Cigarette Breaks
Written by
Dani Shapiro
January 2015
Written by
Dani Shapiro
January 2015

Back when I smoked, whenever I got stuck midsentence, or needed a breather, I reached for my pack of Marlboro Reds.  That pack of cigarettes was never far from me. I kept it near my right elbow on my desk next to a ceramic ashtray swiped from the Hotel Eden Roc in Cap d’Antibes. That ashtray was pretty much always overflowing with butts. In my borrowed room on West Seventy-Second Street, I wrote and smoked. Smoked and wrote. The two seemed linked together in a way that did not allow for the possibility that I would ever be able to write without the option of smoking. What would I do when I hit a snag? How could I possibly unstick myself without the ritual of tapping a cigarette loose from the pack, placing it between my lips, striking a match, lighting it . . . the tip glowing red? Without blowing out the match, leaning back in my desk chair, inhaling, exhaling, aiming smoke rings at the ceiling?  Even as I write this, more than twenty years after my last cigarette, I can feel the welcome harshness of the smoke in my lungs, the feel of the cigarette between the second and third finger of my right hand. 

By the time I had finished a draft of my first novel, I had quit smoking. My father had died, and my mother was in a wheelchair and it wasn’t clear whether she would ever walk again. One afternoon, a tiny Yorkshire Terrier puppy in the window of a pet store on Columbus Avenue caught my eye. I went inside, telling myself I was just going to play with him.  An hour later, I left the pet store with a crate, puppy food, bowls, a leash, a collar, and a puppy. I named him Gus––Gustave, actually, because I was reading a lot of Flaubert at the time––and every morning I took him to Central Park.  One morning, as I sat on a rock warmed by the sunshine, smoking while Gus romped in the grass, the words I want to live went through my head, and I stubbed out what would turn out to be my last cigarette. I want to live.

But when I went back to work on a second draft of that novel––now no longer a smoker––I was in trouble. I wanted to live, but I also needed to write. Those cigarette breaks had provided me with a ritualized dream time. Smoking was good for the writing. That tapping of the pack, lighting of the match, leaning back and smoking, allowed for a prescribed amount of time––three minutes? Five?––in which I was doing nothing but smoking, gazing out the window at the courtyard below, and allowing my thoughts to sort themselves out.  

Writers require that ritualized dream time. We all have our tricks and tools. Some of us still smoke. I have friends who chew on pens. Or doodle. Friends who pop jelly beans from jars on their desks. Or take baths in the middle of the day. My husband and I recently discovered the power of pistachio nuts. The cracking open of those shells is curiously satisfying. Whatever keeps us in the work, engaged, and able to resist the urge to go do something––anything––else.   

As I sit here writing this––at a cafe not far from my house––that urge is part of nearly every minute. Discomfort is kicking my ass on this particular day. I know better––but knowing better sometimes isn't enough. In the past hour,  I have checked email three times. I sent a note to a friend about a magazine piece she's helping me with. I received a photo from my husband with a picture of a car he thought I might like. I have gone on Facebook once. I have received two texts.  

Well, that’s okay, you might be thinking to yourself. What's the harm in taking a couple of minutes to check in online?  After all, isn't a quick glance at your emails, Twitter feed, the Facebook status updates of all your friends kind of like a 21st century version of the cigarette break?

This may be the most important piece of advice I can give you: the internet is nothing like a cigarette break. If anything, it’s the opposite. One of the most difficult practical challenges facing writers in this age of connectivity is the fact that the very instrument on which most of us write is also a portal to the outside world. I once heard Ron Carlson say that composing on a computer like writing in an amusement park. Stuck for a nanosecond? Why feel it? With the single click of a key, we can remove ourselves, and take a ride on a log flume instead.  

By the time we return to our work––if, indeed, we return to our work at all––we will be farther away from our deepest impulses, rather than closer to them. Where were we? Oh, yes. We were stuck. We were feeling uncomfortable and lost. And how are we now? More stuck. More uncomfortable and lost. We have gained nothing in the way of waking-dream time.  Our thoughts have not drifted, but rather have ricocheted from one bright and shiny thing to another.

If the internet had been in wide use during the time I quit smoking, I know what I would have been doing in that small borrowed room. I would have spent my days screwing around online. As it is––even after all the books and a lifetime of some pretty decent habits––I still find it enormously difficult to resist its lure. But on the best days, I imagine myself back to a place free of texts and tweets and Facebook messages. Free of the noise and Pavlovian thrill of an ever-filling in box. I align myself with Donald Hall rising with the dawn on his grandparents’ farm; Virginia Woolf in her Bloomsbury writing room; Proust in his bed; Paul Auster making the morning trek to his monastic Brooklyn brownstone studio. And I am back in that room: the blank walls, the empty courtyard, the thin line of smoke spiraling out the window. The vast, wide open world of the mind drifting, unmoored.  

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  • Dorothy Hom

    It is inhuman to write on and on without rest, stimulus or inspiration. As an intermittent social smoker (with the rare ability to pick it up after years without,) I have learned that wanting the fix is sometimes better than having it. Try taking breaks incorporating habits that are pleasurable in and of themselves: the resistance in pressing down on a real cafetiere to make that homemade cup of coffee, (or sipping one freshly made and passed to you across the counter), stepping outside for fresh air in the crisp cold or even the sweltering heat, stopping to observe humanity's traffic, or close one's eyes to listen to the sounds of birds. I like to gaze upon the vase of flowers I try to keep on my desk. The best break is to read a good piece of writing, put it down and say, "Why can't I do that?!" and encouraged, soldier on. (PS. Dani, so enjoyed your piece "The Affair" in Granta from way back.)

  • Mardith Louisell

    Love this, Dani. So true. I will have to name  my own alignments and that may help resist the allure of breaking without breaking. I think the other issue with internet is that it's all words. The more you break with words, the less likely you come back refreshed. Same for phone calls usually. Thanks.

  • So, in dodging writing a report that is due in 2 hours, I checked my email and read the comments about Freedom. (Oh, the irony.) Here is the link - I think I will go back and purchase it right now. It's 10 bucks...why not?

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    This is a great piece. And I need Freedom.

  • Dani Shapiro

    Thanks for all these lovely comments!  Of course, anyone reading this right now is on the Internet.  When I'm writing I use "Freedom" -- in 30 minute increments -- which shuts down emails, Internet, everything.  I find it incredibly helpful.  It's hard enough to write without dealing with the entire world one click away. 

  • Laura Catherine Brown

    Dani, This is beautifully written, even though you checked your email, wrote a text & received a photo! Dream time & dream rituals are too easy to neglect. Thanks for the reminder. Be with discomfort. I love this piece.

  • Judy Reeves

    Yes, yes. Another former smoker (and sometimes, at especially high or low emotional moments, I still miss it), who now eats almonds by the handsfull and apples and carrots. The crunch seems to relieve the anxiety that comes with writing. I'm seeing signs of addiction and dependence in my Internet use, of late bringing my iPhone to my journal-writing place in the morning and checking my email inbox during what used to be a sacred way of starting my day. Thanks for your excellent post, Dani.

  • claire scott

    No smokes allowed! So now I find it helpful to walk around the house or the block, very slowly.  Or to sit in meditation for even just ten minutes.  Enough to shift the right brain to drifty and receptive.  I also find it helpful to slouch on the couch for a half hour, pen in hand.  Just get away from the computer.  

  • Lisa Thomson

    Love this. A cigarette break is the opposite of a social media break...I absolutely agree! There is a typewriter that's available now that is a computer but operates separate from the internet. It actually looks like an antique, too. I really enjoyed this, Dani. congrats on staying off the nicotine for 20 years!

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Re: the benefits of walking for writers:  See my new post: 

    Stuck?  Go for a walk!  New findings about how walking boosts creative thinking

  • Paula Lozar

    Re breaks:  I think best on my feet, and when I was still working at my day job, I almost always took a 30-40 minute walk after lunch.  I walked on a jeep trail through a bit of woodland, where I usually didn't meet anyone, so it was a great time to think through scenes or dialog in the novel I was drafting (in my spare time).  Since I retired, I haven't walked as regularly, but I've noticed that I ramp it up when I'm writing!  As for the temptations of the Internet, yep, I totally agree -- but I was always prone to get caught up in research and come up for air hours later, so I know it's something I need to watch.  (Then again, sometimes that "irrelevant" byway turns out to be helpful.  E.g., I'm working on a draft novel where the back story takes place in the 1890's.  I started researching U.S. railroads in that period because a character has to travel by rail, and found myself spending hours reading about railway-related financial boondoggles -- tsk!  But another character is a post-Civil War profiteer, and I was stuck for a while on "What's his scam?" ... until I realized that, duh, it could be a railroad-building scheme, and I already knew a lot about that!)

  • Patricia Robertson

    I like to go for a walk or take baths in the middle of the day! Helps to clear my head. I also like sitting with a cup of coffee or tea. And sometimes I just stare out the window.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    What a great post, Dani. I appreciate your perspective—always—on social media and online habits and how the impact the writer in all of us. I listened to something on NPR last night about boredom, and how it brings the brain back to "default mode," a critical state of mind for creative thought that's basically being overridden by our obsession with checking our phones. Interesting. Seems like people are trying to extoll the virtues of boredom, and I feel that that's what smoke breaks do, or just zoning out. Last night my son wanted to listen to music on our ghetto blaster. He was screaming, "No phone! No phone!" (He's four.) So I put on a CD of George Winston's Winter and laid back on his little twin bed. It was bliss. Like meditation. It made me realize I NEVER do that. It's always go go go. I too long for a simpler time, pre-texting, pre-Internet, even though I LOVE everything about my smart phone and the Internet. It's a conundrum for sure. Thanks for your perspective.

  • Anne Wayman

    Cindy Eastman - oh lordy, I forgot about the snacking... ate most of california and 7 years later am just now getting rid of some of that!

  • I appear to have substituted snacking for smoking, unfortunately. (No one has to point out oral fixations...) Sitting outside with a cup of coffee, a pack of Marlboros (Light, like it made a difference) and my journal opened up such a wonderful, creative space in my day, a space I visited time and time again until I quit smoking several years ago. If I was outside with a cigarette, no one would bother me because I was "smoking". Everyone bothers me if I am "just" writing. Such an interesting post. The internet thing is a nice clarification, too, and you're right; it's the opposite of that tiny time of reflection. Like Ellen, I must think about that and consider doing my writing "unplugged" as I did when I was smoking.

  • Anne Wayman

    When I (finally) stopped smoking I made time for breaks as much like a cigarette break as possible... w/o the ciggy... I stepped outside; I chewed pencils; I talked with people; I read something non- work related. I planned for this and it all helped.

  • Claudette J. Young

    I understand this syndrome very well. I quit smoking 12 years ago. I did find a healthy substitute, though, that allowed me to get the dreaming/plotting/visualizing, etc. done and still get back to writing.

    I take the time to play Mahjong--just a couple of games. I set up a character scenario for the tiles. Sounds crazy, I know, but it works for me. Each type of tile represents something specific. The lettered tiles are the cardinal directions. Tiles with numbers and a red bar represent conflict; the number represents the degree of conflict. Those with black circles on them stand for character's support structures. Animals stake the place of settings. 

    You can see how this works, I hope. I learned to keep my conscious attention on playing the game, but after Muse got used to the process, it would take over.It's amazing how many twists and turns Muse can find for a story while I play just one or two games. After I leave the game, I write down each of the points that have come to me about the specific story line and off I go to work those pieces into the story, or I put them aside until I can use them.

    The substitution of game for cigarette has allowed me to step back and regroup while getting a stress break and a creative boost.

    I think the technique can work for anyone. One other benefit for those who get severe eyestrain--playing the game forces the eyes to moved and shift focus often enough to give them a rest from the small type font that's required when writing onscreen. Just a thought. I know how much my eyes need it after an hour of staring at a printe page.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Hmm, I read this wonderful and eloquent post and its words about how hard it is not to screw around online...while screwing around online...not getting to the writing I'm supposed to be doing.... Must ponder.