When it is 2 a.m. and I am wide-awake and agitated, I channel Ernest Hemingway. We are strange bedfellows, in a way: While other women in my literature courses preferred to discuss Virginia Woolf or Flannery O’Connor, I was often hiding in the back row, adrift in the pages of The Sun Also Rises . What I find absolute and masterful in Hemingway’s style, many others I know find stark, plain, even sexist. But t here is something about the plaintiveness in Hemingway’s prose that drew me in. It made me want to learn how to write.
When I cannot sleep, I do not go through Hemingway’s novels, one of which I loved enough to have the title tattooed on my forearm (how my mother wept!). Instead, when insomnia strikes, I consider how Hemingway unwillingly courted the ghosts of his daylight in the stillest hours of the night.
Lack of sleep does funny things to a person. Two a.m. is when I begin to wildly calculate the hours I have left until my children start stirring and I am forced, against my will, to begin my day. Two a.m. is when I begin my own frantic decline into semi-madness. And I know, in the space where darkness lies heavy on my breast, that Hemingway and I are, in this weariest and most desperate way, alike.
Hemingway struggled with insomnia his entire life. It threaded through the maudlin letters he wrote to other writers, and was entrenched in the characters of his stories. In “A Clean Well Lighted Place,” an old waiter muses about insomnia: Many must have it, he says, to comfort himself.
The waiter takes comfort in the brightness of the restaurant, even in the nighttime; he doesn’t want to leave and head back to his empty house, where he knows he will lie awake until morning. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted.
The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves, he tells another waiter in the story. It makes me wonder if Hemingway longed to be there in that bar, or in a place like it, when his own insomnia struck; sleeplessness, after all, seems less of a burden in a clean, well-lighted place.
In the same story, there is a discussion of a suicide attempt by another character—a thwarted attempt, but the other waiter wished he had succeeded: You should have killed yourself last week, he mutters to the man, bitterly. Thirty years after writing this story, Hemingway, in a state of insomnia, would attempt suicide once, and fail, before actually completing the deed in the early morning hours of July 2, 1961.
I drove two hundred and fifty miles Up North , as we say in Michigan, from my home in Detroit to an old bar in Petoskey, the brick-and-mortar inspiration for Hemingway’s story. I clambered onto the oak stool where Hemingway himself once sat; where he eavesdropped and conjured up characters. There, I overheard a churlish bartender chat with customers about him.
This bar is in one of his stories, I heard her say to a confused couple from Wisconsin, as they nodded appreciatively. You should read it. It's called “A Very Clean Place.”
I was relieved the waitress didn't try to talk to me as I downed three pints of Northern Michigan beer, cold and crisp like Walloon Lake, a body of water just a few miles away from where I sat. Walloon Lake was where young Ernest Hemingway spent his summers: fishing and wading, taking long walks in the woods with local girls. He often came to Northern Michigan as a child, until that last time he visited, after his wedding to his first wife, Hadley. Did he sleep then, on his honeymoon in that boggy house with his bride? Had his insomnia already begun?
Hemingway used his mother’s house on the lake as the setting for another short story, one I often recalled in the middle of my own sleepless nights. In it, Nick Adams rows across the glassy water of Walloon toward his parents’ cottage house—the place where he, too, will spend his wedding night. The story is an autobiographical account, thinly veiled as fiction. After Hemingway dragged the rowboat onto the bank, after he lifted his wife over the threshold and minded her trailing white skirts, after he undressed her layer by layer and they made love, did he collapse in sated dreams in the bedroom of this youth? Or was he just as sleepless in his mother’s house as he was everywhere else—perhaps even more so, because of the ghosts that lingered there? His mother was a tyrant, he often said so. And it was her house. He never went back there after his wedding night; he never saw Walloon Lake again.
Insomnia is the bitter digestif to a long day of living. The writer is expected (or, arguably, born) to devour the world and its inhabitants: Her ears are tuned to the conversations around her; she asks intimate questions of grocery store cashiers and postal clerks and other strangers; she is curious to know how people work, the stop-start of their inner monologues, their interesting or unremarkable or heartbreaking backstories. She feeds all day on the lives of others. And then she carries it home, full in her belly, to write her stories.
After a long day’s repast, consuming the emotion of other people’s lives and digesting it slowly, my brain cannot turn off with the bedroom light. My mind plays back the scenes and softnesses of the day, whirling them into something sometimes writeable, and sometimes akin to madness. The people I have spoken to throughout the day continue to trouble me, as I replay their choices and their words, their questions and certainties and inevitable falls.
What worries me most is that I will not find the words to write their stories. That I will not capture the way the nurse tapped her long red fingernails on the wall while I chronicled my ailments. That I will never be able to describe the bartender with hunching shoulders who fingered her pack of Camel Lights as she repeated half-stories, half-lies at Hemingway’s bar. That I will not fully convey the hardness of voice in the man who, one table over, told his mistress he would never, ever be leaving her, even if this means things are over for good.
How will I write it, just right? Hemingway has already said everything best—is there a reason to try to say it again? Or did even Hemingway, unshakeable Hemingway, feel this fear, too, and is that partly why he couldn’t sleep?
The fullness, the fear of failure does not plague me so much in the daylight. These worries creep up in the middle of the night, when my family is sleeping and the suburban cul-de-sac where my children ride bicycles in the summer is quiet. While my husband sleeps, while my children snore in their bedrooms down the hall, I stay awake like my genius insomniac, dead two decades before I was born. I hunch in front of a computer screen, with the cursor cruelly blinking, and chew on conversations overheard in restaurants, falsehoods from a bartender who only wants to escape for a smoke break in the alley, the heaving hesitation in a lover’s voice, the clenching heartbreak of a bouquet of flowers tossed in the road and broken. I spit out words and sentences that no one will ever read, that aren ’ t even good enough to edit. I write it all out.
When the light finally begins to seep into the room, I am resolutely empty. The voices from my day are put to bed just as the children in my house begin stirring in theirs. Just before morning, the same time when Hemingway’s typewriter might have fallen silent, that’s when I hear it: the final crack of disappearing insomnia, followed by the soothing white noise of the finished page. Hungry again, I heave myself into my own bed, and finally sleep.