In Praise of Prousting—the Practice of Working in Bed

If it was good for Proust…


At some point, I decided that to be a successful grad student—a Ph.D. candidate no less—I would need to treat my studies like a proper 9-to-5 job: rise at 8, eat, shower, dress, and go immediately to my shared TA office on campus to work (read, write, lesson plan, etc.). For years, a version of this took place, and I generally got all my work done. But truth be told, this version actually included many, many late nights of reading and writing on deadline that I never really accounted for. So it also included plenty of “mornings” that didn’t get started until noon, with me having to drag myself out of bed, skip breakfast, shower, dress, and stumble to my campus office. By that point, I would be so brain dead that I would procrastinate at my desk by reading the news and listening to podcasts until I felt inspired to write. It was not always the best use of my time.

Two years ago, I completed my coursework and began writing my dissertation. With even fewer engagements on campus, the trek to my office seemed somehow even more imperative. I need to stick to a schedule, I kept telling myself. But my productivity was waning. I was lingering over breakfast, spacing out in the shower, spending a silly amount of time choosing what to wear each day. It was definitely not the best use of my time.

About six months into writing my dissertation, I changed course. I woke up one morning, made myself a cup of coffee, grabbed my laptop, and got back into bed. With my pillows propped up behind me, and my computer occasionally searing the flesh on the top of my thighs, I started to write. I wrote for almost three uninterrupted hours. More impressive was the speed at which I wrote. I’ve always considered myself a slow, methodical writer, and suddenly I was producing 4 to 5 new pages by lunchtime every day. I completed a 65-page chapter in three weeks.

Despite my newfound productivity, however, I remained bashful about my methodology. I associate mornings spent in bed with the married ladies of Downton Abbey. (It doesn’t help that my partner is usually the one who makes the coffee, and has frequently brought me my cup in bed.) I have also internalized the admonishments of sleep scientists who insist that—for a better night’s sleep—beds should be for sleeping only. Also, not to harp on the Downton Abbey thing, but at least those ladies had elegant bedclothes, orderly rooms, and inviting bedside fireplaces. I’m a mess when I wake up. I sleep in an old t-shirt. I don’t own pajama bottoms. And I’m pretty sure I sleep sweat every night now that I’m in my thirties.

Working in bed still makes me feel slovenly. I am not the type of academic who revels in the knowledge of Marcel Proust’s 14-year bedridden writing of In Search of Lost Time. He was sickly since childhood; but his withdrawal to the room in Paris was more self-imposed than prescribed. I’ve had more than one professor luxuriate in the strange details of the famous recluse’s sunless and soundless cork-lined cave of a bedroom. In Neatness Counts: Essays on the Writer’s Desk, Kevin Kopelson describes Proust’s bed as “exceptional” and “a tidy mess.” And Proust is not the first writer to have worked from bed. Descartes, Pushkin, Heinrich Heine, and Mark Twain are among the other supine scribblers of note.

But then, there seems to be a gendered inequality to bed writing. Literary critic Diana Fuss takes issue with the idiosyncrasies allowed some of these more antisocial male writers, noting that critics of Emily Dickinson seem to embrace the notion of the female writer as phobic introvert, while “Proust critics devote their considerable energies to forestalling any perception of the male writer as agoraphobe—a term tellingly never applied to Proust.” So maybe, as a woman, it’s an unarticulated fear of being pathologized that has kept me from both personally and publically claiming this proven strategy—until now.

In Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the narrator, also named Marcel, takes a bite of a soggy madeleine and is suddenly flooded with childhood memories of visiting his Aunt Léonie in the country. The sensual immediacy of the experience jogs the memory involuntarily—and from it springs the novel he will eventually narrate. When I drink my coffee in bed each morning, I experience a similar involuntary connection to my writing. I am more readily able to access the years of coursework and research that have preceded the recent drafting of my dissertation without all the accouterment of clean hair and sensible shoes. Perhaps a fluorescent-lit office is merely unnecessary fanfare—or worse, a real psychological barrier to peak productivity. So, for now at least, I plan to embrace and proclaim the pleasures of early-morning Prousting. It seems to be a much better use of my time.

Read more from Awake, a blog about mornings.