My roommate is an early riser. It’s a habit; reliable as the sun, that glinted with novelty when we started living together. I’m not one to yoke people to their routines, but time has mulled us over, and it suits her well. She’s the kind of Virgo whose weapon of choice is a vacuum and whose laundry hamper is a mocking lightweight.
Few people are so eager to begin their day when the sky has freshly blued, and I certainly am not one of them. My roommate and I are seasoned performers of the early bird and night owl farce — where she wakes up, lolling in daybreak, only to see my face bathed in MacBook-blue light, desperately clutching yesterday like sand in an hourglass.
I actually enjoy staying up late. My eyelids have always been slow to droop, so I could pull an all-nighter before I could recite my times tables. It wasn’t hard to outlast my best friends at sleepovers or my overworked parents on school nights. These moments were soaked in pride, sweetened with the triumph of endurance.
I got older and soon got busier. Daylight curled around school and responsibility. Twilight, sometimes detoured by obligation, coasted on promise like cars on the PCH. Edna St. Vincent Millay puts it well in “Recuerdo”: “We were very tired, we were very merry.” When car doors shut, I came upon night feeling spent but not sated, with no desire to sleep.
For a restless mind, it feels natural to write at night. My head exercises gymnastic fantasies. Ideas spill like a dozen wriggling silverfish. I come back to a line from “A Letter that Never Reached Russia,” where Vladimir Nabokov’s narrator writes, “At night one perceives with a special intensity the immobility of objects — the lamp, the furniture, the framed photographs on one’s desk. Now and then the water gulps and gurgles in its hidden pipes as if sobs were rising to the throat of the house.”
My apartment last year sat on the top floor of our building. If we left the blinds open, light flooded the living room. Sunbeams licked couch cushions and carpet. It was a happy space, buoyed by bare feet and inside jokes. Days neared their finish line, and darkness crept into the living room, rolling over the basil on the windowsill. My housemates would peel off like petals to bed. Then, it was just me.
I would write until my contacts clouded, when I was too stubborn to put on my glasses. The world tilted on the verge of collapse. It was an electric concentration, a time when getting ready for bed felt like giving up. (I think of Nabokov, again, when he calls sleep “the most moronic fraternity in the world … I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius.”)
There’s a strange freedom in extending the body’s limits, a clear-eyed frenzy of indulging artistic temperament. The phosphenes of dreams slip into the waking mind’s consciousness. If you wait long enough, it feels like you can hear the siren’s song, taste the pomegranates of the underworld.
Picking up this habit, it’s comforting to consult history and learn that night owls are no endangered species. Flaubert got distracted by daytime noises and made a routine writing for hours each night. Pianist Glenn Gould followed “a very nocturnal sort of existence.” Franz Kafka wrote “The Judgment” in a single sitting from 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. “Writing is a deeper sleep than death,” he wrote to Felice Bauer. “Just as one wouldn’t pull a corpse from its grave, I can’t be dragged from my desk at night.”
On a practical level, I understand the problem with staying up late, or the problem with coating unhealthy habits in candied language. I’ve tried starting and ending my days earlier, but if I’m honest, it’s not worth it. Author Ann Beattie said in an interview that there are “day people and night people,” and I firmly fall with the latter.
The world quiets at night. Work songs hush, and velvet inks stretch across space. It tingles like private, borrowed time — an illustrious mirage that dissolves when the sun rises and reprimands. But for a moment, the night pulses with a strange alloy of adventure and serenity. Once it’s washed over you, it is impossible to rinse, lingering at the senses’ edge.