Wednesdays with Writers: A riveting new look at ‘the quest for rest,’ the mysteries of sleep, dreams, its tie to creativity; how structure for books is like the frame of a house; his worry about teen screen time, and so much more in Michael McGirr’s SNOOZE

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A fascinating and insightful collection of essays and thoughts on sleep, why we do it and so much more. 

Snooze
I absolutely loved this book! 

SNOOZE: The Lost Art of Sleep is a great read and so very different from anything I’ve ever read on the subject.While it’s billed as non-fiction, it is not a textbook;  it’s not a how-to sleep hygiene book, either. One might call it part memoir, part essays on sleep-related topics, part survey in western civilization, and part pop psychology intermingled with a little hard scienceIn fact, SNOOZE is a bit like FREAKANOMICS, Sleep edition (if there were one) or Malcolm Gladwell meets Bill Bryson…on sleep.

Here’s a sampling of topics: Sleep disorders, beds (making those beds), staying in bed, medications designed to help induce sleep (and side-effects), philosophy, the demise of sleep in our fragmented world, famous people and their quirks (Flo Nightingale, Charles Dickens, Homer, Plato, Thomas Edison, Shakespeare, etc.), even the effect of war/PTSD on sleep. 

There were some laugh out loud moments as McGirr, a former Jesuit priest talks about his sermons, life as a priest, then parenting…not just *a* child, but a toddler and *then* a set of twins. Not to worry, the narrative doesn’t get bogged down with parenting asides; SNOOZE is very focused writing (and reading).

I found McGirr witty and delightful and kind of think this would make a great download (48)audio book read by the author. 

Oh, and he’s here today to chat with us about his book, what keeps him awake and so much more.

Leslie Lindsay: Michael, it’s a great pleasure. Thanks for popping by. Sleep is by far one of my favorite…uh…pastimes. Does that make me seem dull? Actually, I work and play hard, too. What prompted your interest in the subject?

Michael McGirr: Thanks Leslie for your great response to Snooze. I was delighted by your kind words. Sleep came at me from three directions. The first was my own struggle over many years with a couple of sleep disorders without realizing how serious they are. People laugh at snorers or are annoyed by them but don’t always understand they are engaged in a life and death battle to breathe. Next, I found myself in my early forties suddenly with 3 children under the age of two, including twins, and none of them understood the meaning of a decent night’s sleep. But most of all, the book came at me from a profound sense that we are living in a culture that is approaching exhaustion and its main response seems to be to keep people more and more tired. A city that never sleeps is one that is never fully awake.102150-The-City-That-Never-Sleeps.jpg

L.L.: I was fascinated by your sleep study. And I learned about sleep latency…that time period between lying down to go to sleep and falling asleep. [Hint: if it’s less than 10 minutes, you’re probably sleep deprived]. Can you walk us through the process?

Michael McGirr: You’ve explained it very well. At present, I am a school teacher doing marking [grading] late at night. I am asleep within seconds of my head hitting the pillow. This is not great. Nor is it great to be awake for an hour before you fall asleep. A good night’s sleep begins with a process known as fading. It actually starts before you get into bed: the brain responds well to rituals and pre-bed rituals can be a great help: brushing your teeth, hanging up your clothes, etc. in the same order every day and trying to go to bed at the same time. Ideally, this will allow you to gently fade into sleep once you are in bed.

[Leslie’s note: You may like these tips about establishing sleep rituals]

L.L.: I tend to fall asleep reading. (But certainly not SNOOZE!) In fact, last night, I sat down to read (not in bed).  It was only 8:14pm. “Wow…all kinds of glorious time to read,” I thought. “Maybe, I’ll finish this book!” Ah, such lofty aspirations. My lids grew heavy and my head started bopping. I was out. It wasn’t even 9:00pm [the time your research in SNOOZE says my body starts producing melanin in earnest].  And I happened to really like the book I was reading. What’s up with that?

Michael McGirr: It’s fine. Your brain and body have had enough of you for the day. They want you and your agenda out of the way so they can get on with their most important work, which happens when you are asleep. Sleep is the most creative part of the day because it is when our ego gets out of our way. You can get up early to keep reading. I love doing that. I love the half-hour before the next person in the house wakes up. But don’t forget there are millions of books. You are never going to read them all. Accept that there is only so much you can fit into a single day, not to mention a single lifetime, and you will rest in greater peace. Sleep means letting go. 

L.L.: The structure of SNOOZE is so clever, so fun. Its chapters are arranged in clock times when folks might be asleep. The first chapter, for example, begins at 8pm. Along with a time, a date is given. So Chapter One is 8pm and 1969. The narrative does not follow a linear time frame. Well, wait—it does. Can you talk about how you discovered this structure?

Michael McGirr: Thank you. Finding the structure of a book is always a big deal for me. It’s like building the frame of a house. Then you can start to sort out what will actually fit in the house. I always have more material than I can use and the amount available on sleep is endless. My book before this, called BYPASS, was about download (49)the Hume Highway which is the main road between Sydney and Melbourne, the two biggest cities in Australia. I found the structure for that book by riding a pushbike along the 900km of the road. In the case of SNOOZE, I tried several ideas. Finally, I settled on structuring it as a night’s sleep, choosing incidents from history, both recent and ancient, that can be associated with different times of the night. I liked it because it gave me an eclectic structure. The book is a bit of a salad with many different flavours!

L.L.: Here’s another thing I learned from SNOOZE: “the dreamer has the dream, or the dream has the dreamer.” I’m not sure who to attribute that quote to, but what more can you tell us? I am fascinated by dreams and find they definitely help with not just my self-awareness, but creativity, too. Can you tell us more, please?

Michael McGirr: I think I may have made up that phrase. Dreams are fascinating. But not as simple a guide to the unconscious as Freud may have thought. For example, you never dream as much in your life as when you are in the womb. This is when almost all your sleep is REM sleep, which is the phase in which dreams take place. The next dreamiest time is when you are a baby. The amount you dream decreases over a lifetime. 

[Consider]: If dreams at some level involve the processing of your waking experience, why do we dream most when we have least experience? Why do we dream least when we have most to deal with? I don’t know the answer. One theory is download (47)that dreaming is essential for testing synapses in the brain before we are born. We continue to dream because it is pleasurable, a bit like continuing to have sex after you’ve had your kids. But some dreams are not pleasurable. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be literally a nightmare of bad dreams. There is an awful lot to think about. The tendency to forget dreams is one of our major defense mechanisms.

L.L.: What kind of research did you do for SNOOZE? I see there is a very extensive “sources” section at the end of the book…but how much time did your research take, what aspect of sleep might you want to explore further?

Michael McGirr: I was lucky with this topic. Almost every major thinker in history has had things to say about sleep and I enjoyed jousting with a good number of them. This is because sleep is such a fundamental part of human being that you can hardly explore the human condition without coming across it. Someone’s attitude to sleep reveals their entire attitude to life; I found this to be the case with many philosophers and writers. In one sense, I spent my whole life researching this book because I have spent such a lot of my life reading. When I settled on this topic, I went back to writers and thinkers who have been my companions for years, from Plato to Dickens. I am not drawn to a project unless I think I am going to enjoy the research. It needs time.

L.L.: I think anyone who has parented young children, infants especially, know just what it’s like to be exhausted. We tried Ferberizing as well. Horrendous. But the kid sleeps like a log now. How are your twins, Clare and Jake? And Benny? (Just this morning, I smirked as I recalled his comment about making beds and, “If God made the world, why can’t he make my bed?”)

Michael McGirr: I told him God made the world so he might have a place in which to make his own bed.  I don’t think that is the only reason God made the world. The twins are now twelve and Benny is 14. They are an endless source of existential joy and financial grief. I am concerned about the intrusion of screens in their lives. Benny has his first speaking part in a play which starts at school tonight. Clare is learning bassoon. She is a force of nature. Jacob wants to be a high jumper and movie maker. We are working on an internet site for oldies. We are going to call it Thou Tube.

L.L.: What’s next for you? Are you working on another book.

Michael McGirr: I am writing a book about reading. It is called (at the moment) 52 THINGS TO READ BEFORE 25. It has my students in mind: it is a challenge to them to have crucial reading experiences in the years after they leave school when their brains are fresh and can bend to all the yoga postures of the mind that a rich reading life asks for. Young people will commit to the gym and their career. But they are much less likely to take the growth of their minds as seriously. So I want to stir them up.

L.L.: Michael, it’s been such fun. I could probably ask you questions all day…or night. What might I have forgotten to ask but should have?dsc_3626a2__880

Michael McGirr: I have loved your questions. This has been delightful. Thank you. SNOOZE is really a book about the quest for rest. That is broader than sleep, although sleep is a big part of it. The world is restless. It keeps screaming at us like an over-tired baby demanding attention. Tired people are vulnerable because they can’t think. They resort to clichés. They are comforted by meaningless platitudes. Sleep and rest are the wells of creativity.

[Leslie’s Note: Oh my gosh! You have got to visit this amazingly creative momma’s website, boredpanda.com. She’s turned her baby’s naptimes into clever dreamscapes]

For more information about SNOOZE, to connect with Michael McGirr through social media, or to purchase a copy, please see: 

MichaelMcGirr_auphoto_creditBill Spierings.jpegABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael McGirr is an essayist, reviewer, prize-winning short-story writer and teacher. A former Jesuit priest, he is also the author of Things You Get For Free and Bypass: The Story of a Road. He lives in Melbourne with his wife, Jenny, and their three rapidly growing children.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these venues:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Pegasus Books and used with permission. ‘City that Never Sleeps’ image retrieved from , sleep at night image from http://www.everydayhealth.com, sleeping baby from dailymail.uk.co, Sleeping baby with crane, from, which I highly recommend a visit to! All on 9.13.17]

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