The Sunday Telegraph Stella Magazine
Title: Getting up at 5:40am changed my life and saved my sanity
With young children and no time to think, I have found an unexpected way to reignite my creativity...
In the summer of 2015, I was a mess. My six-month-old baby, Raffy, was waking on the hour, every hour, every night. I was so tired that I thought I was going mad. My brain was mud. I couldn’t think clearly, which, as a freelance writer, was upsetting to say the least. I would often come home from walking my eldest son, Bear, then three, to nursery and cry with tiredness. One day, I put the boys in the car and, as I was about to drive off, Bear asked, ‘Why are we not wearing our seatbelts today?’
It was around this time that I decided to begin reading the creative-writing classic The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. In it, she suggests completing three pages of free-writing (writing quickly, without thinking) as soon as you wake up, to reignite your creativity – whether you’re a writer or not. Initially, this made me cross. What kind of self-indulgent princess had time for that?
This one, as it turned out. When I eventually tried it, I instantly felt better. Suddenly, I had a place to dump all the tiredness, frustration and upset that six months of sleep deprivation had caused. At the end of my three pages, I felt more ‘me’ than I had in months. I wasn’t just a knackered mum; I was a writer again: calm, fulfilled, creative. I soon got hooked on the relief this provided and wrote every day, around Raff’s erratic daytime naps.
When Raff was nine months old, we got help from a baby-sleep consultant, and once this heroine had got us all sleeping, I started getting up early to write. It was winter. I was expecting to hate the cold, dark mornings, but I fell in love with them. It was the only time of day when things were quiet and still. I’d open the curtains a crack to look at the stars, glimpsing out every now and then as I wrote, watching the dawn creep softly through the trees. It was as if I was part of the morning, not just someone rushing through.
Six years on, winter is still my favourite time. Summer mornings are too loud and bright, the birds and roads too noisy. It feels like there might be other people awake in the world, whereas in winter it feels like it’s only me.
Getting up this early entirely dictates my weekday routine. To be writing at 6am, I have to get up at 5.40am, which means strict sleep rules in the evening, including no phones after 9pm, nothing overly exciting on TV and bed by 10pm. Alcohol in the week is verboten because even a glass or two will disrupt my sleep too much. (Another bonus: my new routine has also cured my lifelong insomnia.)
I write by candlelight, from an antique candelabra. I drink strong, sweet coffee, followed by a vanilla-chai chaser. I sit on a sheepskin rug and wrap myself in a blanket. The dark outside enhances the sensuousness; the wind and rain make it even sweeter. Winter isn’t something to be endured, but enjoyed.
The writing itself can take any form, including fiction, blogs or journalling. If I find myself writing about a problem I’m struggling with, usually, by the end of the hour, I’ll know what to do. I go back and underline useful insights or mark up sentences I want to remember, because as soon as I put the pen down and my family – which now includes my daughter, Edie, aged four – wakes up, I completely forget what I’ve written. I like the way the words seal themselves away like this. It adds to the otherworldly feel of writing while most people are still asleep.
Occasionally, I use this time to work. At no other point in the day is my brain so sharp, and I am at least three times more productive without the clutter and noise of the daylight hours. Some mornings, I can write 2,000 words in an hour.
Despite everything, it is always a deeply horrible shock when my alarm goes off each morning, but I get up anyway – because the mum who’s had 60 minutes of soft candlelit creativity is a far nicer, happier mum than the one who’s gone crashing full speed into the school run. As Raff taught me six years ago, I can do without sleep, but I can’t do without writing.