Picture yourself voluntarily waking up at 3:15 am every morning for an entire month. Now imagine lurching around in the dark to find a notebook, flipping to a blank page, and writing whatever comes to mind. And now suppose I said this exercise could supercharge your productivity and make you more creative.
I know, I know… about as likely as a break-dancing squirrel. Right?
When I first heard about the so-called 3:15 Experiment, I shook my head. I mean, seriously, I have enough trouble sleeping as it is. Why on earth would I intentionally wake up in prime dreaming time just to scribble in my journal? What could possibly come of it, other than grumpy moods and a medical need for coffee? On the other hand, I’m very often awake at 3:15 anyway. So why not give it a go?
For the first few days I remained unconvinced. Sure, it was interesting to wake up and see what my semi-conscious mind had oozed in the wee hours. But the result was usually nonsensical drivel or a series of cringe inducing cliches. My heart longs for trampoline freedoms… Shudder.I stuck with it though and, after a few days, I noticed something unexpected and kinda cool.
My daytime writing was getting better.
Here’s a sample 3:15 from August 2013 (see previous posts for an explanation).
The idea that the dishes
of our mind
be laid out
elegant as swans
I would rather be a dog
barking at my reflection
I see balls
I chase them
wag at inopportune moments
and live ever expecting
A measured imagination
is too shy to yodel
in the pancake house
lest the patrons disapprove
stiffen newspaper spines
create a space
safe from poets,
calmed by the pleasant geometry
of plate, spoon, fork, mug
– another refill please –
two packets of saccharine, two creams.
Building on the theme of my previous post, just getting out of your own way so the ideas can flow is one of the most important tasks facing an artist of any kind. There are countless books on the mystery of creativity (two of my faves are The Artist’s Way and Flow). But last August I tried something different: I participated in the 3:15 Experiment. Begun in 1993, participants, for the entire month of August, wake up at 3:15 am, grab a pen and paper, and write. As it turned out, the waking up part was easy (I’m usually engaged in mental blood sport at 3:15 am anyway). The really hard part was just letting myself write. I froze.
The idea behind the Experiment is that at 3:15 am your dreaming mind will be doing its thing (putting ducks in marching bands, sending you to parties with long-dead relatives, getting naked with an appalling assortment of people, and so on) while your asshole critical mind will still be off duty. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen the first couple of nights. Instead, I recall sitting on the bathmat with the icy tub against my back, shivering and trying to come up with something to put on the page. Oh god, just anything.
Except that’s not really what I was doing. What I was actually doing was trying to come up with a concept that I could write about: how nighttime noises might be metaphors for daytime fears, how a bed might actually be a ship we sail to new worlds, blah, blah, blah. Exactly the kind of high-level thinking work that is next to impossible at 3:15 am. After a couple of confidence blighting nights, I hit on the idea of just writing down whatever floated into my brain-space: images, fears, phrases, anything. Really anything: doggy sleep placemat sky belch. It worked – mostly because I stopped caring so much. I was writing down instead of writing about. Things didn’t have to make sense, or come to a tidy conclusion, or demonstrate my ear for rhythm, my vocabulary, etc. I was just plucking images from the cloudy soup of my 3 am brain.
By the end of the month I felt a stronger connection to that dreamy, random idea generator. And I had the confidence to just write stuff down, because every once in a while something really interesting would show up. Also, the discipline of getting up to write every single night for a month meant that part of my daytime brain was thinking ahead: Hey that limping dog is really sad, you should put that image in a poem. Which word is funnier: scrotum or proboscis? From a distance, those rocks looks alive… perhaps our goals are like that.
A collection of 3:15 poetry was published a few years back (including work by the fabulous Danika Dinsmore!) and there’s even a website where participants can upload their works. I’m posting a sample poem or two above, not because I think they’re affecting, finely wrought masterpieces, but because they captured something of my hypnogogic creative brain. And they remind me how effortless writing can be if I just let go.