On smoking, writing in longhand and Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard

I used to commute by train to Sydney from the Gosford train station. There was a little used bookshop near the station that stayed open till after the commuter trains stopped running. Like about half the other commuters on the train, the first thing I did when I got off the train was light a cigarette. At least once a week, another thing I did was go into the bookshop and trade in the book I’d finished reading to pass the time on the train.

I discovered Elmore Leonard in that little bookshop. Kind of a book snob, I’d never read him before. Dumb. His ability to make characters come to life was nearly miraculous. I didn’t read his Westerns. My prejudice against them was too great, but the books I did read swallowed me whole.

When I wasn’t reading on the train, I was writing in longhand. I was on a roll with magazine assignments at the time, but didn’t have a laptop, so I’d write my articles in longhand and then type them up on my PC after dinner.

In retrospect, those years I spent commuting were some of the most enjoyable working years of my life apart from the 15 years I was self-employed. It wasn’t because I liked my job. It was because I loved the commute. I don’t think I’d have enjoyed it nearly as much if I’d had a smartphone or laptop.

There’s something healthier and happier about reading real books and writing in longhand than reading and writing in front of a screen. What is it? I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with the speed we have to process information with on a device. When I read online, I usually skim and jump from one thing to the other. I’ll click on a link in an article or notice an email has just arrived. I’ll read something of interest and share it on G+, Twitter and Facebook before I’ve even finished reading.

I can type at blinding speed. That’s great, but my imagination can’t keep up with me. Like I mentioned in Writing in Longhand, what comes out as a paragraph on my laptop turns into half a chapter when I write in longhand. Even better, I enjoy the way I feel after writing in longhand. I’m tired, but I’m relaxed. At the end of a working day on the computer, I’m tired and tense from tap-tap-tapping away and switching rapidly from one task to the other.

Elmore Leonard offers another good reason for writing in longhand in the video embedded below. “I write in longhand because when I started out, I was working on a manual typewriter . . . and all I was doing was Xing out lines, because writing is rewriting.” Okay, it’s easy enough to edit on a computer, but when I draw a line through a phrase and replace it with another, it really helps me keep my train of thought going smoothly.

Do yourself a favor and watch the 7 minute video. Leonard’s 10 tips on writing are gold. By the way, he lights a cigarette a minute after the interview begins. Which brings me back to smoking.

I read a great blog about smoking this morning. In On Cigarettes . . . mine in particular, Karen J writes: “One thing I’m certain of, is that it’s not – as the sound-bites would have us believe – ‘all about the nicotine’ — there’s a ton of other things (emotional, logical and physical) going on, too.” Yes, there are.

I vividly remember the first cigarette I smoked. I was 17 at the time, so it was in 1965. A huge north swell was hitting the Redondo Breakwater at just the right angle to make perfect waves. Only a handful of us went out that day. I was the only non-name surfer of the bunch. For some reason, I was on fire that day. It was the middle of winter and the water was freezing cold. When I got out of the water, my friends and even some people I didn’t know gathered around me to tell me how great I’d been surfing that day. It was my moment of glory and even the fact that I was shaking like a leaf from cold couldn’t keep me from feeling the warm sunlight of their praise.

First someone handed me a cup of coffee – my first. Then someone handed me a cigarette, telling me it would help me with the shakes. It tasted terrible, but I finished it. That night, I bought a pack and became addicted until 3 years later, when I fanatically took up yoga.

10 years later, disenchanted with the yoga scene and seriously in need of a career of some sort after dropping out of college and life in general to live on a commune, I moved to San Francisco. [Excuse me for a moment. I’m going outside for a smoke].

City Lights Bookstore. See the bookshelves? I built them!

Every Friday night, the first place I’d go was to City Lights Books. I just liked to hang out there. If I needed a book, I’d buy one and then go to a bar across the street for a beer. One night, I ran into an old high school friend in the bar. Gloria was one of those “fast” girls in high school. She also had one of the biggest hearts of anyone I’d ever known and that was what I remembered most about her. She hadn’t changed. She was on a break from working as a stripper at a club across the street from City Lights.

Gloria invited me over to the club and took me backstage after her act. While telling me about her recent trip to Bali, she lit a clove cigarette. It was a habit she’d picked up there. She offered one to me. I quit smoking the cloves, but I haven’t quit smoking since.

I finally gave up feeling guilty for smoking a few years ago. I’m 65 now, so the damage has been done and there are just too many good reasons not to quit. They only cost 50 cents a pack here in Cambodia, for one thing. For another, I read recently than ex-smokers’ cancer rates are just as high as heavy smokers’ rates are, so what good will quitting do at my age? I’d rather savor the memories as I savor another cigarette.

Enjoy the video.