Why Writing is Like Smoking a Cigarette with the Lit End in Your Mouth
Written by: Carl Hoffman
I used to live in the Philippines a whole lot of years ago. I went there alone, for what was supposed to be a two year stint in the United States Peace Corps. I left 13 years later—with a wife, two kids, and a résumé of odd jobs that still provides colorful fodder for late night conversations with strangers on trains.
Around two or three days after my arrival to “the land where Asia wears a smile,” I was walking through one of downtown Manila’s most downtrodden neighborhoods when I saw something out of the corner of my eye that brought me to the kind of screeching halt you normally see only in cartoons. A skinny old lady with a craggy face, bony old arms, bony old legs, and long gray hair tied up in a bun suddenly did something I had never seen anyone do before. She took a cigarette out of pack in her pocket, put it in her mouth, lit it with an old Zippo lighter, then took the cigarette out of her mouth, flipped it around in her hand, and then put it back—with the lit end in her mouth. That’s right, this grizzled old lady—great-grandmother to God-knows how many children—was contentedly smoking a cigarette with the lit end in her mouth, on a busy street corner in the middle of Manila, with no one but me giving her so much as a second look.
“Well, every country has its crazies,” I mused philosophically, as I continued my little stroll through the hot streets of the city. I figured that if there was anything I could be sure of at that moment, it was that I would never see anything like that again. I continued to be sure of that for around 20 minutes, when I turned a corner and almost ran into another old lady smoking a cigarette, again with the lit end in her mouth.
Before I could grab that old crone by her shoulders and ask her which of my wise-ass friends had put her up to this, another old lady popped into view, squatting behind a wok in which she was deep-frying chunks of orange sweet potatoes for sale to passersby. She had a little gas fire and tripod under the wok, and she was languidly stirring the sweet potatoes in sputtering waves of palm oil that may have been fresh the day Magellan “discovered” the Philippines. And sure enough, as plain as the nose on her face, a long brown cigarette dangled almost rakishly from her mouth, lit end in. No longer suspecting a practical joke, I began to see a pattern.
To make a long story not exactly short but perhaps a little less long, it turns out that smoking cigarettes with the lit ends in their mouths is what old ladies in the Philippines do. Or anyway, it’s one thing they do, in addition to hauling water from wells and rivers, gathering firewood and schlepping it home on their backs, selling things in the local market, buying things in the local market, washing clothes, cooking meals, and caring for noisy gaggles of grandchildren. This peculiar cigarette smoking custom becomes even more noticeable as you get out into the provinces, into the rural countryside that in fact makes up most of this tropical island nation. Interestingly enough, old men do not do this. Not ever. Only old women do.
And you will notice that I write in the present tense, despite my having seen this many several years ago. I write in the present because that’s where this custom perennially lives. It does not die out when the old ladies do. Reassuringly, as soon as one generation of cigarette-smoking-in-the-mouth old ladies passes on, the next generation of not-so-old ladies dutifully steps up and takes their place.
Now if you are anything like me, watching a bunch of women in their 70s and 80s smoke cigarettes with the hot, smoky lit ends in their mouths raises, I would say, at least two questions. One—and this is the minor one—is how they do this. I call this the minor question because it seems to me that if you’re determined to do something badly enough, you will find a way to do it, even if what you’re determined to do involves plunging the glowing, red hot, blistering lit end of a cigarette into your mouth, while presumably trying to avoid burning your tongue, gums, pallet, and inner cheek linings beyond all further use.
So for me, the major question was the second one: why. Why would anyone in her right mind want to walk around, go through her usual round of day-to-day activities, and talk to people while the business end of a cigarette is smoldering away in her mouth? Intrigued, I decided to pose this question to every old lady I saw doing this.
The answers were surprisingly varied. “I smoke my cigarettes with the lit end in my mouth so I won’t burn my baby granddaughter when I hold her on my hip,” croaked one old crone. “If I smoke the regular way, I just don’t get the same satisfaction,” cackled another. “If I keep the lit end in my mouth, I don’t have to worry about cigarette ashes dropping into food that I’m cooking,” one old lady said, smiling broadly, as her stern faced older sister added, “And I don’t have to worry about ashes falling into my clothes while I’m doing laundry.” To prove her point, she shook her head violently over her tin wash basin while somehow puffing violently on her cigarette. Indeed, if any ashes fell, they fell down her throat and into her esophagus, not into her laundry.
So why do old ladies in the Philippines smoke cigarettes with the lit ends in their mouths? Speaking as a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from one of the best universities in the United States, whose specialty was Insular Southeast Asia and who lived, worked and studied in the Philippines for 13 years…I frankly have no idea in Hell why they do this. They just do, okay?
These nostalgic ruminations virtually flooded what’s left of my mind recently when someone actually had the chutzpah—and the perceptive curiosity—to ask me why I write. The question is by no means absurd. At the age of almost 60 I am dirt-poor, own nothing but the laptop I’m using to write this article, and am almost completely unknown. Okay, forget “almost.”
I deftly parried the question by rolling my eyes, sneering, and asking urbanely, “Well, why does anyone write?” When my interrogator raised her eyebrows, spread her hands and asked, “Nu?”, I realized that I was now stuck with the task of actually having to come up with an answer to this.
For starters, we can rule out fame. I am pretty sure that very few of the people lighting up the blogosphere or publishing pieces in print today are doing so with the expectation of becoming famous. At least I hope not, because let’s face it guys: unless you’re Stephen King, very few people actually read what you write. Even when they do read what you write, nine times out of ten they are blissfully unaware that you wrote it. You spend two or three days writing a wonderfully informative, brilliantly insightful, yet charmingly curmudgeony little feature article for, say, the Jerusalem Post about the Land of Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, only to have someone say to you a week later, “Oh, by the way, there was a wonderfully informative, brilliantly insightful, yet charmingly curmudgeony little feature article about the Land of Israel Museum in the Jerusalem Post last week that I bet you’d find interesting.” “Damn right,” you say to yourself. “I was so interested in the fricking article that I actually sat down and wrote it!”
More usually, after weeks/months/years of your appearing regularly in publications that you know your friends read regularly, you bump into one of these characters on the street, who greets you thusly: “Yo, wassup? Are you are still writing these days?” This is when you feel like you’re growing fur, sprouting fangs, and find yourself suddenly fascinated with people’s jugular veins. These examples, along with others I could site if I weren’t so goddamned lazy, illustrate one supreme truth: no one, and I mean no one, ever reads the byline of an article, except for the author of the article.
You don’t believe me? Okay, without looking back at the top of the page, tell me: what is my name? I rest my case.
Did someone mention money? No, most likely, no one did—not your editor, your publisher, or your agent, if you’ve actually got one. Incidentally, there is an old writers’ joke about agents that goes something like this: A writer comes home to find that his house has been burnt to a smoldering ruin, his family is missing, and his dog is lying dead on the lawn. The guy stands there, staring, wondering what the hell could have happened in the few hours he was away. A neighbor comes over to him and says, “Your agent dropped by to visit you were out. He set fire to your house, raped your wife, killed your dog, and kidnapped your children.” The guy listens to this, totally shocked and barely able to comprehend what he’s just been told. Slowly shaking his head in disbelief, he mutters, “My agent…dropped by to visit?!?”
But I digress. The point I was about to make is that no one, no matter how delusional, is writing with the hopes of getting rich. Aside from people like J.K. Rowling, who is said to have written the outline of her first Harry Potter book on a cocktail napkin while waitressing in a pub, most of the rest of us have discovered that what happens on cocktail napkins stays on cocktail napkins. What we sell, we sell to newspapers, magazines and other publications that pay us very little. This celebrated publication, in case anyone is curious, pays nada, niente, nol, nill, nought, nothing, bupkes; but I did get to interview Elliott Gould at the Haifa Film Festival on one occasion, and got handed bus fare back home to Ra’anana.
So, why do I write? I guess I write to keep the ashes from my cigarettes from falling into my laundry.