Sunday, 1 May 2016


The start of May, and surely this is a time to be up before daybreak, washing one's face in the morning dew or similar? Such a delightfully romantic thought but I know that many people are awake well before daybreak, struggling to sleep and dreading an unproductive writing day ahead. 

My post today is about how I dealt - rather unhelpfully, as it turned out - with insomnia.

Sound easily fills the head. The companionable hum of the earlier versions of Radio 4 formed much of my childhood soundscape. 

My mother listened to speech radio around the house. It was her constant friend, what made her laugh and a reminder of the wider world, which is why, years later and almost subconsciously, any radio rambling away in the background reminds me of reliable, peaceful hours when all was well at home. Even though I’m now more than well grown up, speech radio - with a few exceptions - helps me to relax.

Then, a decade or more back, technology changed. During a weary stretch of anxiety-driven insomnia, combined with constant unwanted background noise, made me start saving my sanity by using a set of ear-pods. Late-night listening became my habit. 

Besides, whenever I slept away from home particularly for author visits - those trusty ear-pods helped me cope, occasionally, with strange surroundings. Back then, all this seemed a good thing.

However, the time came when I had to acknowledge that my comforting night-time fix wasn’t as beneficial as I imagined or as I pretended to myself.
For a start, changes in broadcast radio volume often  half-woke me, breaking up my already-cracked sleep pattern. I’d over-ride the sleep function on my i-pod. I found I was drifting in and out of sleep all night, listening without benefit. 

I remembered little of what I heard, so audio books were worthless. I recalled very few memories of the knowledge soporifically revealed by Melvyn Bragg on his In Our Time podcasts. 
In addition, whenever I finally woke, I felt weary and gloom-ridden from hearing bad news again and again. And by now I felt anxious about staying anywhere overnight without a fully charged i-pod or phone. I knew my listening habit was now doing me no good. 

It had to stop

It has. For the last few weeks, I’ve gone to bed without any sound devices in the room. The first nights were quite tough. I lay wide-awake, longing to get up and find my phone or i-pod. 

Once I gave in but my i-pod needed re-charging so my wavering resolution was saved. Eventually a good but heavy Author Visit proved a blessing and the exhaustion afterwards kicked me onwards into a better pattern of sleep.

Slowly my habits have improved but I still get tempted. I have to make myself forget how interesting and positive World Radio items can be, there among all that stuff that really, really isn’t. 

I have to resist the delicious pleasures of hearing Farming Today’s blustery farmyard encounters or Clare Balding Ramblings from my cosy bed because that would mean the device was there in reach and "dangerous" all night.
The change is going well but I’m still wary. Only one thing keeps me determined and that's the reason I’ve put this post on ABBA today, right here on a blog that’s about books and writing. My petty device-drama-in-the-dark hardly merits anyone’s attention but for one important fact. 

Once I’d stopped over-filling my night-time head with other people’s thoughts, I started regaining some thoughts and ideas of my own!

Yes, once I’d stopped waking weighed down by early morning news, I found enough left inside my brain to wake, ready and wanting to start writing again. I am, as they say, in a calmer place.

I’m listening now but I listen to the quiet and the silence - and I’ve found my decision is  helping me in all sorts of ways. Those nice devices are still around but, right now, it’s a case of my potential words against their existing soundopoly.

I know who I want to win in the writing stakes. Me.

Penny Dolan.

ps. Another thought: If constant sound made me less creative, what does it do to all the young people habitually wearing headphones late into the night? 
ps. And an apology: If you have young children, you may have little sympathy with this post. If so, to you, woken way to early and too often by little people, I can only apologise. You are heroes!


Joan Lennon said...

This is really interesting - well done with your spring resolution and the good old sound of silence!

Lynne Benton said...

Good luck, Penny. I can't cope with someone else's words when I'm trying to sleep (or think) either. Here's to some really good peaceful nights' sleep - in silence!

Emma Barnes said...

Who knew Melvyn Bragg was so dangerously addictive? (Actually, I'm addicted too - but I listen in the day, not at night.)

Insomnia is so horrible, no wonder you've found it so hard to ditch the background noise. My tip - try doing crossword puzzles. They bore you into sleep (at least if you're as bad at them as I am).

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A really interesting post Penny. Like you I grew up with radio. It accompanied every hour of my day from the moment I woke I could hear someone blathering away in the kitchen and my afternoon homework at the kitchen table was accompanied by a further cacophony. And yes I suppose it was a comfort... all had to be well with the world if we were still listening to the strike of Big Ben coming from London over the airwaves all the way to South Africa but after the News followed the Shipping news and every wind blowing in every direction, followed by the price of potatoes/wheat/corn at the Cape Town market. I hated the noise and it put me into a real teenage rage.

Not sure if I should admit this but to this day I never turn on a radio except in the car and have never listened to a pod cast at night. But I know it brings comfort to many many people... including my sister who had her radio playing all night. So clearly members in a family are affected differently. Good luck with your night silences.

Julie Sykes said...

I'm with you on the sound of silence, Penny. I need an empty and quiet house when I'm thinking. But once an idea has taken hold I love to hear the background burble of radio 4.

Well done for breaking your i-pod habit. I hope it results in some great new books.