On a recent podcast, two of America’s great storytellers spent a few brief moments discussing their problems with sleep.
As his fans know, comedian Mike Birbiglia’s trouble is physical and perilous, a sleepwalking condition that has endangered his life—and catalyzed some of his best material. Public radio legend Ira Glass has a more metaphysical bone to pick. Since childhood, Glass said he has been bothered by the notion that we simulate our deaths at the end of each day.
What unnerves Glass gives me great consolation.
The Bible describes sleep as an act of faith. When our heads hit our pillows each night, we don’t just pray the Lord our souls to keep. We exercise a specific kind of trust. We acknowledge that, while we are unconscious, he makes the world spin and seals his promises. As we go in and out of REM sleep, he is up keeping a watchful eye.
My problem isn’t with sleep as much as rest. Knowing I’ll be in bed for eight hours each night doesn’t produce half the dread I experience during the other sixteen. I fitfully try to rest on God’s promises and in his work. Yet I often find myself wide-eyed and weary, especially when shadows of writing, then waiting, loom over my life.
My friend Matt is a terrific painter, a wizard both with color and composition. From time to time, he and I discuss the intangibles we need to make our work go.
When we commiserate we say, “There’s no formula for this.”
We have to find a way of our own every time we start again. For Matt to empty his imagination on canvas, for me to be faithful to words and spaces on a page, both of us need measures of quiet, meditation, reflection, and purposeful distraction. Something has to happen inside us before something can spring forth from us.
Those gifts are in short supply, traded for others as we raise kids and relate to wives, stolen by the more mundane demands of our day jobs—his at a university, mine at a newspaper.
It’s easy to blame busy, brimming lives or the aches of adulthood, but I know too well that I’m my own worst enemy, the biggest thief of my own rest. I surrender to expectations, from within and without, that eat away at my sense of calm.
Where’s the sabbath exception for brand building?
On the current writing landscape, even in Christian circles—especially in Christian circles—writers are expected to be “on” all the time. To always be selling themselves. To act like people are reading you, even when their eyes aren’t on the page.
You have to be “on brand.” Find a hook. Have an angle. Play rhetorical games of Red Rover until you break the line and are included in the regular conversations of the cool crowd on Twitter. I get out of breath just thinking about it.
These gestures and postures are at odds with the qualities that make a good writer—let alone a thoughtful, healthy person: a quiet spirit. Self-forgetfulness. Time just to be. The caution that lets one collect their words and not immediately pass them from their brain to their fingers.
I doubt Eugene Peterson or Wendell Berry or Flannery O’Connor ever worried about being “on brand.” If they did, they didn’t face the pressures of making themselves look good in a tweet.
What really stings is when people who are more accomplished inadvertently make the rest of us feel awful for not taking a day off. Recently, a Christian author I greatly admire tweeted about taking regular time away from social media. He intimated, albeit with the best of intentions, that he finds it hard to trust writers and artists who don’t take time away from the flea circus that is Twitter.
I read this counsel and wanted to say, “Don’t you know who I am?”
“Of course you don’t. That’s the whole point. If I take a sabbatical, I’ll never be you.”
When attentions are shaved to splinters, and getting even your friends and family to click through feels like breaking rocks in a prison camp, it’s easy to believe getting your words to the world is all up to you.
But as I examine my own soul—and the concerns of people like Ira Glass—I can draw only one conclusion. I need to Sabbath.
My lot is to write with diligence, then set my work aside as an act of faith. It sounds morbid to say I must fake my death every day, so I’ll put it another way: I need to simulate an absence from the world around me. I must step away from my smartphone. If I don’t, I may have a brand but I’ll never learn all I can about my craft, myself, and my God.
Rehearsing the Lessons I Learn from Sleep
At bedtime or when seeking soul rest, I affirm that God is sovereign. We rest from our toil and anxiety, the wisdom literature tells us, because we believe God is active when we’re not, magnifying himself by making more of our day’s work than we could alone.
It’s tempting to observe the reception another writer’s work receives and assume it will work that way for you—or believe something is terribly wrong with you when it doesn’t.
The truth is, a piece of mine has only ever gone “viral” when the subject—a household name in comedy or music—has linked to it. Its “success” or reach has been, in that way, totally out of my control. The word-of-mouth has been more about their mouths than my words.
If God wants my words to cut to the heart of one matter or one person, he will make it so. If he wants an article to receive thousands of pageviews, he’ll choose the article and the timing. My only job is to write for my satisfaction and his sake. Trying to manufacture results won’t get me anything but another restless night.
A creative soul can find real comfort in the knowledge that a creator God took time off. God’s seventh-day rest was a part of his creative process. He ceased his work without worrying if he’d get his mojo back or wondering if the right people would notice.
Creating space to rest is one of the most creative acts we can commit. It not only makes us better writers, but better friends, parents, lovers, and disciples. For any Christian, but perhaps uniquely for the writer, sabbath is about getting on the same page as God. Sabbath says that because he is always present, we don’t have to be. When we get a good night’s sleep, slow our obsessive thoughts, forsake the social media brand machine for a while, or rejoice in another writer’s success, we express confidence that his words are better than ours.
Cover image by Ali Yahya.