Long Reads

Stylist Sleep Diaries: as an author, I can’t sleep when I’m on a book deadline

How well do you sleep? In a series of diary entries from women across the UK, Stylist is exploring one of our most prolific obsessions…

Here, a bestselling author and former mental health nurse explains why sleep is her ‘safe space’ - and how her routine dramatically differs when she is up against a writing deadline…

Name: Ali Land

Age: 37

Profession: Author

Actual sleep: 8 hours 

Ideal amount: 8 hours 

3 words to describe your sleep: Light, satisfying, essential

Sleep quality: 9/10

Sleep is my safe space, and a time when I can slow everything down and process what I’ve seen that day or what’s going on in the bigger picture of my life. I was a children’s mental health nurse for 10 years and loads of the young people I worked with had really extreme sleep disturbances, so it was always our goal to help them feel safe when they got into their beds. I know it’s a bit crazy but when I go to bed I always say a ‘thank you’ for this time, because I’ve worked with so many people who don’t have the peace of mind to sleep at night – you think it’s a fundamental thing, but so many people don’t have it.

I don’t have any issues with sleep normally, but when I’m on a deadline and writing a book, it will be all over the place. I will think and think and think for two months, then write intensely for four weeks, and then it’s done. I’m quite a high energy person so I know I can survive on small amounts of sleep, but I do crash after such an intense period of sleep disturbance, and it takes me about a week to feel normal again.

But I indulge myself in my writing; I changed careers and thought, I just want to spend a few years focusing on me as a writer. I have these periods of crazy times but I speak to a lot of other writers and creative people who do exactly the same – that’s why writers have sheds!

When I’m not on a writing deadline, my sleep routine is pretty simple:

7pm: This might be a bit rude but sleep is just one long expression of foreplay from the moment I get home! As soon as I walk through the door, I let the outside world peel away; I put on my pyjamas, light candles instead of having the bright lights on and make everything really low key. Then I’ll probably watch something on Netflix after eating my dinner.

Yankee candle

Ali’s favourite candle

9pm: I try and get off my phone as early as possible in the evening, and I always have it face down, on silent, so I can’t see the screen. I check it regularly enough to know if anyone has called, although I wouldn’t ever consider ringing anyone at night unless I had to. I’m like a grandma, really!

After watching some Netflix I get into bed and I always finish the day with some reading – I don’t know if that’s because I’m a writer, and it’s just a part of my life, but I do it every day. I usually read fiction, and I’ve just finished all four of Deborah Levy’s books. I’m quite an all-or-nothing type of person; I hadn’t read any of her books until a month ago, but they’re amazing. I loved getting into bed with this brilliant female voice, who had an incredible viewpoint. They are very emotionally intelligent books.

Again, I feel so lucky to be able to have a book to read. I know that sounds silly, but I’m fortunate to have that time and space to be able to sit in bed and quietly read.

I also re-read Silence of the Lambs a lot in bed; I know this sounds crazy, but it helps me unwind. I first read it when I was 12, and probably too young for it, because it really, really terrified me! But I loved it. I think it’s fascinating and I always keep it on my bedside table.

I also like reading poetry in bed, and dip in and out of poems by writers like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. I’m intrigued by darkness and the female mind so I have both of their collections. Poetry is great because it’s so quick – you can get a real rush from a poem, and then close the book and go to sleep. You don’t have to get really involved in a long chapter like you might with a book.

11pm: I always try to turn the lights off by 11pm, or 10.30pm if I can.

I don’t wear an eye mask in bed as the thought of my eyes being squashed against my skull really freaks me out. When it comes to sleep, I keep it really simple, although I do have one indulgence: I iron my bed sheets once a week. I used to work in a homeless charity and I saw grown men and women break down in tears when they were given a brand new duvet and pillow just for themselves, and it reminded me again that sleep is a luxury for some people.

I think there’s self-love in making your bed in the morning, in tidying up your room and having a clean-smelling bed with crisp bed sheets to get into at the end of the day. It makes me feel really calm, as if I matter to myself. Sometimes you give so much of yourself away in the day that you need that bit of time to think about yourself, too. So ironing my bed sheets makes a big difference to me.

My ideal would be to have no curtains and wake up to natural light, but obviously in London that’s really difficult – I’ve got the number six bus rumbling past my window, and everyone would be able to see me in my bed.

Books to read before bedtime

Ali’s bedtime books

While I usually live by the idea of ‘early to bed, early to life’, everything changes when I’m writing. As a creative, I’m a night owl, which is so annoying as I have all day to write, but I don’t. I can’t fight it, I just have to write during the night and not get too anxious about how much sleep I’m missing out on.

When I’m writing, I usually get around four to five hours of sleep, and it’s very poor quality and very disturbed. I get in and out of bed a lot; the inconvenient time of 4am is usually when I’m at my most creative. I wrote the entire prologue for my next book at 4am, it just spat out of me in this urge to write. 

There’s no point me getting into bed at 9pm when I’m writing a book because I’ll just sit there and worry, so instead I lie on the floor. I know that sounds crazy, but my head will be going at a hundred miles an hour, and I need something solid beneath me. I’ve completely surrendered to it now. I don’t worry about the fact that it’s midnight and I’m still up, lying on the bloody floor and listening to music. (I always pick music that matches my emotional state to my writing, so at the moment I’m listening to a lot of Sia, First Aid Kit and The Jezabels, really deep, female, emotional stuff.)

Headphones to listen to music

“There’s no point me getting into bed at 9pm when I’m writing a book because I’ll just sit there and worry, so instead I lie on the floor”

Listening to music really informs my writing, so during this time I’ll be popping off the floor onto my desk to scribble stuff down and then eventually getting into bed for a few hours. But I dream vividly when I sleep, to the point that I don’t even know if I’m sleeping or awake. I have no idea what’s happening during this time, but I start to see really clear visions of the book and the characters.

I’ll be in and out of bed, writing notes on Post-its, which I then read in the morning and think, no way! I’ll tear them down, but stick them back up again. This messy way of sleeping is actually really useful to my writing process because I know it’s just my brain accessing parts of my mind that I haven’t got to yet. I don’t know how it works but it feels like it’s on a search for something that I can’t get to during the day.

Author Ali Land

Author Ali Land

When this first started happening, I used to think I was going mad, but I’ve come to realise it’s just an expression of the highly creative urges that I can’t let out during the day. I feel like I have to keep it together during the day – go to the grocery store, see my friends, and so on – but at night all of this stuff can boil up and spill over. 

It’s dramatically different to how I sleep when I’m not writing but I’ve actually come to enjoy it now; it feels liberating. I had such a responsible job when I was a mental health nurse because I felt like I was the one everyone looked to for an answer, and I knew I had to be OK because most other people weren’t. So sometimes now I feel like this disturbed sleep is my way of not being OK, and I’m processing some of the really heavy stuff that I’m writing about.

You can read an exclusive extract from Ali’s first novel, Good Me Bad Me, on Stylist here

You can read more Sleep Diaries here

Eye mask courtesy of Oliver Bonas