Writing and Smoking

By Jack Limpert

Until the late-1980s, the offices of The Washingtonian were very smoke-filled. Most of the writers smoked, and more than a few were serious when they said that if they couldn’t smoke, they couldn’t write. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to time travel back 25 years and walk into the magazine’s offices. Would most of us now refuse to spend a day there?

The late John Updike, in Self-Consciousness, his 1989 memoir, writes about being a copyboy at the Reading Eagle for three summers when he was 18, 19, and 20. He captured some the feel of a newsroom, the romance of cigarettes, and of the connections between writing and smoking.

“In my sense of myself I tap-danced through this palace of print disguised as the lowliest of employees, with my mother-ironed shirtsleeves nicely folded back and my shirt pocket cockily squared by a pack of cigarettes, of Kools in their minty, icy white and green or Philip Morrises in their old-fashioned pack of homely tobacco brown.

“It seems marvellous to me that once I smoked. Old photographs in which I am holding a cigarette have in my eyes the black-and-white glamour of stills from Hollywood film noirs. I smoked a great deal, in fact, beginning at the age of fifteen (or could it have been fourteen?), when, as part of my campaign to become more “popular,” I bought a pack in Reading, at the railroad station on Seventh Street, and lit my first cigarette as I walked along past the little banistered porches, beneath the buttonwood trees. At the initial puff, the sidewalk lifted as if to strike my forehead, but I fought the dizziness and perservered. The beckoning world of magazines (loaded with cigarette ads) demanded this, not to mention the world of girls. With some determined tutorial work in Stephens’ Luncheonette, I learned how to inhale, to double-inhale, to French-inhale, and (just barely) to blow smoke rings. At Harvard, I was up to three packs a day, and my fingertips turned orange. In Oxford, the little stiff cardboard packages of five or ten Churchman’s were a novelty, as was, at the back of the slide-out part of the package, the lined blank space entitled “Notes”—conjuring up an empire full of Englishmen cooly taking notes, among grapeshot and calvalry hoofbeats, on their cigarette boxes. In New York, getting worried, I began to experiment with holders, including that awkwardly long type which employs as a filter an entire other cigarette, replaced when it darkens through and through and drips with tar juice. By the time of the move to Ipswich, my self-glamorization in other respects had proceeded far enough that I almost felt able to do without cigarettes as a prop. Now I have long since, in deference to my emphysema, given up smoking, even the smoking of little cigars that, after I broke the cigarette habit, used to get me through the stress of composition. Also, I have given up salt and coffee in deference to high blood pressure and alcohol in deference to methotrexate. The big-bellied Lutheran God within me looks on scoffingly, “Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben?” Frederick the Great thundered at his battle-shy soldiers—”Dogs, would you live forever?”

“So writing in my sole remaining vice. It is an addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous taming of reality, a way of expressing lightly the unbearable.”

Updike, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction and many other awards, died in 2009 at the age of 76

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