It’s a novice writer’s worst nightmare.

My friend Mona was reading her work aloud for the first time in a public space. “I ended up crying,” she said. “One of my classmates fell asleep while I was at the podium.”

I shook my head, full of sympathy for a fellow writer. “That’s horrible.”

“She apologized later,” Mona hastened to add, “and she had a good reason. She hadn’t slept in 36 hours because her son had just been arrested for shooting somebody.”

Still, it’s awful. A writer pours their heart into their words, and for someone to fall asleep at the very moment you’re baring your inmost soul?

It feels dismissive, no matter how good the reason.

But was that the very worst time to fall asleep? Turned out I could think of a couple worse situations that had happened to me.


During my PhD general exam at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the professors on my committee fell asleep during my presentation.

What I mostly remember is the look of utter horror on my thesis advisor’s face.

I continued talking, not sure what else to do. Maybe he wasn’t really sleeping. Maybe he was just closing his eyes to ruminate on the brilliance of my ideas.

My advisor reached over very casually and nudged his chair.

His head fell forward, and he uttered a choked noise.

It couldn’t have been a snore. Probably a cough. Yes, he must be coughing because there was chalk dust in the room. That was it.

Even though all the chalkboards in the building had been replaced with whiteboards a long time ago.

Still, the room must be dusty, because my advisor also started coughing. She coughed convulsively, and joggled her chair so the legs scraped against the floor with a screech.

The professor jerked his head up, and my presentation went on.

At least I passed.


But the worst time ever to fall asleep had to be my flight lesson in a Taylorcraft L-2 at San Jose Airport. In the traffic pattern, turning on final approach to land, the steady barrage of criticism from the back seat stopped. I assumed, of course, that my instructor’s sudden silence must be due to a dramatic improvement in my flying.

I twisted around and glanced over my shoulder. My instructor’s bald head had tipped sideways. His wrinkled eyelids gleamed in the late afternoon sun, and his mouth had fallen slightly open.

I guess I should’ve felt proud my flying inspired such confidence that my instructor felt it was safe to take a nap in the cockpit. But I was about to make my first landing in a plane I’d never flown before, while my instructor was snoring in the back seat.

If I woke him up, it might embarrass or anger him. It’s not a good idea to make your flight instructor mad.

But if I didn’t, who was going to save the plane if I crashed on landing?

Given the choice between imminent death and angering the man who held my life in his hands, I did the only thing I could. I wiggled the stick, jolting the plane. His head instantly snapped up and his critique resumed as though it had never stopped.

The rest of the flight was relatively uneventful if you don’t count all my bounced and ugly attempts at landing.

So if I can survive a snoozing flight instructor, I guess I’ll live through the next time an audience member falls asleep during one of my readings.