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The Shapes of Time

On getting up early.

Of the physical symptoms in the creeping vanguard of middle age—cracking skin on the feet, declining eyesight—the worst, perhaps, is my complete thralldom to a rigid and quite boring sleep schedule. If I hit the sack later than 10:30 p.m. or rise much after 5:00 a.m., it is unlikely to be a top-rank day; it is unlikely that much worthwhile will happen at all.

My tenuous sanity relies on getting up in silence, making coffee without kibitzing, reading a few pages of something—something on paper—without interruption. (Shortcut to mental illness: Look at your phone first thing upon waking.) To hell with sanity; my livelihood depends on being able to spill thoughts, or at least words, out of my brain. After 7:30 a.m., when my children rise, thoughts and words take flight, leaving behind a sort of high-pitched hum that lasts until 8:00 p.m. By evening, the glittering foam of inspiration has dispersed, and the internal sea of the mind is smooth, beset with an idiotic calm. It is not moralizing when I tell people that by 7:00 a.m. the day is pretty much over. High-level cognition, original thought, the psychic bone-marrow you scrape out of yourself and spread on the page—inaccessible by breakfast.

I realize this is picky and a little precious. I should be more like Raymond Carver, who would bash out a page here, half a page there, while he waited in the car on the school run or his children were fighting. On the other hand, Carver drank himself to death at fifty; for now, I’m going to stick to getting up early. Nevertheless, I still feel a bit defensive about this prissiness. The fact that I have the sense that it requires explanation or justification is itself a sign that something a little unbalanced is afoot here. When my wife reads “King John’s Christmas” to the children—“King John was not a good man; he had his little ways”—I feel an uncomfortable pang of recognition and say to myself, Let’s hear his side of things.

It hasn’t always been this way. When I was young, I was a creature of the night; the serious part of the day would start at dinner, and things wouldn’t get really swinging until 10:00 p.m. or so. For a period of about a week when I lived in India, following a bout of the flu, I became straightforwardly nocturnal. It was the Divali holiday; my roommate was traveling and classes were not in session. I’d rise around sundown at the shy sound of the first experimental firecrackers, wash, dress, and then go out for a walk in the dark, watching the street dogs skitter and whine as the locals really got down to business with the fireworks. In this period, I tried every Western-style fast food restaurant within walking distance of my apartment, wrote about a quarter of a novel draft, and became extremely bugged out. I do not recommend a purely nocturnal schedule.

One of the beauties of being a creature of the night is that you do have long, uninterrupted stretches in which you can take a crack at wasting time in really complex ways. There was, in the physics building at my college, a lecture hall with a theater-grade sound system. In this cavern, named for some late magus of the acoustic sciences, a fellow creature of the night and I once started to watch Solaris, the Soviet answer to 2001, at two in the morning. It’s a two-and-a-quarter hour movie, and it’s catastrophically bad. It is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. Did we stop after the first hour? No. We just started complaining. I had two problem sets due at noon the next day, but this was really important, really high-level time-wasting.

Sometimes, I would eat fast food at three or four in the morning—really menacing stuff, like the “superburrito,” or, if I was in funds, a hearty cheeseburger-beer-milkshake trio. To me, now, a cheeseburger at 3:00 a.m. sounds like an exotic form of torture and execution, like scaphism or the golden bull. I can’t eat chips after nine.

Occasionally, at least once or twice a semester, usually around term-paper time, I would stay up a full twenty-four hours or longer. (I believe my record was something like forty-two.) Why did I do this? Surely I wasn’t productive for all those hours; even if I had been, the invariable twelve- to seventeen-hour crash that followed must have canceled it out. Youth is a kind of madness.

Perhaps age is, too, but it’s a much gentler one. Parties and the theater are out; the usual course of excitement is limited to a sort of desperate typing as 7:30 approaches. (Will I be able to finish writing before the kids are splashing oatmeal and bellowing “The Wheels on the Bus”? We’ll see.) Daylight savings shifts are for me a disaster, a private rendition of some civilization-ending Bronze-Age cataclysm, like the explosion at Tall el-Hammam or the eruption of Thera. Recovery time: six weeks, sometimes more, rarely less than four.

Bakhtin theorizes that the novel, and the written word more generally, is a way of giving time a shape; it is primarily a way of conditioning a person’s experience of time. The process of writing is, too. As I get older, the shapes and uses of time become more important. The men in my family die early.

It is now 7:30 a.m. The day has begun and this column must end.