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Writing & Smoking

I’ve been reading quite a bit of Anne Sexton lately, and I noticed that on the back of all my tattered, spine-taped copies of her books there is a photograph of the lovely woman smoking. Always smoking. She was a woman who enjoyed a cigarette, apparently.

(And she wasn’t the only one. There is a book called The Writer’s Desk. If I’m not mistaken, I think it’s fairly difficult to get a copy. I think Kurt Vonnegut’s wife took the photographs? Anyway, in that book, which would make a great holiday gift if you can track one down, there are photographs of a ton of writers at their desks. So many of them have ash trays and cigarettes within reach. One of the writers has multiple open packs on his desk. So here are my questions: What’s the relationship between writing and smoking? Are you a smoker? When do you smoke? When do you write? Does one lead to the other? Is there a direct relationship?)

God, she was beautiful, wasn’t she?

Here are some words:

We are not lovers.

We do not even know each other.

We look alike

but we have nothing to say.

We are like pigeons . . .

Good bye, Anne Sexton. I’m sorry I never knew you. I would have liked to have had a smoke with you.

18 thoughts on “Writing & Smoking

  1. nicotine is an amphetamine, as is caffeine. speed. helps focus. that’s why writers, i would imagine, smoke or drink coffee when they work.

    in a perfect word cocaine would be legal and we could all safely sniff while we write. or we can just continue to sniff unsafely like we do now.

    right, molly? sniff sniff?


  2. I miss smoking. For 8 years two packs for each day. I never think about that act, that feel, until I’m in a large writing mode. I want to break from the work but not leave my head. For some reason smoking fits that desired action.

    There is a “fuck you. I need this.” to smoking that works in any art as well.

  3. lovely post, molly. sexton sports smoking like no one i’ve seen. our very own a.d. jameson looks at materiality & writing, so i’d be interested to hear if he can divulge a preview… anything on smoking & writing?

  4. Anne Sexton also sexually abused her older daughter. Any other writers out there who sexually abuse their children? Show of hands. Does it help you write? What’s the relationship?

  5. Oh, God. I had no idea. Really? Shya, you just wrecked my morning. (Still, this is useful information. I’m doing a research project on her and some others. I thought to start with their creative works, not their biographical information, though those many biographies are scattered in my office.) Shit.

      1. It’s okay. I would have found out later, anyway. Maybe now what I’ll do is read the biographies first, for all of them. Maybe that’ll aid (or completely screw up) my readings of their works. Mew, Teasdale, Woolf, Plath. Sexton. Obviously, I’m dealing with “disturbed” women.

  6. Hey,

    Has anyone read Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries? It’s four volumes of diaries where his smoking three packs of cigarettes daily and its accompanying wheezing and dizziness is a main theme. David Shields (http://www.themillions.com/2009/12/a-year-in-reading-david-shields.html) says: “[R]ead together, they dwarf his plays and are commensurate, I swear to god, with Proust).

    High praise. But Shields can be trusted, I think.

  7. i quit smoking five years ago? damn… hadn’t realized it’d been that long.

    i still smoke cigars. love my cigars. but i never write while smoking… maybe ’cause no one will let me smoke a cigar inside.

  8. I miss smoking.

    Have abstained for about four years now, but the eight years previous I smoked pretty heavily and happily.

    I used to love to write and then take smoke breaks. It created a kind of structure for my writing time. Could go out and have a smoke and think about the work and ponder and marinade and then come back to the keyboard primed.

    I’m also fond of Anne Sexton’s poetry, regardless of her personal life. As I have said elsewhere, the personal life of an artist has no bearing on my admiration or disdain for the work the artist produces.

    1. this is my current smoking-writing/smoking-arting relationship. the breaks are very much needed in terms of both establishing distance and rhythm, but if i do something like snack or talk to someone on a break my attention shifts & i can’t re-enter the work as easily. smoking indeed works to allow me to keep thinking about the work without being stuck in the sort of intense focus i need.

  9. Nice post Molly. John Cage’s film Catch44 is a funny example of this too. I’ve been trying to find a clip online but with no luck, so here’s a description http://www.eai.org/eai/title.htm?id=2487 with image:)

    In the film there are long takes where you just see Cage’s arms upon his desk, one ostensibly “writing music” as you can also hear in an overlaid narration”I am writing music now”, while the other hand is holding a cigarette that never gets ashed. The cigarette perpetually hangs there threatening to crumble upon his score. It’s pretty funny.

  10. used to smoke. it has something to do with the hand action. Similar to when I write using pen and paper. The hand movement makes me believe I am still writing and, like what was stated above, keeps me in the mode. I tend to always have a pen with me, and I am twirling, biting on the ends, biting my fingernails, tapping. Cigarettes became a natural extension of these tics. It becomes an outside signifier for an internal focuspoint. Like meditation. No, seriously. The act of smoking puts you into a hypnotized state. And when it becomes more than one person, in a group, it is group hypnosis. Anyway…

    I quit. Smoking’s for losers…

  11. I gave up smoking 10 weeks ago for health reasons after 40 years of beautiful smoke and have not written anything since. I hate being a non-smoker and feel muddy and muddled without my tobacco. Feels like a slow death; I’m seriously considering giving up giving up and dealing with the disease.

    After a few weeks things are supposed to get better but they seem to get worse. Despair, despair…

  12. Yes, Confessions of Zeno wrings true of the relationship between smoking and writing. I found your blog because I googled writing and smoking. I am back in grad school and have quit smoking. Finishing up long papers is so difficult w/o chain smoking. I need the focus – the reward. I now go to coffee shops and try to stop worrying about deadlines which would push me back into smoking…not smoking is more important than pleasing a prof and a deadline that really does not matter.

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