Thursday, May 06, 2010

This bothers me

This bothers me.

To sum up, if you don't feel like clicking the link, it concerns a supposed correlation between smoking and writing.

I quit smoking last March. I still count the days. An ASPCA calendar hangs off the office door at home, each month devoted to cats or dogs or even donkeys, and I cross out every day as it passes with an X. Every 10th day is marked on the calendar. I think I'm somewhere between 410 and 420 days now. My cravings are weak but they're there. If I walk into a bodega, convenience store, gas station, or any other type of business bound to have at least one wall devoted to the little plastic-wrapped boxes, I know that I will experience a few moments of childish hunger, and then it will be gone. I count the days so it stays that way. It is tougher for an argument with your girlfriend or a disagreement with a co-worker to give you an excuse to buy one of those little boxes if you know exactly how many days you will ball up and toss in the garbage because of it.

Still. Like a lot of people, I worry that five years from now a doctor will find a shadow, and I'll know I butted out my final smoke 17 years too late. And because of the subject of the above-linked article, I worry about something a little absurd, I guess. I worry about not smoking.

One of my writing professors in Tampa told me about a writer he knew who quit smoking. The writer found he simply could not write without smoking. So he quit writing, too. Since hearing that story, I've worried about eventually being forced into making a similar choice. When I think about times in my life when I wrote more, and wrote on a more regular basis, I think of myself smoking.

I have this vision of myself. You probably have something like this too. It's the Me that exists once I'm writing more. It's the Me that won't exist until I'm "really" a writer. And that Me is smoking. He's typing away, the cigarette is in his mouth with the tip nodding at the monitor. He's sucking in the drags and pushing out the smoke through his nose like an angry cartoon bull. It's not a thought I manufacture. It's just there. I think of this preferable, closer-to-perfect me, and there he is. Smoking. Without any permission from me.

I understand the absurdity of it. I don't really believe that I need cigarettes to write. And while maybe I don't have proof of it, the long, smoky years I spent NOT writing before I quit should prove that smoking won't make me write. But I read that article and I remember my professor's story and I remember earlier this year reading Stephen King's On Writing and being struck by an offhand observation King makes about nicotine helping to stimulate a writer's mental synapses or something along those lines, but mostly I think about how my better, future Me won't be as strong-willed as I am, and it bothers me. It bothers me.

There are only a handful of explanations I can come up with for this supposed writing/smoking correlation.

First, there's pure advertising. Image. If you go to the blog post I linked to above, you will see a host of photographs of writers smoking (though apparently a couple of the photographed "writers" are actually actors playing writers). Few of these photographs seem spontaneous. Most seem like press photos. It doesn't seem like a friend, relative, spouse or lover just snapped away while the writer was hard at work. In most, it seems that the photos were promotional in nature and that the writers had plenty of time to consciously decide whether or not they wanted to have their moment smoking captured in time. That would seem to suggest that the writers want the world to think of them as smokers. Which says to me maybe there is no real writing/smoking correlation. Maybe it's just that smoking conveys something that writers liked being conveyed. In the days before smoking was considered as detestable as it is now, I can imagine these writers were trying to make themselves appear intellectual, but casual. A writer wants, while appearing intelligent, to not appear tightly wound. No one's going to want to read The Picture of Dorian Gray if Al Gore wrote it.

Second, there's the nature of writing. Writing involves thinking. It involves what can appear to be a lot of physical inactivity. Smoking may offer a relief to that. It is difficult to sit and truly be still. It can be very difficult to just think. Smoking may seem to be the perfect cure. It's the perfect activity. It's easier even than eating or drinking. You don't even need to get ice or silverware. There's nothing to clean up or piss out. You light a fire, breathe, and stamp it out when you're done. And now that I think about it, my memories of smoking and writing don't coincide so perfectly. I certainly smoked and typed at the same time, but I think usually if I was smoking it was when I had paused; thinking about what would come next or to look at what I already got down. Smoking while actually writing just wasn't as frequent. It couldn't be. You have to hold the cigarette in your mouth, the smoke floating from the tip bothers your eyes, without flicking the tip with your finger occasionally the ash drops right on your keyboard, and it's overall just not as pleasant an experience.

Third, it may be along the same lines of writers and coffee. Writers write. And writers don't always give a shit about sleep when they write. I think it's fair to say sometimes, if you're really into it, you just need to tell sleep to go to Hell. And cigarettes help you stay awake. I've heard different things on this, and they always seemed to contradict one another, but I think after 17 years of smoking I can safely claim that cigarettes help you stay awake.

Fourth, again, you may notice that a lot of the writers on that page had their pictures taken before the current stigma against smoking existed. My full-time job includes going to professional writers' websites every day and looking for their promotional photos, and I don't know if - after about two years of doing it - I have ever seen a promotional photo of a living writer smoking a cigarette. If I have, it couldn't have been more than once or twice, and I would guess the only writers allowing it would be authors who might think it would help their image; perhaps mystery or thriller authors trying to ape their protagonists.

I offer this to point out one thing that probably has not changed from the time the earliest of the photographs in the aforementioned blog post were taken and one thing that has changed. What probably hasn't changed all that much is that writers are poor. What has changed is the price of cigarettes. Cigarettes used to be cheap. Very cheap. I may be wrong about this, but I have a distinct memory of my mother sending me to a gas station to get her cigarettes and having no more than 75 cents in my hand. I'm willing to bet they were a good deal cheaper for Oscar Wilde and T.S. Eliot. Now, in New York State, even the generic brands are $8 a pack. And you will notice in the "Nicotine Chic" post, there are very few recent photographs.

I don't know. I have no definitive answers. If you've gotten this far, then what you've read basically amounts to a smoke-hungry writer fighting like Hell to stave off what has the potential to be the best goddamn excuse the glutton inside him needs to make him cave after a good year that wasn't so breathless.


C. Margery Kempe said...

I teach a class called "Writer in Motion" which is all about movies that portray writers. Even though we spend the entire semester talking about the romanticism of those portrayals, my students always want to believe that they are more like the truth that the truth.

I know lots of writers: most of their lives would make for very dull movies. Why? Because they spend most of their time sitting on their asses writing.

It's so much more exciting to have these romantic images: the writer in a cloud of cigarette smoke, a half empty bottle of whisky by her side, banging away on the keys of an old Underwood. That's what it takes to be a real writer, the movies tell us.

The truth is much simpler: writers write. They might tell themselves they need some magic helper (coffee, cigarettes, a gorgeous lover, adoration) but in the end, if you don't get those fingers in motion, all the cigarettes in the world won't do a thing. It's just the matter of sticking with it, as Octavia Butler said, "persist".

Writers write: dreamers dream.

C. Margery Kempe said...

Writers however cannot spell or proofread (Writers, than, etc.).