the big sleep

Before you begin work on your next major creative project, let it simmer. Days, weeks, months. Wait until the urge to begin becomes an obsession. Then, go to sleep. So argues surrealist painter Salvador Dalí in his very strange book, 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship.

In Dalí’s view, creativity is a compost pile. Your experiences—coffee-grounds commute, apple-core argument, watermelon-rind walk—feed the pile. But rich, fertile soil doesn’t form overnight. The itch to paint, sculpt, compose, or write something is a fragile spark. According to Dalí, you’ll only put it out by throwing the logs on right away. Instead, let kindling accumulate. Wait until the spark has caught and you have a nice, steady creative fire going. Now you’re ready. Go to bed early:

In undertaking an important pictorial work which you are anxious to bring to a successful completion and on which your heart is particularly set, you must before anything else begin it by sleeping as deeply, as soundly as it is possible for you to do.

Only once you are buzzing with ideas and burning with creative energy should you proceed. When that day arrives, climb under the covers nice and early for a luxuriously long kick-off sleep. Yes, Dalí acknowledges, you might find it hard to doze off in such a hyper-activated state, but the ritual is worth the effort:

Without this inaugural sleep you almost surely run the risk that your work will be undertaken prematurely, so that the impatience and the nervous strain involved in the project will make you, so to speak, start on the wrong foot—which is almost the worst thing that could happen to you at the outset.

According to Dalí, a good night’s sleep creates the “physical and psychic calm” necessary to face a blank canvas. Meanwhile, your dreaming mind solves any “subtle and complicated technical problem” that might flummox your waking mind in the morning.

I’m never one for adding extra steps, but there’s value in letting a promising idea mature even as you continue working on other writing projects. As long as you’re toying with that seed in the back of your mind, it will pick up a host of interesting associations, becoming richer and deeper as it ages. Like whiskey in an oak barrel. Whiskey being the, uh, idea and the barrel being, um, life? (I should have let that metaphor simmer a bit longer in the oak barrel of life.)

Dalí also recommends entering a somnolent state while you work:

It was in order to put painters to sleep while keeping them awake that at the height of the Renaissance it was usual to surround them with diversions and to play Aeolian music, so that during their long and patient hours of manual labor they might keep their minds elsewhere as much as possible.

I think he’s talking about flow here. When it’s time to write in the morning, I fire up lofi study girl and shut my brain off, or at least tamp it way down, so I can get a little real work done. This goes back to last week’s essay. Writers think they need to think as they write, but they’re wrong. In Dalí’s view, “the painter who reflects is always a bad painter, and I dare say also that the same is true for the philosopher.” And the writer. Don’t forget the writer. Dalí’s techniques for sleeping, napping, and daydreaming are all intended to drown out or disable the mind’s ceaseless efforts to analyze and judge the work-in-progress. All that thinking only got in the way. Clocks don’t wilt, but you can’t let facts get in the way of a good idea.

p.s. As I’ve written before, I rely on the co-working app Focusmate to power through morning writing sessions. Recently, I discovered London Writers’ Salon, a group that hosts four free Zoom co-writing sessions every weekday. I gave it a try to mix things up, co-writing with over a hundred other participants instead of just one. All writers. It was a nice change of pace. If you’re looking for some additional accountability, give the Writers’ Hour a shot. You can register and get the Zoom links here.

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