"In recent times, a normative discourse on sleep has taken root"

"In recent times, a normative discourse on sleep has taken root"

Jiménez: “Many people had trouble falling asleep during the worst months of the pandemic” / Photo Courtesy Aida Prados

Writer, teacher and researcher, the Spaniard David Jiménez Torres took his sleeping difficulties to the writing of “bad sleep”an essay that was the winner of the First Prize for Non-Fiction Books of the Asteroid and that is an invitation to talk about insomnia, the myths that surround it, anxiety about the number of hours we sleep and the figures that circulate about what percentage of the population suffers from difficulties in falling asleep.

“I have always slept badly. This is one of the fundamental facts of my life, one of the elements that give it cohesion and continuity”, this is how Jiménez Torres begins this book divided into chapters that unfold stories about the author’s bad sleep but also about other consulted sources that bifurcate with quotes from the work of the British writer Marina Benjamin on insomnia or authors such as Sylvia Plath, Emil Cioran or Jorge Luis Borges, who brought their detours or their short hours of sleep to their writings.

There are no recipes or recommendations as a guide or manual, but rather a journey and conjectures about how we speak and project our sleep in a world full of screens and crossed by anxieties and dispersion.

What is little sleep? What recipes do you propose to fall asleep? Is the quick offer of being sedated the same as being asleep? What does it mean to be badly asleep?

These are some of the questions raised by the also author of novels such as “Salter School” or “Cambridge in the middle of the night” and essays such as “The country of the fog” or “The crisis that changed Spain” and in an interview via mail with Télam developed some of these axes.

Telam SE

-Télam: Did writing the book help you relate to your “bad sleep” in a different way?

-David Jimenez Torres: Yes, there is something very cathartic in recognizing, exploring and describing experiences that have accompanied you all your life, but about which you have not stopped to reflect until well into your thirties. Now I sleep just as badly as before, but I have words, readings, meditated and articulated ideas that allow me to relate to what is happening to me. I have even acquired a certain sense of control, which is no less comforting because it is illusory.

-T: One of the things you raise in the book is how the extension of electric light was modifying and altering the natural schedules of sleep. Can we say that the current proliferation of screens in this century made that even more complex?

-DJT: Without a doubt, the proliferation of screens is one of the obstacles that contemporary rhythms and civilization put in the way of our dream. But my impression is that the big change occurred with the arrival of electric light in homes; It is then that the natural pattern of light that our eyes perceive is fundamentally altered, since we can continue to be surrounded by very powerful light for many hours after sunset. If the screens have added something, I don’t think it has so much to do with light perception but with the dopamine shots provided by social networks, emails, messaging applications, etc. and that keep our brain highly active when it should be preparing to fall asleep. Although, as I also point out in the book, our inability to really know how much our ancestors slept forces us to stay in the realm of speculation.

-T: The figures you quote are conclusive: 60% of the population experienced sleep problems throughout 2020-2021, how did the pandemic act there?

-DJT: A lot of people had trouble falling asleep during the worst months of the pandemic, and studies to date show it. But we must also keep in mind that the poor sleep of stressed and traumatized health workers was fundamentally different from that of those who could not sleep due to lack of physical activity, the breakdown of schedules or the increase in activity carried out online. Perhaps we could adapt the beginning of Anna Karenina here: all good sleepers are alike, but each bad sleeper is in her own way.

David Jiménez Torres and the myth that night is the best time for writing

Among the drifts of bad sleep that David Jiménez Torres addresses in his essay on sleep, wakefulness and fatigue is the idea that night is the time when great references in literature could concentrate better to write, but that aspect is also addressed as a question and the author reflects on some of the possible answers.

“The romantic myth of the creator as an exceptional being, a deviation from the norm, is very ingrained in our culture. And the idea of ​​working at night fits in very naturally with this: being active when the rest of the world is asleep is a crystal clear deviation from the norm,” says the author of “Bad Sleep”.

What Jiménez Torres raises is that, ultimately, the question that every writer should always ask himself is: how much is he willing to give up in the name of becoming the best writer? His answer is that changing his life, no. “Not at all,” he says.

In that sense, he cites the phrase of a friend: “Discover what your best hours of the day are, and then dedicate them to writing.”

-T: You are a fiction author too, have you always thought of an essay to tackle bad sleep?
-DJT: I have always thought -and I still do- that fiction can tackle any subject. And I’m not even referring to autofiction, but to pure fiction. What happens is that the literary essay offered me a writing experience very much in line with the topic I wanted to deal with. Sleep is such a vast subject with so many interesting facets that writing about it necessarily leads you in many directions at once. Sometimes you end up in a memory from your childhood; other times you end up in articles published in Bloomberg about the development of the sleeping pill market in recent years. And you want to cover everything, but in a light and approximate way. There is something in the genre of the literary essay that brings that freedom to the writer in a very natural way. It allows you to write in an exploratory way, almost as if you were swimming a breaststroke.

-T: The insomnia-literature link is very present in the book but you state that there is also a lot of myth in that those hours of the night, in which the struggle for sleep takes place, are the most productive for writing because the The key is the time that each one considers the most appropriate to prepare for this practice. Based on the investigation you did, why do you think that the night and not the morning is that moment so closely related to creativity?
Although the scientific knowledge of sleep has come a long way, we still feel it as something deeply mysterious and therefore our way of thinking about it is still imbued with a lot of superstition. Furthermore, the romantic myth of the creator as an exceptional being, a deviation from the norm, is deeply ingrained in our culture. And the idea of ​​working at night fits in very naturally with this: being active when the rest of the world is asleep is a stark departure from the norm. The act of writing at night would thus be a test of finding ourselves before a creator. Just as the New England Puritans looked to themselves for signs that they had been chosen by God, so we like to think that there are signs that someone has unusual talent or is destined for an artistic life, for muses whisper their inspiration to him. Working at night, delivered to imaginary worlds while the real world rests, appears naturally as one of those signs. Then there is also our irrepressible desire for causality: we want to think that there is a reason why we cannot sleep, beyond the mere arbitrariness of our body. And finally there is a more practical aspect: many times, those who have other work or family obligations can only dedicate themselves to creating during the night.

-T: You quote Marina Benjamin: “bad sleep is not only lack of sleep but also the active search for sleep”, are habits the key to trying to get through it?

-DJT: Of course, sleep medicine insists more and more on this aspect. The change of habits, or simply their better regulation, is already part of the standard recipe -and, I suppose, more effective- to deal with poor sleep. What happens is that, in many cases, these changes in habits require self-discipline and tenacity that many of us escape. And this can square the frustration of the bad sleeper: not only can’t I sleep, but I can’t change my habits to sleep better. Something similar, I suppose, to what happens with programs to lose weight or be in shape: somehow every failure ends up being your fault. And since I was interested in addressing the experience of poor sleep -and not so much its medical or behavioral anchor- I wanted to write about those frustrations and guilt, instead of about which habits work and which don’t.

-T: At one point you said that there is also a problem of perception, since many people believe that they sleep fewer hours than they actually do. How are discourses about sleep, not necessarily bad sleep, constructed at this juncture?

-DJT: This problem of perception is based on several scientific studies, and I think it reflects, to a large extent, how liquid time becomes during wakefulness. As soon as we spend a certain amount of time tossing and turning in bed, we lose the ability to know if we have been like this for an hour or just 15 minutes. But, in a broader sense, I also think that in recent times a strongly normative discourse on sleep has taken root -again, not so different from what has happened with healthy eating or with the correct care of our physical form- . That number eight that represents the number of hours that in principle we should sleep attracts and frightens us at the same time; It is not in vain that we are insisted daily about the positive consequences of achieving it and the negative consequences of falling short. For this reason, I believe that there is a certain anxiety about not getting enough sleep that feeds this perception, in some cases, mistakenly pessimistic.

-T: You encourage to talk with others about sleep problems, what receptions or readings surprised you since the book came out?

-DJT: How many friends and acquaintances do I have with sleep problems! And while I’m not happy about it, it has certainly brought a new texture to certain friendships – some of them very old. On the other hand, several good sleepers who have read the book have told me that their experiences also deserve to be described. One explained to me that sleeping a lot causes specific anxieties: not in vain is sleep the closest foreshadowing we have of death. Of course, if someone one day writes “The Good Sleep” I will read it with great interest.

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