A writer friend of mine thinks it is such a horrible cliché to have a character in any story smoking a cigarette. As if that act is too obvious, is just a total cop-out. As in, it’s too easy of a way to convey that the character is perhaps gritty because he (and really, most of the time smoking characters are male) is smoking a cigarette. The sign of a lazy writer, my friend asserts.
Does the girl-next-door character ever smoke a cigarette? Only when she is being rebellious. Does the older English teacher with her gray hair in a bun ever smoke? Only when you want to get a good chuckle out of the reader. But Holden Caulfield and Dean Moriarty smoke in every paragraph. Perhaps they started it. Although, there were gritty and mysterious characters who smoked long before they lit up, so perhaps the Caulfields and Moriartys of the literary world are just little pawns who are lazily being contributed to this quickly growing trend-turned-cliche. Because now, as my writer friend insists, the trend is a cliché—now, the reader expects for the cool and edgy character in any piece of writing to have his lips accompanied by a lit cigarette. So boring. So cliché. So obvious. So cop-out-y.
My writer friend is also sick of characters in psych wards. He believes it is an easy signifier for mental instability, for setting up the reader to know that this story is going to be all about psychological fissures, and that there is also a possibly that the story will be glued together in the end by the theme of healing.
As my writer friend tells me these things, I wonder if he is aware of the fact that one of my more recently published essays is about me working at a mental health facility and going outside to take smoke breaks with the clients who are all diagnosed with schizophrenia.
My character development:
At nineteen I am in a psych ward and obsessing with a fellow female crazy about how we are both jonesing for a cigarette.
At twenty-five I am again in a psych ward and again talking with another fellow female crazy about how bad I want a smoke.
At twenty-six I am smoking a cigarette with my all-time favorite author—a woman who wrote a book about her frequent trips to a psych ward because of her bipolar disorder—and I believe that smoking a cigarette with her is what heaven feels like.
At twenty-eight I am smoking a cigarette with my clients—the whole lot of them diagnosed with schizophrenia.
At twenty-nine I change jobs and am now smoking a cigarette with homeless youth who have mental health conditions.
And at thirty I sit at my desk writing this after I have just taken 200mg of Lamictal and 5mg of Abilify—the medication that helps to keep the symptoms of my bipolar disorder away.
A list of my diagnoses:
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
A list of the brands of cigarettes I will smoke, in order of preference:
- Camel Lights
- American Spirits
- Marlboro Lights
- Lucky Strikes
My preferred brand of cigarettes is Camel Lights, though because of some lawsuit that happened awhile ago about how the “Lights” weren’t really healthier than the regular Camels—I am completely oblivious to the rest of the details of this lawsuit—they are now called Camel Blues. But when I purchase my bi-weekly carton of cigarettes, I ask for Camel Lights and Sharon the smoke shop employee knows exactly what I mean.
I have never been the “girl next door.” I was never the Barbie playing girl, the pink skirt wearing girl, the nail polish girl, the sparkles girl, the quiet girl, the shy girl, the girl with the plain hair, the plain Jane girl, and nor was I ever the wholesome girl. And furthermore I will never be an old lady teaching high school English with my hair in a bun for two reasons: 1) I have dreadlocks and it would be mighty hard to put them into a bun, and 2) I do not want to teach English to high school students who would most likely mock me because of how funny my gray dreadlocks look in a bun. Thus, not the girl-next-door. And not the sweet old lady. Therefore, the fact of this pack of cigarettes sitting on my desk signifies that while I am possibly a gritty character, I will never be a type of gritty that grew from good girl rebellion nor granny irony. So perhaps I am not as gritty as the stereotype demands.
And another thing. I have spent time in a psych ward, a signifier that most would assume I use in my writing in order to show that I am not your average good-brained and emotionally stable girl. But I do not see myself as bad-brained nor emotionally unstable. For me, my stays at the psych ward are truth, not trope. Because when I write about smoking and psych ward-tripping, I am not using these details to point to how rad and rebellious I have been, nor how many types crazy I was. And furthermore, I definitely do not say the words “At nineteen I am in a psych ward…” to suggest that the theme of healing may arise in my story, since all of that crazy business is done and over with (or so the reader hopes). I do not flash those signifiers at the reader with the hopes that she will get a flash of who I am and then will automatically have some firm grasp on my personality. I am more complicated than that, more three-dimensional than the possibly cliché page poses.
When I state these details about myself I am adding to the working document of my body, editing and re-writing the newest draft of myself, whether that be a smoker or a patient or a person in recovery. But thanks to the Caulfields and the Moriartys, as well as many other book-based smokers and crazies, readers will subconsciously read me as an edgy, rebellious woman with a psychological history that will one day be tinged with the theme of healing. These signifiers are so common in literature that the reader doesn’t even have to think about who I might be. I smoke, therefor I am edgy. I have a mental illness, therefor I am unstable.
And if this is true then I, the writer, do not have to say anything more about myself.
She, the reader, knows all about me.
Or so she thinks.
Can we ever escape from the pointing finger of the cigarette and psych ward signifiers? Can I disregard, refute “edgy” and “cool” when I smoke, and say that I am not gritty or mysterious but am merely responding to a habit? Can my psych ward experiences that at one point did easily signify a mental instability now detach themselves from that signifier? Can a present-day mention of my past trip to the psych ward break away from trope and move the reader forward in order to see that my mental health does not define me? When do the signifiers become old and irrelevant to the present me? Can I escape them? And if I write about these details of my life, am I copping-out of the complex process of character development by mentioning that I smoke, that I was in a psych ward? I hope not. I think my writer friend would say yes.
I peruse my brain, the mental bookshelf that holds every book I have ever read, and I can understand what my writer friend is postulating.
(Key: S=Smoking, P=Psych ward)
- Catcher in the Rye (S, P)
- On the Road (S)
- The Bell Jar (P)
- Girl, Interrupted (S, P)
- Fight Club (S)
- A Million Little Pieces (S)
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (S, P)
- Catch-22 (S)
- Persepolis (S)
- The Great Gatsby (S)
- Anything by Michelle Tea (S)
- Anything by David Sedaris (even when he quit smoking he wrote about smoking)(S)
- Anything by Earnest Hemingway (S)
- Anything by Charles Bukowsi (S)
- The entire sub-genre of Beat Generation writing (S)
As I compose this list, I sit at my desk smoking a cigarette. My husband is sitting on the couch across the room from me, also smoking a cigarette. I ask him, “What characters from novels or memoirs smoked cigarettes or were in a psych ward?” We both immediately come up with Salinger, Kerouac, and Bukowski. And then we pause. During this pause I pose the question on Facebook. I need some research help on this one. Google, for once, did me no good.
After much brain work from my friends, my husband, and myself we came up with the above incredibly incomplete list. And while there must be more works of literature out there about nicotine fiends and psych ward crazies, I notice a theme begin to develop in this short list.
Sylvia Plath, Michelle Tea, Marjane Satrapi, and Suzanna Kaysen are the only ladies who made it onto this list. What does this say? That authoresses (I hate that word) have less smoking and/or crazy characters in their books than dude authors?
Perhaps this is why I didn’t straight-up agree with my writer friend’s statement. I read mostly female authors, he reads mostly male authors, and so if this recognized gendered theme is true, then he has been exposed to more literary smokers and crazies than I have. For him, these tropes are old, used, easy, tiring, lazy. And while I see his point, for me these acts and situations aren’t a cop-out, but bits of information that contribute to the character development that is endlessly snowballing. Maybe I’m not sick of them, because I don’t come across them as much as he does.
But what’s the difference?
For both of us literary cigarette = gritty character. And psych ward setting = storyline with psychological elements.
So yes, smoking and psych wards can be easy tropes, but for me they are incomplete signifiers if there isn’t more characterization going on there. A dude in war smoking a cigarette seems more stereotypical and an easy/hollow description of a character than that of an Iranian woman smoking and contemplating feminism. But then there is Michelle Tea—drunk queer kids smoking. Does the act of smoking draw on a stereotype, or is it stating the truth? Have our truths become tropes? How much do we rely on tropes to understand our truths? Because wouldn’t it feel weird if that drunk Beat poet didn’t have a cigarette dangling from his lips?
Perhaps my writer friend is right. Smoking is an easy signifier. But I would argue that so is a tumbler of whiskey or red stiletto heels. Perhaps we use these signifiers because we all know what they point to, and so the signifiers allow the reader to feel as if she knows the character just a smidge more so she can continue on immersing herself in the plot. Or, perhaps these signifiers are also used so that the writer can surprise the reader by having an unassuming character engage in ironic activities.
Because wouldn’t it be funny to see an old lady with her gray hair in a bun smoking a cigarette in her car as she drives home from teaching high school English, and is taking sips from a fifth of whiskey in between stoplights while she operates the pedals in her red stiletto heels? What a great character. Maybe she’ll end up in a psych ward.
Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago. She has been published in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, The Coachella Review and Make/shift among many others. She received the Nonfiction Editor’s Pick Award 2012 from both Revolution House and Cobalt, as well as a Pushcart Prize nomination. Clammer is a weekly columnist for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as the assistant nonfiction editor for both Eckleburg and The Dying Goose. Her first collection of essays, There is Nothing Else to See Here will be published by Thumbnail Press in Fall 2013. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.