Wide awake at 4:00am

creativity inspiration ideas writer's notesWhen are you at your most creative or imaginative?

For me, annoyingly, my most productive moments – creatively speaking – seem to occur around 4:00am. I’m not generally insomniac, but I see 4:00am on the clock more than I would like. It’s a peaceful time where I live; nocturnal traffic is too distant to be audible and only slivers of light peer round the edges of my blackout blinds. There’s a chill in the air; the window is open a crack, as I can’t sleep in a stuffy room.

That’s when creative ideas emerge… like how to address a plot weakness, develop a back-story or reorganise a critical scene to make it more compelling. The still of the night seems to drain away all distractions and allow a flotsam of thoughts to float to the surface. Sometimes they’re fully formed and logical, prompting me to wonder, why didn’t I think of that before? Sometimes I get the germ of a new idea, something that takes me along a more lateral train of thought. Sometimes come daylight, I filter and discard; but often, those 4:00am shoots warrant nurturing.

I’d rather my creative fire came alight at a sensible time of day, perhaps as I sat in front my PC, ready and waiting to capitalise on the outpourings of genius, ideally just after I’d made myself a nice cuppa.

But no, 4:00am it is for me.

The chance of my recalling these inspired creative ideas when the sun comes up without some prompting is… well, zero. I will remember I thought of something, but by the morning, I will have no clue what it was. It’s a lost idea, layered with the frustration of knowing something promising was within reach, but slipped away.

I tried the advice you see everywhere – that writers should keep a pen and paper by their beds so they can make notes whenever inspiration strikes, write down their dreams and so on. But that would involve switching on a light and grappling for my reading glasses, all of which pulls me from a somnolent state into full-blown wide-awakeness, which guarantees I won’t get another wink of sleep until about 3 minutes before the alarm goes off.

Tried it, doesn’t work for me; but something else does. My tool of choice has become iPhone voice messaging. I record semi-coherent notes to myself whilst hardly having to peek through my sleep-sticky eyes.

This morning my iPhone held evidence of last night’s creative spurt; a drowsy ramble through a bunch of ideas for blog posts. Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit, I was awake at 4am thinking about what to write in this blog. But I got a dozen fresh ideas out of it; that’s not bad for a few moments of ruptured relaxation, is it?

I’d like to know, do you have a favourite moment, place or environment where creativity strikes? Is it a time of day or night? Is it about being in a particular place – a daily walk, a favourite cafe maybe? Do you need solitude or companionship, the presence of a pet, a backdrop of music, the hum of family activity, or the serenity of silence? Do you carry a notepad and pen for those moments, or a voice recorder of some kind, or do you trust your memory? Post your ideas as comments – they might be a help to others.

49 thoughts on “Wide awake at 4:00am

    1. Thanks for sharing! I need silence too, to write; no distractions. Sadly I’m not one of those people who can drag their laptop to a coffee shop and come home with 3,000 new words.

  1. it;s when everyone seems to have gone asleep… and everything is still… outside my window is a massive puff of green… when the lights of my room are down i can see the deep dark blue of the night sky… and the silhouette of the chubby trees which is jet black… sometimes i can see the clouds passing in the dark sky…that moment is amazing… you don’t have to think at all.. all ideas come naturally…

  2. My creativity seems to flow at night. Maybe it’s because I’m stuffed into my stifling fulltime job right now… but there’s something about a quiet house. Give me a glass of wine or steaming cup of tea, the humming of the dishwasher and washing machine doing their thing and the words start to flow. I love that time of night! If only there were more hours between when I like to write and when I have to wake up!

    1. There are a lot of night-writers like you out there. I’m not one of them; I do my writing during the day. It’s ideas – the lightbulbs – that pop up for me at night! Thanks for sharing.

  3. I don’t consider myself such a creative person but I do carry a pen and notepad with me. It helps me put into words something I witnessed during the day.

    1. That’s another interesting angle for note-taking – the simple experience of a moment or a place. I keep a notepad in my handbag for that sort of thing too and have pages of notes on odd half-hours spent in coffee bars and cafes, waiting outside stations, in airport lounges and more…

  4. The idea for my latest blog post hit while I was looking out the door of a C-130 preparing to jump. There is just something inspiring about US Army Airborne operations. Thankfully my parachute opened and I lived to write it!

    1. Now that’s an experience I know I’ll never have! I can only imagine how wide open the doors of your mind must be flung, by the rush of 10,000 feet of fresh air between you and the ground. Inspiring indeed! I’ve read your post too – superb.

  5. For me, because I do a lot of driving for my day job, is when I’m in the car, the radio blasting, not much to look at but cars, mountains and a highway… I get lost in my mind (yeah, so be happy you don’t live anywhere near me! No, just kidding).

    But I can sympathize, as I have woken many a time with an idea or a dream that is simply fascinating. It also happens occasionally as I’m trying to get to sleep… I’ll have an idea and then have to get up to jot it down, and then take forever to get back to the state I was in to begin with.

    Creativity… go figure!

    1. Creativity is a beautifully chaotic thing. Imagination shows up when it pleases, not when you command it to. But that’s part of the thrill of writing. I love getting struck by an idea out of the blue, when I’m driving, or trying to concentrate on my proper job. I like the idea that my brain is always ruminating on my creative challenges. But waking in the night… it used to frustrate me, but now I accept it, and enjoy it. I wake, and wait for the thought that wanted to present itself…

  6. Me, I go for a walk. The first 20 minutes are normally spent destressing as every problem goes round and round. Then when these have worked themselves out, there’s enough space for new ideas. I’m ashamed to admit that the ideas often get written on my iphone rather than a notepad. But I do transcribe them to paper when I get home!

    1. Your walks sound a healthy way of getting blood flowing to the brain! I should try same. I believe many writers swear by their morning or lunchtime stroll, dog-walk or even trip to the letter box.

  7. At my age I no longer trust myself to remember that “brilliant” idea until the following morning. I just keep the computer next to the bed. Good ideas come so rarely to me, I have to grab them while they are fresh.

    1. I recognise that feeling! I stopped trusting my memory when I first acquired a Filofax (I don’t even want to think how long ago that was). Decades later nothing changes. But whilst I don’t mind forgetting what I meant to add to the shopping list, I hate seeing small-hours inspiration dissolve to nothing.

  8. Yes, I too panic looking at that 4 am clock, then realize it’s my golden time. I can map out a whole novel before the alarm goes off. The trick is to get a few notes down in my journal before my six year old bounces into bed with me. The daily walk is another good meditative time. I don’t take any devices with me, but use it as an opportunity to test my memory. Can I carry the thought for 3 miles? If it doesn’t make it home with me, bit probably wasn’t worth remembering anyway.

    1. Thanks for sharing this. I agree it’s important to keep testing your memory, but lost a few 4:00am ideas thinking ‘I’ll remember that when I wake up’. A 3 mile walk sounds a wonderful time for meditation and creativity. My walks, such as they are (too short… too rarely…) are done to a backdrop of audiobooks or podcasts. I should try the meditative angle, no distractions.

  9. I enjoyed reading this post, because I can relate to it. Although, I do not wake up with thoughts, for me it is the thoughts that do not let me fall asleep. Ideas and images, and the big questions all linger around in my mind…and if my iphone is near, which it always is, I open up the ‘notes’ and bust out some deep poetry that was churning on the inside. During the day time, I enjoy journalling at a coffee shop, or on a bench in the park, or on a rock by the beach, or with my legs up to my chest cuddled safely on my couch with a hot cup of coffee at around 11pm. Writing sometimes keeps us up, or wakes us up, and other times, we just have to make ourselves ‘sit’ and do it!

    1. Yes, these are cosy and atmospheric places for contemplation, journalling and ideas… coffee shop, park, beach and couch. I understand that experience of thoughts and ideas pushing sleep away, but I tend to leave it so late to creep into bed that nothing gets in the way of sleep! That might be why my brain gets a spurt on a 4:00am of course. I love the idea of ‘busting out some deep poetry too. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Interesting how the inspiration hits people at different times. Mine usually arrive during a conversation with others. Yesterday I was talking to a wine expert and was struck with an idea so I immediately put a note into my iPhone. That saves me every time. Before the IPhone I had to rely on pad and pen. I have stopped trying to acquire ideas in front of the PC because my mind freezes. I wait, and eventually something triggers the brain and off we go. However I must say with poetry it is entirely different. I am blessed that I can sit down and rip a poem off at any given time. My best works however are inspired by events. I am very thankful for this gift.

    1. I’m relieved there’s another iPhone-er out there – I was beginning to think I was the only one! Sometimes if I’m out of the house, I use the ‘reminder’ button, which will ding at me around the time I expect to be home. I agree with you that the act of sitting in front of the PC can freeze the brain. That even happens to me when I’m trying to rattle off a work assignment; web page copy, newsletters and such like for my clients. You’d think after [insert very large number of] years, I’d have got over myself, but it seems not.

  11. I think I could have written this exact thing – 4 am for me too! Funny, we were just talking about this subject in my writing class last night, and how one battles the thought of getting up that early to jot down notes or actually do some writing, or do you loll around in bed coming up with some sort of verbal gymnastics to help you remember all those great thoughts when it is actually time to get up? In those moments when I do in fact get up early, turn on the coffee pot, and sit down to write in that pre-dawn silence I find I am my most creative.

    Thanks for another great article!


    1. I wonder if it’s one of those ‘time of life’ things… wide awake at 4:00am! Some days I can’t wait to get out of bed to get writing. Other days… well, what can I say… I’m human, after all. So glad you’re enjoying my blog! x

  12. Some people sing in the shower; I think. I usually shower in the evenings right before going to bed, and this is when I go over things I have done during the day or things I need to do later in the week. I get a lot of ideas or clarifications on things I might be working on. It is not that difficult to then put them to paper before going to sleep. I do occasionally get the 4:00am flash of brilliance, and I have learned how to scribble something quick in the dark without waking up my husband. It is interesting to hear that so many have that early morning flash. I wonder if there is some instinctual reason going back to the days when people did not have clocks and lived according to sunrise and sunset. That is certainly something to think about.

    1. Hi and thanks for sharing. I imagine the dream and sleep analysts would have something to say about that 4:00am moment. I know we drift in and out of deep sleep and dream sleep throughout the night, and that probably has something to do with it, but I’m just grateful that it strikes me. This morning my head was filled with ideas about a new angle on my marketing services… helpful too, despite the fact that I’d rather it were thinking about my synopsis!

  13. This is a wonderful discussion – what is creativity and where in the firmament does it come from? In almost a lifetime of writing for radio, newspapers, magazines, organizations, a blog and just for myself, I’ve never traced its source. Like a mountain spring, it bubbles up from somewhere inside, perhaps prompted by the most unlikely things like a sign in the street, a chance remark, an incident you observe as you pass by. Or else it dries up altogether, which is incredibly, horribly painful.
    For me, time of day or night doesn’t seem to have anything to do with inspiration. I usually jot down or record night-owl ideas rather than actually work – words I write at night rarely make any sense, even if I think I’m wide awake. Most writing needs re-crafting, except for those gifts from on high, the articles that “write themselves.” I’ve never understood how they work – but some flow as if by magic. I don’t sit down at the computer before formulating the idea/approach, and I often hand-draft – must be better to have the raw ingredients, an idea of the dish you intend to create and the method you’ll use before you start mixing and cooking!

    1. I’m glad you’re enjoying the discussion, as am I. I too love the way sights, sounds and moments spawn creative thoughts and ideas, or take you off along new trails. Night-time is such a contrast, being essentially empty of sight and sound, but instead, crowded with a jumble of the day’s thoughts and memories, which the brain seeks to sort and store, recycle and trash. It’s a fascinating process.

    1. I agree, driving time can make excellent thinking/creativity time. I’m usually deeply into the world of my latest audiobook as I drive along!

  14. I love writing in the very early morning when everyone else is still asleep. The house is quiet and it’s just me, my laptop and the sunrise. Also, I am more productive on overcast days than bright sunny ones.

      1. Cynthia… there speaks a woman for whom a warm and sunny morning is nothing but ordinary!! I love the anticipation of a warm summer day – we get so few, after all, here in London. I open the French doors and let in the early morning chill, put the cushions out on the deck furniture, then go make myself a pot of coffee. I love sitting outside with my laptop, steam rising from my fresh cuppa, waiting for the sun to flood the day. Creativity Central!

    1. Hi Lora. Yes, early mornings are good, but my brain warms up in the sunshine more readily than under a blanket of cloud and drizzle. Come the autumn, there is other inspiration too, of course.

  15. There is something about the light. Think I do need the cozy yellow light of my desk lampshade. I have tried so many different ways lately. Writing a PhD thesis has proved to be a challenge in so many ways… I prefer the nights, but then I feel tired. The mornings seem so hard to start anything… Maybe I need the pressure of time something like “the day is going by and I have to do something before it is too late” (whatever “too late means”… Sometimes 4 am!). This is all about work still… Will be interesting to see when my writings turn into the dream of writing a novel… I still dream about that as well!

    1. I experience the same thing when I sit down to write for my professional projects. All I can offer you is that writing my first novel, which, for the time being at least must count only as a hobby, is somehow easier. It has to do with it being a love-to-do rather than a have-to-do activity, I guess. Best of luck with your thesis.

  16. I do seem to have different times when inspiration hits me over the head with a brick. I can do the 4am thing, but also the midnight or 6pm. I have managed to write a page of notes in total darkness and be able to read most of it the following day. 🙂

    1. That ‘writing in the dark’ thing is a good skill to have up your sleeve. It’s up there with ‘being able to read upside-down’ which was a useful talent in my past life in sales. Nowadays I’m forced to accept, I need my glasses for every kind of reading and writing, so I have to cross ‘being able to read upside-down’ off my CV as ‘putting on your glasses first’ gives the game away. At least you don’t need glasses for ‘writing in the dark’. 🙂

  17. I too am a lark and am at my absolute best in the a.m. hours. Sleep allows all the clutter to fall away leaving only the authentic. I look forward to looking backward through your previous posts!

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