The Nocturnal Writer: When too much imagination is a bad thing…

I’m naturally a nocturnal writer…

That’s not to say I sit at my computer writing every night – that would be too disruptive for my family – no, what I mean is this: I do my best work after midnight, and I often write whole paragraphs in my head at half past three in the morning. Believe me, it’s not the most convenient way to work.

I know I’m not alone in this affliction. When Frances Hardinge, the Costa Prize-winning YA adult author, came to speak to us at Writers at Work as part of Hay Festival this year, she told us she’d be totally nocturnal if only that lifestyle would fit in with society.

A few of us nodded our agreement. Some of us had already had this discussion – how if we didn’t need to be mindful of our families and others keeping office hours, our days and nights could be reversed, and how much more productive we would be, how much more our natural creative selves.

After the talk, Frances signed my copy of her latest novel, ‘A Skinfull of Shadows’ – to real-life me, Wendy.

She asked me about being a natural nocturnal like her – she’d obviously noticed my nodding. I briefly mentioned how, as a child, I had swapped night for day for almost a whole year, and how blissful it had been.

I didn’t have time to tell her the complete story: that I was absent from junior school for months with an infection after an operation to remove my tonsils, and that when I was sent off to bed at night I’d write and read until dawn and then sleep until lunchtime. It suited me brilliantly.

I’d had trouble sleeping from a very young age, so I was delighted with my new routine. I was getting far more sleep than I normally did and, despite the infection, I was starting to feel better than I ever had before. But, of course, my parents were terribly worried by my new and weird sleeping habit. When my mum mentioned it to the doctor, he told her not to worry – my health was clearly improving and he predicted my sleeping pattern would too, once I was back at school.

It didn’t

The light would go out at 9 o’clock and I’d lie awake for hours, writing stories in my head. I say ‘writing’ rather than ‘making up stories’ because that’s what I did – I wrote passages in my mind, word for word, with actual punctuation and paragraph breaks. And after a night of busily ‘writing’, I still, of course, had to get up for school in the morning.

After a few months, my parents were worried by how tired I looked and I was taken back to the doctor. When I admitted what I did when I couldn’t sleep, the doctor diagnosed ‘too much imagination’. He didn’t have a cure for that.

And I’m still not cured

All my life I’ve written huge amounts in my head when I should be sleeping. I wrote paragraph after paragraph of ‘Not Thomas’ that way. I used to worry I’d forget it all, and sometimes I’d get up to scribble down passages in the half-light of dawn. But recently I’ve become more relaxed about the process. If it’s good enough to type up the next day, it’ll stay in my head. If not, I’ll have forgotten it by morning. It was encouraging to hear Roddy Doyle, another speaker at Hay Writers at Work, tell us he took the same approach.

We nocturnal writers may be a peculiar lot, but I’m certain of one thing – nocturnal or not, as a writer you can never have too much imagination.

Thanks for reading!

Sara x

P.S. Do you write best at night? And do you wish, like me, you could live your life nocturnally? Let me know what you think.


Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.


4 thoughts on “The Nocturnal Writer: When too much imagination is a bad thing…

  1. Carol Lovekin

    Fascinating – the different ways in which writers work. I’m a lark. My best work gets done as the birds are waking & on into the morning. Once the lunch-bell goes, I’m fit only for shopping lists! And I’m in awe of your ability to remember things that occur in the middle of the night. I have to write everything down as it occurs otherwise, it’s gone.
    (We do have one thing in common, mind – a love of Kate Bush! Happy sixtieth birthday to our mutual musical muse!) xXx


  2. I’m good for nothing in the morning, Carol – absolutely useless! I admire your ability to get up early and be creative!
    Yes, happy birthday to Kate – still the best muse I’ve found! xxx


  3. I’m most definitely not nocturnal, my friend, so I found this post very fascinating – especially the section about your childhood illness and being diagnosed with too much imagination!

    However, something really strange happened last night. I couldn’t sleep (that’s a given) but for some reason, I thought of a topic and wrote a poem in my head! That has rarely, rarely happened.

    I wrote it down using my Kindle since if I turned on the light, heads would roll…. and when I read it today, it sucked. It might be made into something with some work but since it’s about something very sad, I don’t feel like doing it.

    But the timing of this happenstance coincides with your blog post in an extraordinary way, doesn’t it????? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no, I hope you haven’t ‘caught’ my affliction, Dyane! It’s interesting you say your poem was very sad. I have the tendency to ‘write’ about emotional subjects in the middle of the night too – I guess the darkness lends itself to those kind of thoughts. I hope you’re getting a good night’s sleep again! I wouldn’t wish my weird sleeping pattern on you!! Have a lovely week xxx

      Liked by 1 person

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