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It's late Monday night and, in keeping with my current modus operandi, I'm wide awake. There isn't much more frustrating in this world than lying sleepless in bed next to both a snoring partner and a snoring pug. Tonight I blame widdershins. The word has been running laps in my head since early evening; longer than that, really — I've been obsessed with it since I came across the word in something I read about a week ago. (I can't even remember what it was I read. That's the mark of a good word, isn't it, if the word sticks but the piece in which it appears does not?) My head hits the pillow and the only thing I can think about is how to appropriately work widdershins into a good sentence in my novel-in-progress. Counter-clockwise, it means, though when I've heard it in the past, it held connotations of witchcraft, of menacing magic. A quick Google search tells me that walking widdershins three times around a church is a great way to summon a demon.

None of this is good fodder for my current project, of course. It's a lovely word, but in the case of what I'm working on now, it just doesn't fit. That's the thing about insomnia, about late night thoughts. I've heard tales of artists who wake from an almost prophetic dream with pencil and a paper bedside for those ideas that rouse us from sleep, ideas that would make us kick ourselves if we woke in the morning having forgotten what they were, remembering only their brilliance. None of this is true for me. I can quite confidently attest that if something brilliant occurs to me in moments of insomnia, or waking from a dream, it's complete crap. It will seem brilliant at the time, make no mistake, but always disappoints in the light of day. Case in point: before I gave up the futile quest for sleep and came downstairs to write this, I had concocted more than five different novel titles, all of them including widdershins, all of them frighteningly bad. Walking Widdershins. Waking from Widdershins. Widdershin Dreams. I think you get the picture.

A good friend of mine, the daughter of a poet, once told me that during her childhood, her mother spent one night each week without sleeping, in order to sneak in eight extra hours of work time. As a writer and a mother of young children, I understand the sentiment completely. But not only would I likely be less than productive as I worked through the night, I'd be the bitch-mother-from-hell the following day. My children can attest. I'm the queen of sleepless nights, not only because of chronic insomnia, but because I lack the self control to put down a really good book. In my other life, the one before children in which I could sleep in if need be, reading through most of the night was a weekly occurrence. Since becoming a mom, this is the single most accurate barometer of how good a book actually is: how much sleep am I willing to lose over it? How miserable am I willing to be the following day to know what happens next tonight, right this instant? In the past year, my all-nighter list includes Leif Enger's Peace Like a River, Kent Haruf's Plainsong, Julia Glass's Three Junes, and Carol Shields' Unless, among many others.

Unfortunately for me tonight, it isn't a good book keeping me awake. Maybe walking widdershins three times around the house is a cure for insomnia. Maybe the pug has stopped snoring. Here's hoping.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Peace Like a River
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  2. Plainsong (Vintage Contemporaries)
    Used Trade Paper $2.95
  3. Three Junes
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  4. Unless Used Trade Paper $4.95
  5. The Prisoner Pear: Stories from the Lake
    New Trade Paper $16.25

Elissa Minor Rust is the author of The Prisoner Pear: Stories from the Lake

3 Responses to "Insomnia"

    Debra Hamel January 10th, 2006 at 6:07 pm

    Captain Widdershins is the submarine captain in Lemony Snicket's The Grim Grotto, the antepenultimate book in his series. Perhaps you were reading of unfortunate events when you came across the word?

    Zelda January 11th, 2006 at 9:02 am

    Just wanted to let you know how much I loved reading your book. I grew up in Lake Oswego, and so I am now dealing with a flood of childhood memories-most of which are good. But there is the occasional "rich kid didn't invite me to her birthday party at the MAC" nightmare that still haunts me. I think I'll go find a tree and practice my widdershins.

    Can't wait for book number two!

    cynthia January 11th, 2006 at 11:40 am

    Not being able to just sit and read as long as I want is one of the frustrations of motherhood. I miss being able to stay up till 4 and cope with the headache the next day, and getting up (or not) in the morning and just reading till my friends drag me out to play. Now I'm responsible(usually). More often I avoid the temptation of diving in all together, knowing that once snared by a good book, I'm lost to my children.
    I love the study that says children need to see us reading.

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