Big Brother is watching you

When I told friends I was applying to be part of this project, responses fell into two camps: the sensible people, who asked why the hell I would want to subject myself to a week of intermittent sleep deprivation, and the wide-eyed, curious types, who instantly had half a dozen questions about the process and what it might do to me. The latter tended to be artists or scientists. Something our two fields have in common: a restless and occasionally relentless curiosity. (There is a third type: new mothers, who tend to condescend. “A week! Pah.”)

I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up, but I wasn’t good enough at it. Faced with the horrifying realisation I would have to concentrate on one thing at a time, I realised I didn’t have that kind of mind. I ended up studying political science, then drifted into writing, a form in which I could be at once useful and interested in everything. Being interested in everything is a quality writers need (usefulness is debatable). You never know when the gold nugget is going to crop up in someone’s otherwise bland monologue. You pick up tiny details from life and stuff them in the cracks of your brain, trusting they’ll be there when you need them. You go through life collecting data in a very haphazard, unscientific way, and placing yourself into strange situations simply from curiosity about what will happen. That’s the main attraction for me with The Subjects. Wondering what personal, social, and creative boundaries I will find, and cross, when I am pushed.

Usually on a residency the first thing I do is sleep for a day or so. It’s as if my brain knows it needs to wind itself up before a few weeks of solid writing. But I know so little about that winding up, the relationship between sleep and creativity, or indeed the brain and creativity, that if it weren’t for occasional bouts of insomnia I would probably take sleep entirely for granted.

So I’m excited about diving into this sleep lab, curious to discover something about how I tick, and interested in the ways sleep and writing click together. If I’m at all nervous, it’s about how I’ll fare in a miniature authoritarian regime for a week – as the subject of a study, watched instead of watchful. The comparisons to Big Brother are inevitable. Orwell’s one of my favourite writers, and I think I’ll manage a week as Winston Smith – assuming there’s no Room 101 at the Appleton Institute.

Jennifer Mills

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