A few weeks ago, my wife and I got a limited time offer subscription to HBO Max. I decided to avail myself of the opportunity to rewatch the 2003 Robin Williams/Al Pacino vehicle Insomnia, which I’d originally seen in the theatre when it came out. Williams plays an Alaskan murderer in a cat-and-mouse game with big-shot cop Pacino. The renowned comedian and actor had relapsed in real life during filming, and I had a morbid curiosity to see whether I could pick up signs of it during his performance this time around.
I’d been a Robin Williams fan since the days of Mork & Mindy and his first comedy album, Reality…What a Concept. Even before that, my own mind ran in the kind of hyper-rapid, manic, stream-of-consciousness manner that came out of Williams naturally in everything he did. I loved his comedy but loved his serious work just as much. To me, he wasn’t merely hilarious—he was relatable.
The reason I rewatched Insomnia may have been out of a curious desire to find signs of relapse in the performance (I didn’t notice any), but I also found myself compelled by the levels of insomnia Pacino’s character suffers in the brutal Alaskan summer solstice. The sky never gets dark, and Pacino’s cheap motel room doesn’t offer anything like a true blackout curtain. Williams’ character needles Pacino about it as the days pass and lack of sleep becomes a greater and greater problem.
Why the Movie Review?
I don’t normally get into writing about anything other than books or publishing here on the blog, but I thought this week I’d begin a series on writer problems: procrastination, impostor syndrome, and so on. But the first topic I wanted to address is the name of that movie: insomnia.
Without knowing what it was called, I had bouts with insomnia going all the way back to childhood. And I suppose this is true for a lot of writers—let me know in the comments if you’re one of them—and in my own case, it probably came from sources beyond my creative processes. I was a cartoonist and artist before I became a poet and fiction writer, so it wasn’t that. Instead, my mind would race around all sorts of topics, and my brother, in the adjacent bed, would talk back and forth with me about whatever we wanted until we finally decided to play a game we called “Shut Up and Go to Sleep.” Pretty funny.
The obsession with sleep came from other reasons: sometimes our parents argued, and we’d find ourselves out of bed, side by side on the floor behind our bedroom door, eavesdropping. Those times were terrifying, and sleep surely didn’t come for us right away, even after an argument subsided into silence and then, their lights out, darkness.
And On Into Adulthood
As kids, our parents let our cats sleep with us. I recall sparks of static electricity flying off a cat in the dark as I petted it, listening to the loud purring that went on for hours. I even remember something that seems like it must have been a dream: sitting up in bed, with what looked a protective spinning net or mesh whirling around me. The intersections of the net were red, like strawberries. This happened more than once, so I’m sure I didn’t dream it. Yet I’m also equally unsure it was merely a child’s imagination or tenuous grip on reality.
In my teens I kept insomnia at bay listening to the radio with a tiny headset. I’d fall asleep to music, then wake to the sound of a DJ interrupting the end of a song. Eventually, there were substances, and these would put me either into a blissful oblivion or a sickeningly spinning bed. Before I got sober for good, I had a few bed spin misadventures that hurled me straight into the bathroom, worshipping the porcelain god. Bad times indeed.
Now 32 years sober, insomnia’s a different animal, not the result of racing thoughts or overstimulated imagination. It’s more the byproduct of ringing in my ears that started at 46, and a few aches and pains in the joints. Meditation, daily exercise, melatonin, and other late-night alternatives have all found their way into my routine to beat back the insomnia beast. It’s become not so much a writer problem as a me problem.
Got sleep challenges? Need to silence your devices and switch to a paperback before bed? I’d welcome comments, commiserating or sharing experiences that helped with your insomnia.