Most of my young adult life in college was spent up at all hours of the night, writing papers, reading countless articles from JSTOR, and generally functioning as a night owl. My preferred bedtime was 2 or 3 in the morning, long after the sun set, and I rarely rose on the early side of 10 or 11 if my course schedule allowed it. Even in graduate school, particularly in my master’s degree, I could stay up, pull semi-all nighters and produce a paper of passing quality.
But good grief, those times are long past. In my thirties, my creative pursuits, including writing and painting and digital art, are relegated to more reasonable hours of the day. I wish I could convince myself that this is due to the fact that I have matured and lead a more “adult” life. But honestly, it’s because my brain ceases function much past 10pm when the rest of my week has a wake up alarm set for 6am.
This past weekend, however, my husband was stuck working a 24 hour shift. I made so many plans in my head for my time alone: cleaning the house, cooking for myself, catching up on sleep, spending time with my dog, finally working on all those revisions I’ve been planning for my manuscript, getting some of those short story ideas down on paper… The possibilities were endless.
But when it finally got dark and 9pm rolled around and none of my plans came to fruition after a day of bingeing on Netflix, I picked up a pad of paper and began sketching an idea that’s been floating around in my head for a few weeks. The design sketched itself, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. playing in the background, dog snoring beside me on the couch.
When I looked at the clock, somehow it was now 12:30am and I had a rough design for my next watercolor, more progress made in those three hours than in the past three weeks. And I began to wonder, what if my most creative time is at the least convenient time?
There are many who say night is the best time to write, and as a former night owl I tend to agree and think that for the most part they’re right. The day’s distractions are at a minimum and your creativity blossoms from your interactions during the day. Others say that writing first thing in the morning allows for the best success since you start fresh, without the mood of the day to affect the writing. You don’t have time for your willpower to fade if you write at the very start of the day. Greats like Dickens were morning larks, writing between 9am and 2pm every day without fail.
But it makes the most sense to me that the least convenient time for you to write, when your mind is distracted by the other required tasks of the day (driving, showering, preparing for sleep), that you’re at your most creative. This wonderful graphic shows why there’s a best time to be creative and write for different people depending on their schedules. It seems I’m at my most creative when my mind is on autopilot, which makes sense that with so broad a focus I can pull things together that I might not have connected before. It also makes sense that the spring of inspiration can swell at strange times depending on your habits. If you’re a morning lark, the drive home from work or your nightly shower might kick your creative mind into gear. Or if you’re a night owl, your trip to work might spark the same flow of words. So creativity occurs, according to this graphic based on a widely quoted study, when you’re least focused on it.
I’ve encountered this before, having spurts of inspiration and new story ideas RIGHT as I get into bed or step into the shower. It’s why I stash a few notebooks on the nightstand and a pen or two, though I haven’t found a solution for the shower conundrum yet. If I don’t write those ideas down, they’ll be gone as quickly as they came. Sometimes the inspiration is quick, only fifteen minutes or so of solid writing before it feels forced. Other times, I’ll write for an hour or more, cruising the wave of words that cascade from my head to the page. I’ve learned to capitalize on those times after spending a few hours the next morning wondering what my genius idea was, wishing I had written it down at the time. It’s never convenient to set aside my plans for sleep or to hop out of the shower, head still covered in shampoo, but those ideas are fleeting, and often more creative and important than the ones that come during my predetermined writing time.
So for those of you who are night owls (or used to be), or those who aspire to become morning larks (or currently are), it seems that inspiration and creativity are most likely to hit you when you least expect them to, or at least when the last thing you’re thinking about is writing. For me, I’ll keep that notebook by my bedside, and maybe invest in a few waterproof field notebooks and a waterproof pen to keep near the bathroom towels.0