But the truth is far less seductive. There is nothing extraordinary about most writing practices other than sitting down (or standing up) and getting on with it. Yet, several things can help with “getting on with it”: a sprinkling of fairy dust, a supportive community of writer friends, and a good night’s sleep.

Making a living from writing is hard and, unless financially independent, one thing a writer needs is the proverbial fairy godmother. This may be a partner, family member, government or institution in a position to support the writer’s career. Writing takes time and mental stamina, and in my experience, trying to squeeze it in around some other full-time occupation is nearly impossible. The rags-to-riches story of J.K. Rowling is a case in point. Although she might not have had much money to begin with, she did have the advantage of state benefits and a writing space at a cafe owned by a brother-in-law. To be given a room of one’s own is an essential part of the writer’s practice.

Author’s drafts for this article. Photo credit: Sarah Ladipo Manyika

In addition to fairy dust, a writer needs a community. What would a writer have to say if they kept all their thoughts to themselves? So many people contribute to a writer’s practice, which explains why many writers include an apology in their acknowledgement lists to those inadvertently forgotten. I don’t know any writer that hasn’t benefited from the exchange of ideas or from feedback on drafts of their work. Almost everything I write has benefited from the constructive input of others.

Even the use of a writing diary came from the suggestion of a writer friend. And how revealing this has been about a third essential for the writing practice — sleep. At almost every point where I note a breakthrough with my writing, my diary entry is preceded by a reference to a previous good night’s rest. Flipping through the pages, I can tell, even without reading the words, just by the quality of my handwriting, when I was well rested. My diary clearly indicates that those eureka moments, those moments of serendipity, those moments when I’m best able to draw interesting connections, or see what had previously eluded me, are most likely to happen after a good night’s rest. Contrary to the popular myth of the writer that does without sleep, I can only work well if I’ve slept well. With good sleep I’m a more attentive listener and reader and more willing to try new things, all of which are vital for writing. Virginia Woolf once said that “one cannot think well, sleep well, love well if one has not dined well.” I’m sure she also knew that one cannot think well, love well or write well if one has not slept well too.

Does this mean that I’ve now mastered the art of finding fairy godmothers, that I have a great network of writer friends, and am able to prioritize sleep? I am fortunate to have been supported in my writing practice by my husband, family and friends, and in recent years by several generous writing residencies. What I’m still not so good at is sleep, either because it’s sometimes out of my control or, more truthfully, because I frequently lack the discipline to do what’s best for me. But at least I know what works, and that is more than half the battle. No, not battle. Half the fun? Not that either. Something in between.