Today’s podcast of The Writer’s Digest noted that on this day in 2004, the Republic of Ireland became the first country to completely ban cigarette smoking from the workplace. But what followed, in Garrison Keillor’s writerly way, was a few observations about smoking and literature.
There are smokers, ex-smokers and never-smokers reading this, and in those groups there are certainly some people who connect smoking and writers. As an undergraduate English major, I definitely connected smoking and writers. Most of the writers I read, studied and admired were pictured at some point smoking. In a Romantic way, I made the connection and began smoking cigarettes as part of my writing routine. That routine also included coffee or alcohol depending on the time of day.
This was stupid. Of course, smoking does not aid writing. Or does it?
Author and columnist A.N. Wilson said after the ban went into effect:
“Sitting with my drink in such now-empty bars, my mind has turned to the great smokers of the past — to C.S. Lewis, who smoked 60 cigarettes a day between pipes with his friends Charles Williams (cigarette smoker) and Tolkien (pipe-smoker); to Thomas Carlyle, whose wife made him smoke in the kitchen of their house in Cheyne Row, but who is unimaginable without tobacco, to Robert Browning, who quickly adapted to the new cigarette craze, to the great John Cowper Powys, who continued to smoke cigarettes, and to produce fascinating novels, into his nineties … This attack on basic liberty, which was allowed through without any significant protest, might mark the end not merely of smoking, but of literature.”
Well, the ban, which spread worldwide, didn’t end literature. It may have helped literature by prolonging the lives of writers who quit.
In my formative years, smoking was all around me. My father smoked. Everyone’s father and even some mothers seemed to smoke. People on television smoked and in movies were both Romantic and romantic.
Poets especially seemed to love smoking.
oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much”
― Frank O’Hara
In his poem “The Best Cigarette,” Billy Collins writes nostalgically about the smoking occasions he misses the most, including ones connected to his writing.
… the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.
Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.
Oscar Wilde wrote, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and leaves one unsatisfied. What more could one want?”
“Mind you, sometimes the angels smoke, hiding it with their sleeves,
and when the archangel comes, they throw the cigarettes away:
that’s when you get shooting stars.” – Vladimir Nabokov
I gave up smoking when I was dating the woman who became my wife because she hated it and still has never even tried smoking. My writing is more prolific, and I’d like to think better, than it was when I was a college student. Do I miss those cigarettes? I definitely don’t miss the smell of a cigarette. Like many ex-smokers, I find the smell nauseating sometimes, though I still find the aroma in a tobacco shop of the unsmoked leaves pleasant. In my bar-smoking days, I know that having a cigarette slowed down my drinking.
The best cigarette for me? Never in the morning. For me, it was either the one after dinner with my coffee, or the less common smoke beside a campfire. The former certainly was connected to writers. The latter probably was more connected with watching too many western films. But that’s a different essay.
I have been a longtime reader and fan of novelist and short-story writer Stephen Crane. I first read him when I was an impressionable 13 years old and diving into serious literature.
He was born in 1871 in Newark, New Jersey. I was also born in Newark.
On the 100th anniversary of his birth year, I visited his New Jersey grave on the day of his death – June 5.
My first encounter with Crane was via some of his short stories. I knew that “the book” to read by him was The Red Badge of Courage. I read that the summer before my senior year in high school. It was fast read, but I didn’t really enjoy it.
That summer I also started to read more about Crane’s life. He never went to war. The Red Badge of Courage is a war novel by someone who never went to war.
As a young man, Crane wanted to be a professional baseball player. He played catcher on his prep school team in a time when a catcher wore no protective gear and the mitt was basically a gardening glove with some extra padding. Stephen was known for being somewhat reckless, but able to catch anything, even barehanded.
Crane at 17 in a school military uniform
He bounced from school to school. He was at the Pennington School in NJ (his father had been principal there), but after 2 years he transferred to Claverack College, a quasi-military school.
He did one semester at Lafayette College and then transferred to Syracuse University. He played baseball at all these schools.
Crane (front center) with his Syracuse teammates
During summer vacations until 1892, he was his brother Townley’s assistant at a New Jersey shore news bureau.
I had read Catch 22and seen the movie M*A*S*H the year before and my mind was filled with anti-war and anti-Vietnam news. I was thinking about how I had to register for the Selective Service and how I would be in the draft lottery when I got to college.
I went back and reread The Red Badge of Courage that fall through the lens of it being an anti-war novel written by someone who probably equated war with his own sports experiences.
That sounds naive, but it worked for me that year.
Crane cut classes and was spending a lot of time in New York City, especially the poor tenement streets of the Bowery.
He began writing for New York City tabloids while he was still a teenager.
His first novel was Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893). It was considered scandalous and unseemly, and booksellers wouldn’t stock it. He gave away about a hundred copies and burned the rest.
He had read a series of reminiscences of Civil War veterans published in newspapers and had met some veterans as teachers in his schools that became the research for his own Civil War story.
In The Red Badge of Courage (1895), we follow Henry Fleming, who signs up for the 304th New York regiment. Henry wants to experience a war that matches the glory of battle that he had read about in school.
The novel made him famous. It was considered to be the most realistic war novel ever written, despite the facts that the author was only 24 and had never been in battle himself.
I have read more recently that some Civil War veterans wrote in to newspapers claiming that they knew Stephen Crane and had fought beside him in various Civil War battles.
Crane admitted to fellow writer Hamlin Garland that he had used his own experience as an athlete as inspiration for the battle scenes.
The novel’s success led to Crane spending the rest of his life working as a war correspondent.
On New Year’s Eve in 1896, the boat he was on traveling to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War hit a sandbar and sank.
He barely survived in a small dinghy with three other men. They spent 30 hours at sea, then, in desperation, dove in and made for shore.
From that experience, Crane wrote his short story “The Open Boat” which was the first piece of fiction I had ever read by him.
Sadly, that time spent adrift at sea and swimming severely damaged his health and contributed to his death from tuberculosis (TB ) just 4 years later at the age of twenty-eight.
Stephen Crane, 1897
It wasn’t until college that I read Stephen Crane’s poetry. He is considered a minor poet and his Complete Poems includes all 135 poems, published and unpublished during his lifetime. I like Crane’s short poems and his use of irony and paradox which were influenced by his reading of Emily Dickinson’s verse. They are generally very accessible poems.
I saw a man pursuing the horizon; Round and round they sped. I was disturbed at this; I accosted the man. “It is futile,” I said, “You can never —”
“You lie,” he cried, And ran on.
His life was short, but his output was impressive for that short time that he wrote professionally. I think we could have been friends in another timeline. We would have at least played some pickup baseball together.
My Dad kept a compost pile in our backyard garden when I was a kid. It really was a “pile” contained by some posts and chicken wire. I learned to layer things. (Don’t put in a lot of grass clipping unless you want it to smell like a public restroom.) Some leaves, some clippings, some dirt, some green leftovers from the kitchen, a bit of wood chips or sawdust, some sand (not the salty stuff from the beach), even some shredded paper. You have to turn it. Mix it up and add some water, but never make it soggy. “Friable” was the word my dad used – an unusually fancy vocabulary for him to use that I had to look up in the dictionary.
I have my own compost non-piles. I have the more modern plastic tumbler that allows you to roll the compost around to mix it up. I’m not sure my dad would approve of such a purchase. he probably would have built his own from an old trash can or something. I do love after a few months to dump out the rich, friable, soil mix to add to my garden. Growing a few vegetables has been a summer tradition for me ever since my childhood in “The Garden State.” (And yes, many people in New Jersey do keep gardens and on the vegetable side you are almost required to have a few tomato plants – hopefully at least one Rutgers tomato plant. (I would like to recommend that their next species be a “Scarlet Knight.”)
The more figurative composting that I do has to do with writing. This composting means writing down all kinds of ideas in notebooks, in my iPhone Notes, and as drafts online. They often come to me while walking, in the shower, while reading or listening to podcasts and while working in the garden.
I allow these layers to pile up in layers. I mix them. We are often a bit too much in love with our newest idea. In her excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott advises that we allow ourselves to write a “shitty first draft.” Like my garden manure, those drafts help the compost work.
Garden composting requires water, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, and micro-organisms to break down organic matter to produce compost. Bacteria abounds. Actinobacteria is needed to break down paper products such as newspaper, bark, chips and sawdust. There is some fungi, molds and yeast that can break down materials that bacteria cannot. I haven’t looked under a microscope, but those protozoa from high school biology class consume bacteria, fungi and micro organic particulates. I have read that there should be some rotifers in there to help control populations of bacteria and small protozoans.
I put in any earthworms I find while digging and weeding the garden. In my less formal compost pile that I keep for extra leaves and clippings in the style of my dad’s piles, I will find earthworms there naturally who are not only ingesting partly composted material and depositing rich soil, but also continually creating aeration and drainage tunnels as they move through the compost.
I won’t take my writerly composting metaphor further and try to figure out what bacteria and earthworms are at work there, but time certainly does some of the work. The writing that emerges often looks very different from the raw materials that went into the pile. Hopefully, it is deeper, richer and bears more fruit.
While in New York City last weekend and staying near The Battery end of Manhattan, I went out for my walk and decided to follow some of the path that Herman Melville would have traveled in his days there.
With an online walking tour as a guide, I set out. The place I wanted to really see was the Custom House where he worked as a customs inspector. I like to imagine him sneaking in some literary time between working on boring forms about tariffs.
Even with a guide, it can be confusing as there are several “Customs Houses” in the city. One is the Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street that had been the U.S. capital until 1790 when that honor moved to Philadelphia and the building went back to housing the government of New York City. The building was razed with the opening of the current New York City Hall in 1812. You can see part of the original railing and balcony floor where Washington was inaugurated in the memorial there. The current classical building was built as the first purpose-built U.S. Custom House for the Port of New York and opened in 1842. A nice place to visit, but no connection to Melville.
In 1862, Customs moved to 55 Wall Street which is where Melville spent his time. Now known as The First National City Bank Building, it rests upon the foundation and lower portion of The Merchants’ Exchange, built in 1842.
Melville’s wife’s family used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York in 1866. This was a humble position, but with a decent salary. He held the post for 19 years. He had a reputation of being the only honest employee in a notoriously corrupt institution.
Though he never knew it, his position and income “were protected throughout the periodic turmoil of political reappointments by a customs official who never spoke to Melville but admired his writings: future US president Chester A. Arthur” (Olsen-Smith).
The basement vaults below Melville held millions of dollars of gold and silver as this was one of six United States Sub-Treasury locations at that time. .
The Merchants’ Exchange replaced the previous exchange which burned down in the Great Fire of New York in 1835
“…it’s worth pointing out that [Herman Melville] worked in [the New York Custom House] as a deputy customs inspector between 1866 and 1885. Nineteen years, and he never got a raise – four dollars a day, six days a week. He was by then a washed-up writer, forgotten and poor. I used to find this subject heartbreaking, a waste: the greatest living American author was forced to spend his days writing tariff reports instead of novels. But now, knowing what I know about the sleaze of the New York Custom House, and the honorable if bitter decency with which Melville did his job, I have come to regard literature’s loss as the republic’s gain. Great writers are a dime a dozen in New York. But an honest customs inspector in the Gilded Age? Unheard of.”
― Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation
Just prior to his Custom House days, his writing career was not very successful. His greatest sales had come from his earliest books of adventure and travel. His first book was Typee (1846), a highly romanticized account of his life among Polynesians. That best-seller allowed him to write a “sequel” Omoo (1847). These books gave him enough money to marry Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of a prominent Boston family,
Next, he got to write a novel not based on his own travel experiences. That novel was Mardi (1849), also a sea narrative but a very philosophical one. It didn’t sell at all. It wasn’t what readers expected (or wanted) from Melville. He went back to something closer to the earlier books with Redburn (1849). This story about life on a merchant ship was better received by reviewers. So was the next book about the hard life aboard a man-of-war, White-Jacket (1850). But the books did not bring enough money to sustain the family.
In the summer of 1850, Melville moved his growing family to Arrowhead farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. There he befriended fellow novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne. Melville started the novel in New York in 1850, but finished it in Pittsfield the following summer. But this great American novel was a commercial failure, and the reviews were mixed.
Just to give a sense of those literary times, along with Moby Dick was the publication of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and in 1855 Thoreau’s Walden and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Melville was no longer a popular or well-known author and Pierre (1852) was at least partially a satire on the literary culture of the time – and not a best-seller. Either was his Revolutionary War novel Israel Potter (1855) which was first serialized in Putnam’s magazine but not well received by critics or readers as a book.
Melville published some excellent short fiction in magazines during this slow period: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), “The Encantadas” (1854), and “Benito Cereno” (1855) which were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales.
He wasn’t totally broke and in 1857 he traveled to England and did some lecture tours to earn money. He was reunited briefly with Hawthorne in England. He was also able to tour the Near East.
The last prose he would publish was the quite different and interesting novel, The Confidence-Man (1857).
“Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his.
—The Confidence Man
With money running out, they left the farm and returned to New York so he could take a position as Customs Inspector. They moved to Allan Melville’s house at 104 East 26th Street, for which they traded their Pittsfield farm.
Melville turned to poetry. That first year at the Customs House he published Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War which contains his poems on moral questions about the American Civil War.
Probably he had given up on the novels due to the poor sales and reviews. Publishers probably weren’t interested either. But I think the trips abroad had an influence on his thinking and I can see him sneaking in some poetry at lunch and breaks from Customs House work at his desk as he walked and maybe stopped coffee houses around Wall Street.
“… the New York guidebooks are now vaunting of the magnitude of a town, whose future inhabitants, multitudinous as the pebbles on the beach, and girdled in with high walls and towers, flanking endless avenues of opulence and taste, will regard all our Broadways and Bowerys as but the paltry nucleus to their Nineveh. From far up the Hudson, beyond Harlem River where the young saplings are now growing, that will overarch their lordly mansions with broad boughs, centuries old; they may send forth explorers to penetrate into the then obscure and smoky alleys of the Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street; and going still farther south, may exhume the present Doric Custom-house, and quote it as a proof that their high and mighty metropolis enjoyed a Hellenic antiquity.”
― Herman Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage
I made a stop at 54 Pearl Street, which would have been Fraunces Tavern in Melville’s time. It’s not here anymore, so I had to imagine him at what was described as “a slightly rundown tavern and meeting place.” At numbers 58 and 62, you get a glimpse of what he would describe as “grimlooking warehouses.”
Along Pearl Street was Coenties Slip, a man-made inlet, now filled in and making up parts of Water, Front and South Street. Melville knew the area as a boy, and wrote in Redburn: “…somewhere near ranges of grim-looking warehouses, with rusty iron doors and shutters, and tiled roofs; and old anchors and chain-cables piled on the walk. Old-fashioned coffee-houses, also, much abound in that neighborhood, with sun-burnt sea-captains going in and out, smoking cigars, and talking about Havana, London, and Calcutta.”
This could not have been a happy time for Melville and his family. In 1867, his oldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot, which may have been an accident or may have been suicide.
Melville died from cardiovascular disease in 1891, but he had continued to write in his retirement years. Two more volumes of poetry were privately published and one was left unpublished. He was working on another sea novel but the unfinished Billy Budd was not published until 1924.
The 1919 centennial of his birth seems to have started a “Melville Revival”and critics and scholars explored his life, novels, stories and poetry. Certainly, Moby Dick makes every list of the great American works of fiction.
On my walk, I visited (as we know Melville did) Trinity Church to climb up into the belfry. I’m not sure how religious Melville was, but I know that we seem to share similar spiritual concerns, so a prayer for him seemed appropriate.
I walked by what would have been the Post Office a block away from the church on Nassau Street between Liberty and Cedar Streets. It was demolished in 1882. I thought about Melville possibly mailing off his writing to publishers there in the hopes of reviving his career.
If he got to go out for lunch during a work day, he would have seen clerks heading up and down the this busy street. Maybe he dropped in on his brother, Allan, whose law office was at No. 10 on the second floor. It certainly figures into his wonderful short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” with “the numerous stalls nigh the Custom House and Post Office.”
This section from Nassau to Broadway is sometimes called “Bartleby’s Wall Street.” I found no one selling ginger cakes or any apple sellers that would allow me “to moisten [their] mouths very often with Spitzenbergs.”
If Herman’s daily work was boring, being a scrivener like Allan, (they were the all-male secretarial pool of that day) and copying legal documents in “quadruplicates of a week’s testimony” sounds even more boring.
I didn’t get to the intersection of Park Avenue south and 26th Street which was dedicated in 1985 as Herman Melville Square. This is where Melville lived from 1863 to 1891.
A giant species of sperm whale was named in honor of Melville. Livyatan melvillei was discovered by paleontologists who were fans of Moby-Dick. I suppose it is a kind of sad irony that this species is extinct.
A brain dump is letting out all your thoughts. Not in a barrage of conversation, but via pen to paper. It’s a form of release. It is a way to face reality. It means putting thoughts somewhere else.
I came across several articles lately about how to do a brain dump. Try brightontheday.com and lifehack.org. I originally read about it in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. It seems so simple – too simple – to be effective, but it does seem to work.
I look at Weekends in Paradelle (and perhaps my other blogs too) as a kind of brain dump where I work out and organize my thoughts.
Brain dumps also have another application that is less noble. On forums and social media sites, students ask for answers to exams. Some requests are not so lacking in academic integrity and may want training material or practice items. In academic circles, a brain dump is when a test taker goes from an exam online to dump everything that they can recall about the test questions and answers. Yes, it is cheating.
It can also be the transfer of a large quantity of information from one person to another or to a storage and retrieval medium. In slang, it can describe a hurried explanation of a system, job, skillset. In computing, the phrase describes the taking of a snapshot of the internal state of a knowledge database for transfer or archiving purposes.
For a legitimate brain dump of yourself, you might want to start by trying doing one before heading to bed for the night. You dump all the things still lingering in your mind onto a piece of paper and let them go. The idea is to get out everything that has the potential to keep you up at night. Don’t make it a To Do list for tomorrow. That will just keep you up! But if upcoming things are on your mind, put them down, but let them go.
According to “the rules,” after you write down anything and everything, you should start a new page and organize. This is where I depart from the rules because I don’t like turning the dump into a To Do list, and putting categories and priorities to the list does just that.
I do find it useful to just write my thoughts in little group in the corners of a page. One corner for concerns, one for errands, places I want to go – whatever things seem to be filling my head. I have seen actual brain dump pads online, but a blank sheet works for me and you could just make a sheet that works for you on your computer and print out a few. I also have seen brain dump journals and perhaps keeping your sheets in one place might be useful to look back on later – but a blank book would work fine and is probably cheaper.
Is this a daily practice? Not for me, but I suppose it could be a daily practice. I seem to do it when I need it. It often happens late at night.
I know that academic brain dump is all about getting access to other people’s brain dumps, but I think the real value is in examining your own thoughts.
A friend asked me this past week what I do when I hit writer’s block. She was really referring to writing poetry, but that block hit me last weekend here in Paradelle. Nothing inspired me to write, so I only posted one instead of the usual three posts.
Back in the 19th century, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described an “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent. He also claimed that French writers created this idea that all writers have to suffer to write.
I had bookmarked an article by Jennifer Lachs about writer’s block, so I decided to read it and write about not being able to write. Of course, the block can also be a creative block that goes wider than just writing.
The article quotes playwright Paul Rudnick who says that “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.” You have to write? Unless you’re on deadline, no one has to write.
A dictionary might define writer’s block as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” Is it psychological?
In the book Fire Up Your Writing Brain, author Susan Reynolds turns to neuroscience to turn on the brain’s creativity for writers in particular.
Reynolds actually claims that it being a psychological condition is a myth. (Others disagree) She feels the brain can be used to generate that creative spark and defeat the procrastination that we call a block.
Her approach includes some self-study about the type of writer you are, and developing writing models.
A believer in neuroplasticity, she says you can hardwire your brain for endurance and increased productivity.
Arguing about whether writer’s block is a real psychological issue or a romantic term coined by writers won’t help you if you hit a block.
Why do you get blocked? I found several lists online. Some items resonate with me, some do not.
Is it fear of failure or rejection? Are you such a perfectionist that you can’t get started? Certainly many of us are our own toughest critics. All of these are fear in some way.
If you really have to write because it is your work or you have a deadline to meet, that pressure can block people.
The solutions are even more numerous than the causes. Feeling blocked? Try these block breakers. Do some exercise. Take a walk. Do something aerobic.
I have often heard that you should do something completely different from the task at hand for a bit. That sounds like procrastination, but switching tasks just for a short time might reset your brain. make a cup of tea. Try drawing something. Einstein famously would pick up his violin and play some Mozart when he hit a creative wall.
You can combine several solutions – take the dog (or just yourself) for a walk. That is exercise, a different task and also a change of scenery. Cook something, rake some leaves, sew, knit, sculpt, do some woodworking, paint a wall or a landscape, chop some firewood.
Some current research finds that doing something with your hands when you are blocked in your brain.
If that seems too much like procrastination, for writers, free-writing can be a block breaker. Writing without rules, about whatever pops into your head can let the imagination free. I’m not good at this. I tend to keep drifting in my writing back to the task.
It is also recommended that you block back. Get rid of distractions – not an easy task in this distractible times. Certainly email, social media, 24 hour news and movies on your phone can take you away from your writing. I think this is a mythical solution. As much as I would love a cabin out in the woods for a writing place, I could see me sitting there unable to write and distracted by rabbits and a river.
It bothers some of my writer friends but I rarely ever feel blocked. One of my methods is keeping notebooks full of ideas, a note on my phone where I list one-liner poetry ideas (there are 133 there now) and usually a few blog posts in draft mode that I started and stalled on.
Maybe it is a time-of-day, circadian rhythms issue for you. Are you more productive at certain times? I write best in the morning and at night. Afternoons, not so great. But if I am banging up against that block at 9 a.m., I might do something else and come back at 3 p.m.
Recommendations often say that binge writing is not recommended. Smaller sessions are better. John Updike, who was very productive, treated his writing like a regular job. he went to an office and didn’t let himself out for lunch until he had produced a certain amount of writing. It might be a poem, a few pages in the novel or even answering mail.
Poet William Stafford was famous for writing a poem every morning when he woke and before breakfast. How did he do it? He admitted that he lowered his standards. It was a case of progress, not perfection. Perfectionism is a block builder. I followed that philosophy when I did my poem-a-day project 365 times in 2014.