Illustration by George Douglas

Insomnia and creativity are longstanding, tossing, turning bedfellows. Marcel Proust, Emily Brontë, and Walt Whitman all spoke about working through sleepless nights; and vocal insomniac Vladimir Nabokov went as far as denigrating sleep as “the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals.” Kafka’s work is perhaps most explicitly the product of the strange reveries of broken sleep; “The hypnagogic hallucinations arising from his lack of sleep shaped much of his writing,” writes The Lancet. On the visual arts side, there were enough examples of sleepless artists to fill an entire exhibition in New York in 2016.

Of course, it makes sense that insomnia afflicts no small number of those working across the creative industries today. The same cognitive sparks that ignite creativity keep it burning once the bedroom light goes off—and the working mentality of the creative industries isn’t exactly known for its capacity for an off-switch. And that may go double for freelancers, who make up a large portion of the field. While burning the midnight oil voluntarily may be seen for many as a necessity, when that tips into involuntary sleeplessness it becomes a very personal hell.

Sleeplessness is a widespread problem across the board: a 2015 Princeton National Health and Wellness Survey reported that 37% of U.S. adults experienced insomnia or sleep difficulties over the previous year, and that 55% of all adults have problems with insomnia in their lifetime. “More than 70 million Americans suffer from various sleep disorders, and 60% of those report severe sleeping disorders,” it concluded.

“The same mind that produces creative ideas may also have trouble getting quiet when sleep is wanted.”

According to “creativity coach” Dr. Eric Maisel, this is partly due to the fact that “this experimental brain of ours continues to race on even when we don’t want it to—often at the cost of a good night’s sleep.” He adds, “This is true for everyone; but it is especially true for artists who are likely to be obsessing about ideas, career challenges, survival issues, and a whole host of other brain-engaged matters. The same mind that produces creative ideas may also have trouble getting quiet when sleep is wanted.”

Insomnia can be truly, truly awful—that racing, wired, paranoia-inducing clock glancing and terror at the thought of another next-day state of zombie-like confusion. Indeed, another study, conducted at the University of California in San Diego, indicated that the four or five periods of REM sleep we experience at night (which typically last for 90-120 minutes each), enhance our creative processing more than any other sleep or waking state. REM sleep appears to help achieve creative solutions by stimulating associative networks, “allowing the brain to make new and useful associations between unrelated ideas,” writes Sara Mednick, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego, who conducted the study.

Around a year ago, illustrator Clara Lacy went from working between London and Hong Kong to settling down in Australia in order to take a graphic design course. She’s suffered with insomnia for a while, but found the move greatly exacerbated the issue. Recently she’s been stuck in a pattern of falling asleep around 2 a.m., then waking up at 3:30 a.m. and again at 4:30 a.m. before forcing herself to just get up early to try and do a few normal things, like exercise, before going to school.

“It’s a cycle that’s hard to break,” she says. She’s tried taking melatonin tablets, avoiding caffeine completely, and swimming daily as a meditative practice, but to little effect.

“[Insomnia] probably affects my creativity to an extent, as I don’t have enough energy to go through lots of roughs and work things out and experiment,” she says. “Sometimes I just think of one idea and run with it, which I don’t think is the best way to work. It gets stressful; I’m completely dead in the afternoon, but I’m not someone who can sleep in or take a day off.”

“The four or five periods of REM sleep we experience at night (which typically last about 90-120 minutes each), enhance our creative processing more than any other sleep or waking state”

Illustrator and animator Steve May, who’s worked for Harper Collins, Faber, the Guardian, and the Economist, has had trouble sleeping for as long as he can remember, with varying levels of severity. “The worst [period] was partly through a job where I was working really hard on no sleep; I remember standing in my studio and my printer was speaking to me—that sort of tiredness,” he says.

After trying medication and a variety of other coping strategies, he’s now fairly resigned to the fact he sleeps in “little patches” of no longer than three hours. “When you haven’t slept, you get beyond tired,” he says. “If I really haven’t slept a lot I have a couple of days of being really groggy, then an extra state where I feel really alert, but in hindsight I do stupid things. You think you’re firing on all cylinders and you’re brilliant, but you’re probably not.” 

Sleep psychologist Dr Nerina Ramlakhan describes that sort of manic over-tiredness as “a kind of false energy” partly fueled by the way technology has made us “restless as a society,” lost without the “rituals and practices that gave us little respites during the day,” such as daydreaming while waiting in line. “Now, any window like that will be filled by looking at your phone, answering some emails, sorting out your Amazon account.”

That “always on” culture has a direct effect on those working in the creative industries (and indeed many others). While we may have previously checked emails, dealt with clients, and made revisions during working hours, and in an office or other dedicated workplace, many of us now can—and do—engage in all of those things whenever and wherever.

This is especially true for those who freelance, and who work with clients across different time zones. “When I was working in Hong Kong for clients abroad, often it felt like I’d ‘miss’ a day of being able to rework stuff with the time difference,” says Lacy. “Or an email would come in at midnight and you’d have all this new information to try and process.”

Feeling like you’re expected to work all the time can be further exacerbated by client expectations, particularly when the company atmosphere encourages last-minute decisions and rewards martyr-like work hours. Of course, the reverse can be true as well, when freelancers want to appear to be working hard all the time. “In the past I’ve over-promised because I thought I might lose the job otherwise,” May says, adding that the temptation to take on projects that are undoubtedly way too ambitious for a decent wad of cash can be hard to resist.

Technology has made us “restless as a society,” lost without the “rituals and practices that gave us little respites during the day,” such as daydreaming while waiting in line.

Many creatives, however, have made a sort of uneasy peace with their sleeping troubles. Davy Denduyver is a Belgium-based graphic designer and art director whose trouble sleeping began after his father passed away at age 19—just as he was entering design school. “Because I couldn’t sleep, I started pulling all nighters, which made my biorhythm stop working properly.”

Now, seven years later, his depression has lifted, but his sleep troubles remain, and he says he hasn’t had a full night’s sleep in years. He struggles to fall asleep and, like May, when he does, he wakes up again around every two hours. Denduyver has tried sleeping pills in the past, but found they dulled his ability to concentrate the next day. And before you recommend your favorite meditation app—he’s tried those, too, and considers them not just ineffective, but rather irritating.

Sometimes, though, he feels his exhausting habits can be a boon. “With creativity, ideas don’t come when you want them; you can’t turn it off.”

There’s also something to be said about the changes that take place in the brain when we’re overtired. Tiredness is truly mind-altering, which can have some positives where creativity is concerned. Based on a 2011 Scientific American study, Fast Company reported that “if you’re trying to do creative work, you’ll actually have more luck when you’re more tired and your brain isn’t functioning as efficiently… If you’re tired, your brain is not as good at filtering out distractions and focusing on a particular task. It’s also a lot less efficient at remembering connections between ideas or concepts. These are both good things when it comes to creative work, since this kind of work requires us to make new connections, be open to new ideas, and think in new ways.”

“With creativity ideas don’t come when you want them; you can’t turn it off”

One positive May has found in broken sleep is no shortage of “crazy dreams,” which he tends to remember. “I often write them down, and I draw a lot of them and post them on Instagram,” he says. “In a way, it’s like another sketchbook.”

Some of his dream imagery has made its way into a children’s book, and one became an illustration for the Guardian. However, he acknowledges that it’s destructive to consider sleeplessness a productivity aid. Denduyver agrees: “It’s dangerous to think you can only work at night.”

George Douglas, the Edinburgh-based illustrator who created the imagery for this piece, has been affected by sleep difficulties on and off for most of his adult life. “I think it will be a long time, if ever, before I really enjoy sleep again,” he says. “That’s one of the most upsetting things about it—apart from the completely sleepless nights themselves, in which I’m totally alone in the dark in my own head—that there’s this whole biological process, one that is supposed to be a third of our lives, and I can’t enjoy it.”

In a small way, though, he has made creative lemonade from the bitter lemons of insomnia. In early 2017 he staged an exhibition of Risograph works called “Contents Insurance” that explored his intermittent bouts of sleeplessness.

“The show featured a personal symbolism to express the challenges and frustrations of sleeplessness,” Douglas explains. “Figures dressed in gloves and socks represent the sensory deprivation. These figures appear to exist somewhere between lying down and standing up, living in a state that isn’t sleeping but isn’t completely awake either.” Many of the images and texts for the show were written late at night when Douglas couldn’t sleep, “but a lot of it was also composed in the studio in the clear light of day, which was a really healthy process—an exorcism of sorts—making my sleeplessness less of a lonely battle, and less agonizingly private.” 

The freelancers I spoke with for this piece all seem to agree that having a routine—and establishing a clear, physical separation between work and life—offers some help when it comes to sleep problems. May works from his agent’s studio to establish a strict 10 a.m.-7 p.m. work day structure. “I like having to physically get up and go to work,” he says. “There are some days when I’m so knackered I’m no use to man or beast, but I think I’m getting better at realizing when I’m no use.”

Most freelancers will acknowledge the fact that it’s nigh-on impossible to recognize when to stop working when things are particularly manic, but such routines are certainly supremely helpful. Denduyver deliberately works from a desktop at a shared space five minutes from his home so that he simply can’t work when he’s not at his studio. “The good part about having the studio is when I get a text [from a client] at 11 p.m., I can’t make changes,” he says.

While an understanding client can’t help you sleep, they can help some of the causes of sleeplessness—by not setting unreasonable demands, understanding when it’s not okay to ask for immediate responses (i.e. at the very end of the work day, or in the middle of night), and realizing that when they’re working with someone in a different time zone, they can’t be expected to jump onto something immediately. If you can afford one, an agent can be a great mediator when client demands become too much.

Clients also need to bear in mind that they’re very unlikely to be the only ones making demands on a freelancer’s time. “Stop asking urgent questions late at night, and be more reasonable with deadlines and budgets,” Denduyver advises.

Schools, too, can make improvements when it comes to recognizing the sleep trouble many of their students are likely to have. Denduyver’s worst insomnia hit while he was studying, though he felt unable to talk teachers, as he felt he’d “brought it upon myself… I got used to no sleep, then thought I could work instead. I felt like the choice of not trying to sleep was mine.” He wasn’t aware of any initiatives at his school that offered help for such issues.

“Daymares, nightmares, hallucinations, clumsiness… it became the norm.”

At Lacy’s school in Sydney, she’s found the institution “very forthcoming” in making support or counsellors available, though she’s yet to explore that route herself. “‘I’ve said to a few teachers that I’m having trouble sleeping, especially if my eyes are shutting, but I don’t know if they take it on board or not,” she says.

It’s vital to remember that just because a school course or job seems like a dream, it’s not worth sacrificing your physical and mental wellbeing for. “During one of my busiest years in graduate school, I juggled an assistantship, my required design courses, personal research, and a part-time job, all on top of being a husband, cat owner, and apartment superintendent,” says North Carolina-based graphic designer and associate professor of design at Winthrop University Jason Tselentis. He frequently pulled all-nighters from Friday to Sunday, until one weekend he found himself literally delirious—unable to tell if he was awake or asleep and dreaming. He became so tired that one evening he accidentally walked through a screen window on his porch. “This was a wake up call,” he says. “Daymares, nightmares, hallucinations, clumsiness… it became the norm.”

Insomnia can be a crippling thing; a veritable waking nightmare, and for creatives—especially those who struggle to switch their minds off, or who work the strange international hours familiar to so many freelancers. Everyone is different, and what helps for one might be totally useless for another, but there is help available. Below is a list of advice and helplines for those affected by sleep problems.

  • NHS advice on sleeping better.
  • Sleep problems information from mental health charity Mind.
  • In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123.
  • In the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
  • In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.
  • Helplines in other countries can be found here.