Blake Butler writes lists like this one as well as fictions and memoirs like this and blog posts such as this. And he edits the site Lamination Colony. And if you haven’t read his recent story in Ninth Letter, “The Gown From Mother’s Stomach,” do yourself a favor and find it immediately. Here’s the first line: The mother ate thread and lace for four weeks so that their daughter would have a gown.
Oh, yeah. And he suffers from insomnia.
Tell me about the genesis of your insomnia. Is this a more recent occurrence, or did it begin in high school? Grade school? College? Have you always had trouble sleeping? Or was there a trigger of some sort?
I have had trouble sleeping for as long as I can remember. As an infant I had sleep terrors, where I would be awake and not recognize my mother and she would try to go and help me and I would cower from her and scream. Between 6-12 I always got scared at night, I remember laying with my head in the hallway so I could see my parents' room and feeling like there were people moving where I couldn't see them. I always kept the door open because a closed door scared me worse. Also, once I checked out MISERY from the library, didn't even open it, but it just being there in my room fucked me up quite a bit. Younger, sleeplessness I think came from fear and/or the unknown. But now it seems more stemmed out of not being able to stop thinking. Thinking about what I said that day, things I want to happen, things that might happen, bits of conversations, ideas, things I know I have to do. Thinking about knowing I need to sleep. Busy brain. I can't stop thinking even if I'm not thinking about anything, even if I focus on staring into nothing. It tends to come and go, but as far back as middle school I think this was the case, and writing has definitely made that worse rather than better, as a lot of the things I tend to get stuck on thinking about involve some aspect of writing, though often the more routine aspects like submissions and routine rather than creative aspects, so it seems unhealthy in that way too. Obsession, I guess, could be fingered as the number one cause of why I don't sleep.
Do you suffer from any other seemingly related afflictions? i.e. OCD or hypochondria? Anxiety, panic attacks, addictions…?
Um, people tell me I'm annoying? :) No, yeah, I probably do have some amount of OCD regarding certain things. I often can't sit still and will start ranting and rummaging for no good reason. I think OCD is a major part of what keeps me awake at night: my brain rummaging for what it needs to do. I know one of my major 'quirks' so to speak is that about 6 years ago I had this word occur in my head, a nonsense word, with nothing clear attached to it, and since then I've said that word at least a handful of times a day everyday. I don't know why it occurred to me or what it is about it, but I think maybe the repetition soothes me, it tends to come out when I am excited or annoyed, but at the same time it does not feel Tourette's-like, ie: I can choose not to do it, I can control myself. Over the years the word has changed with all sorts of extra meat attached to it, little derivations. At this point it's probably more of a habit than a tic or anything, but there's definitely something peculiar about why I do it, though I couldn't tell you what. Little weird anxieties like that have manifested themselves also, ie: playing air bass with my fingers when I get excited (I will never let anyone see me do that, I can also control it, I think), but none as prevalent as 'the word.' I won't say what the word is.
In what way do you think your insomnia has affected your writing? Do you write more when you can't sleep? Do you think the quality of the writing at that time is better or worse than when you're well-rested?
Insomnia probably is definitely a negative impact on my writing. People tend to think about insomnia in a poetic kind of way, wherein, oh you can't sleep, so your brain enters a new world and you are shifted or something. No, it's pretty debilitating. There's no refresh rate, and no dreams, and dreaming I think is massively important in the kind of associative writing I like the most, so when I am not getting this time I often feel depleted. I used to write constantly at night while I was awake but now I think I've found I do my best work early in the day, so if I wake up feeling deader than when I went to sleep, it puts a big blockade in front of me. It is hard to tease your mind into wanting to do anything. Though I will say, when my sleeplessness is ramped down a little, where I am sleeping 2-4 hours a night, I find that has me get into a kind of zone, where I am always halfway between asleep and awake, I tend to call it 'zonked,' and though in this state I'm pretty useless for interaction: I don't want to talk, can't think of anything to say, nothing comes out, this is when I find I am most open for letting shit I didn't know was in me pour out, which I think is the state that the majority of my work has spurred from in the past year in particular. So yeah, it definitely is defining to my work in a way, but certainly not always a bonus. Kind of like a plastic face?
You're known as a very prolific writer. It's getting so a person can't pick up a journal or go to a literary website without seeing your name (not that a person wouldn't *want* to see your name, Blake. Of course they *would*. I, for one, get quite excited when I do!). Do you think this is a direct result of your insomnia?
Ha, thanks Elizabeth. If there were any one thing that is probably the cause of my insomnia lately, it is submitting work, obsessing about submitting work. I've lost a lot of sleep thinking about placing books, and stories, and who/how/where/when I can do things to make this happen. That's one thing I was definitely able to do with no rest at all, is submitting. My submission log for the past 18 months is kind of disgustingly obsessive, almost 18 pages in microsoft word in 10 point font, with one submission on each line. Luckily some of it began to stick. So yeah, back then, I was worrying a lot about what to do with my stuff, when I would hear something, and now I lay there thinking when am I going to place a full length book, which is kind of new hyper-strain of anti-sleep obsession (which is why as I am writing this I have come off a 60 hour no sleep binge). I've always been a very instant gratification type person, and in the writing world, you can only do so much before you have no control and your fate is left up to others, which is super anti-me, and so my brain continues squelching itself trying to find ways to subvert or alter the process, hence the over-thinking. If I didn't write, I would probably get a lot more sleep, but maybe then also all the ideas and energy I get out in the process of writing would haunt me in different ways. So who knows?
What's the longest you've ever gone without sleeping?
When I was 20 I had mono and supreme insomnia at the same time. I was awake 129 hours, while sick and in bed. With mono of course you are supposed to sleep even more, and so the more than 5 days of not sleeping really fucked me up. I don't remember a lot about the time really. I remember seeing heads come out of the wall and they were talking to me and I mostly didn't say anything back. I remember walking down the hall at my house crying and seeing that the hall went on way longer than it was supposed to. I remember seeing my hand go through the wall. The new year came during this time and I think it was after the year shifted that I finally fell asleep. There is an urban legend that you can be considered legally insane after a certain number of hours, but I recently read this is untrue, though supposedly 2-3% of pleas of insanity for this reason have actually been admitted. Even if you are not legally insane, there is definitely a feeling of complete fuckedness attached, and in some cases I know I was not in a human mind. Shit, yesterday I hadn't slept in 2 days and had to go to the county tag office to renew my vehicle, and I found myself sitting at the glass window talking through it to a large woman and I was supposed to give her my ID, and I couldn't find my ID in my wallet, it was gone, and I have a ton of shit in my wallet and I was taking all of it out and sweating and talking to myself and my hand was bleeding as I'd cut it open somehow coming through the metal detector to get into the building, and the woman said, 'Sir, you can take your time,' and I was laughing and almost crying and my stuff was everywhere and I was sucking the blood out of my hand so it wouldn't drip and I looked at her and said something like 'God took my ID' and the woman didn't blink and the woman just watched me put my stuff back in my wallet and stand up and leave. That was a good day.
When was the last time you got seven or eight hours sleep in one night?
Recently it's been really bad, so I don't know, I really couldn't say. The past two weeks when I sleep I've averaged 2-4 hours or so, though some nights none. That's worse than average. I have periods where I average 5-6 hours, that is probably my norm. I think the last time I got 7 or more was after I went to the ER after having drank more than I was supposed to (I don't drink very often because usually I feel fucked up enough as it is from not sleeping), after that I slept like 20 hours.
God I sound insane. Ha.
What about relationships? It must be exhausting (pun, regrettably, intended) to date you. (Side note: Aaron thinks it’d be interesting for you to date a narcoleptic.) Have you found it challenging? Maintaining a long-term relationship, I mean?
It hasn't really affected me at all in that camp thankfully. As weird or irritating as the sleepless can make me, I'm not like cutting babies fingers off or throwing up blood? I tend to be in long relationships as opposed to dating a lot, and in each of the relationships I have been in, it's been understood. My current girlfriend tends to keep odd hours herself, though she is somewhat of a sleep master: she can sleep harder and longer than anyone I've ever seen, and sometimes it rubs off on me, so that's nice. It probably is frustrating when I get into bad stretches where I can't really sleep in the same bed because I'll just lay there tossing and turning and being annoying, so I can't imagine it's always roses. But otherwise, yeah, I'm pretty awesome. ;)
Narcolepsy is pretty hot, I'll admit.
Whom do you read when you're having a particularly bad bout of insomnia? Or do you read the same authors regardless of your sleep schedule?
Hmm, this is an interesting question. It's hard to remember reading anything during those times, to be honest, though I know I do because often when I am that tired it is hard to do anything else. With my recent bad strain I've been reading the long story 'Orbit' by Noy Holland, which I feel connected to in so many ways, it really is a fantastic thing. I don't know, I think as with most times I prefer to read stuff that seems tied to dream logic, that operates on its own brain rather than realistic storytelling procedures and explanative prose. I am tend towards that, though when I read that and am not able to rest, it feels like rest a little, because it feels like I am dreaming? If you are telling me too much I can understand, I start to reel from it because my brain starting poking holes in shit and I would much rather just not understand instead be absorbed and pleasured and left reeling a little, if that makes sense. Though often, sleeplessness will leave you reading the same page over and over, not quite getting it ever, which is an instruction in and of itself.
You talk a lot about dreaming, and, as someone who dreams almost nightly without thinking much about it/sort of taking it for granted, I’m curious how often you do dream and what the last dreams you can remember having were about…do you tend toward nightmares?
I have always had very intense and often brutal dreams, so vivid and multicolored and full of so much, and I don't know what I'd do without them. I very rarely have just a normal, straightforward sleep sequence. Most nights I can remember several in a row, some of which seem to last for days or weeks, and with as much trouble as I have with no sleeping, if the dreams were removed I think I'd really lose it. Dreaming often feels much more useful and important than waking, I think: I look at the sleeping world as just as tied to reality as anything else. If you experience in it your mind, I believe it can serve to have the same effect as something that actually happens, at least emotionally or in brain-wrinkling. I used to keep a lengthy dream journal and for a while had trained myself in lucid dreaming, which I would like to get back to.
Here's one dream that has haunted me since I had it, very brief:
My father talking in his sleep: The condom broke. After all these times I've slept around on her, your mother always takes me back.
And here's a post on my blog about the last dream I wrote down, a particularly ripped one about a kid with the impression of a dick in the center of his head, and a huge hairy muscle man trying to force his dick inside him, screaming.
I love brutal dreams. Dreams with worlds so massive it feels like it takes years to move through them.
Do you ever incorporate these dreams into your fiction? Or just write them down verbatim and call them a story? Like the one you mention above, about the kid with the dick in his head? Seems like that would make for good reading…
I’ve definitely used certain dreams for scenes in things, particularly the ones I can’t seem to get out of my head until they are written down. I don’t think I’ve recently written one long thing that was all just from sleep as I think the most fun I have writing is taking those unconscious images and seeing how they blur or walk around in my (half) awakened mind. There are probably several scenes from dreams in the chapbook I did earlier this year with Publishing Genius PRETEND I AM THERE BUT VERY LITTLE, such as the scene with the father wrestling the mother and blowing her up with an apple. It’s funny how certain dream images can stay inside of you forever. I love reading dreams in fiction, even despite the big MFA hype saying ‘Dreams are boring, you shouldn’t use them.’ I’ve always disagreed with that. I think yeah it can be hard to make it work well but the dream scenes in books like Stanley Elkin’s THE MAGIC KINGDOM or J.M. Coetzee’s WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, those slay. I think a lot of the books I love best, though, read like dreams w/o the context of sleep, in the same way that films like INLAND EMPIRE tend to blur that line so well it makes you feel like you are hallucinating rather than entering a ‘fantasy land.’ Our reality right now feels so cloaked and underwater from even the way it was 5 years ago, I honestly don’t see how storytelling can be vital without some sense of the sleep mind or nightmare welling in.
Oftentimes, when a person’s been through a particular hardship, be it a drug addiction or cancer or a bad childhood, they’re asked years later if they’d trade their life, trade their affliction, for a more “normal” one…
You know, sometimes when it's 6 AM and I'm on a roadtrip in a room full of dudes, listening to them all on the beds and floor around me in whatever weird motel we've crashed in, all breathing heavy and sleeping still, having conked out within 5 minutes after their head hit the pillow while I'm still there beside them thinking about how dirty the comforter is, how many heads have been on that same pillow, how the cleaning ladies could easily leave the sheets on without washing and we'd never know, thinking goddamn it can I just go to sleep, yeah, in those moments, it's easy to want to trade. I think I'd honestly trade a couple fingers and toes for the ability to be able to lay down and go under immediately, without all the tossing and bullshit, it's really beyond unfun. In fact, sometimes, in order to finally make myself go to sleep, I will get up and leave the bed and go out of the room and come back in trying to thinking of myself as a different person, I will lay down straight and flat with my arms beside me and try to forget that I've spent the last 4 hours on the cusp, and the last however many nights of however many years in the same, and sometimes that's actually enough to let me settle into nowhere, and I'll fall asleep. It's a weird tactic, one that is even more effective, I've found, with a full stomach of breakfast cereal (eating a ton the way I did when I was fat seems to revert me to the mindset of when back then I could actually sleep). But at the same time, yeah, I would probably not be at all the same person, more better or for worse, I might be nicer, I might be less bitchy/cranky, and I am certain that the way my thoughts come into me would be severely altered, therefore probably altering my person? So really, I guess since I can't switch anyway, I'll take the bag I got.
Do you think there is a part of you subconsciously clinging to this idea of you as an insomniac? That might get in the way of you “getting better”?
You're probably right, it does tend to perpetuate itself, especially when you get into the mindset of sleeplessness becoming your reality. For me, it works in phases, and right now thankfully I am sleeping pretty hard when I finally do nod out, though the sun tends to be up now before I can nod off. I do love being up in those hours when it seems no one else is anywhere: no phone calls, no moving cars, no questions, no bills, no light. I think it's at that time that I feel the most comfortable, the most me. That's a nice place to be, even if it slurs many of the other, normal-person hours.