How to Kick the Troping Habit

cigsA 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
  • Alcoholism


A list of the brands of cigarettes I will smoke, in order of preference:

  1. Camel Lights
  2. American Spirits
  3. Marlboro Lights
  4. 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)
  • &etc.


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.

Hello, dudes.

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:

House of Leaves

HoL text pic

 “[It is] important to say “fuck” now and then, and say it loud too, relish its syllabic sweetness, its immigrant pride, a great American epic word really, starting at the lower lip, often the very front of the lower lip, before racing all the way to the back of the throat, where it finishes with a great blast, the concussive force of the K catching up then with the hush of the F already on its way, thus loading it with plenty of offense and edge and certainly ambiguity. FUCK. A great by-the-bootstrap prayer or curse if you prefer, depending on how you look at it, or use it, suited perfectly for hurling at the skies or at the world.” -Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves


There are certain books you should not read while in a psych ward. They are:

  • Memoirs about being in a psych ward (this could be potentially confusing)

  • Erotica (because that’s just tacky)

  • Books on the apocalypse and/or government conspiracies (grounds for schizophrenia diagnosis due to paranoia)

  • Books on psychokinesis or telepathy (nurses will start ignoring you)

  • Anything by Sylvia Plath (you got the depression already)

  • Self-help books (overkill)

  • Religious books about talking with God (your roommate will talk to God for you)


There is an entire page in the novel House of Leaves that focuses on the word “fuck.” From its phonetic attributes to the feel of the word forming on your tongue, Mark Z. Danielewski expertly entertains the reader with his foray into the logistics of this publicly prohibited word.

I have been reading and re-reading the “fuck” page for over an hour now. I am fascinated by how detailed and specific Danielewski is as he gives life to how one simple word can feel powerful and delicious in your mouth. I am reading and re-reading this page, because I am in a psych ward with nothing else to do. I have been here for two days now, wandering around the halls and feeling the boredom of the place depress me more. After two days of this boredom, I picked up the book I brought to read, House of Leaves. And due to the fact that I cannot really concentrate on anything else at this point—my capability to pay attention is shot with the new meds they have me on and the dreary landscape of this stifling setting—I keep my eyes on the one page that captures my short attention span. Here in this hallway with the gray concrete walls, I sit on the floor with my back against the counter that separates nurses from patients, an established boundary between sane and insane. I’m probably creating a fire hazard by sitting here on the floor, but I am one of the ones on the insane side of the boundary, and so no one approaches me to tell me to move. I assume they do not approach me, because I’ve only been here for a few days so they don’t know how I will respond to them. Thus, they probably suspect I’m so off my rocker that I’ll snap at them or hurt myself were they to piss me off. This is not the case, though I am feeling a little insane, thus the psych ward.


What is also bonkers is this book House of Leaves. Over 700 pages long, the text twists and leaps and pushes paragraphs through a page, and at some point even makes a block of text look transparent onto the next page. The novel is about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside. There is a five minute long hallway between two rooms, and eventually a deep chamber larger than a football field that grows inside of the house. The outside of the house, though, does not change shape. It merely looks like a quaint little house, though its insides are eerily expanding and deepening.

But that’s not all. There is the whacky narration that is told by three characters. 1) An old dead man who has a trunk full of scraps of paper that describes a documentary the owner of the creepy house made. 2) A drug addict who finds the dead old man and starts looking through the trunk trying to put the pieces of the extraordinary house into one narrative. 3) The “editors” of the novel who correct some of the drug addict’s postulations. Also, every time the word “house” appears in the text, the letters of it are blue instead of black. It is never explained why the blue instead of the black. It just is. There is an index, and footnotes that go on for pages in which there are more footnotes within those footnotes. And finally, the text reflects the action. A few words per page when a character is frantically running, and text that snakes around the page when the characters are in a maze. Often the reader has to turn the book upside down to read what’s going on.

Yes, House of Leaves is insane. And here I am, in a psych ward and reading the book upside-down. I’m certain this makes me look incredibly nutty, and adds to the fact that the nurses do not approach me out of fear of pushing me into an acute psychotic state.


On this ward there is a creepy middle-aged man with a bald head and a huge mound of a beer belly that sticks out to here. He has been following me around, lingering near me, drooling onto his beer belly and starting at me with googly eyes since I got here two nights ago. Also on this ward is a blob of a woman who is my roommate. She is reading the Bible from end to beginning, because she thinks it holds the answers to God if you read it from finish to start. There are also the perma-depressed patients who stare at the TV and nod off to sleep. I know I will never see any of them move from their slumped positions, as they seem to have just landed there, are now stuck, and will never be able to move from the seats until the day they die. There’s also the guy who says he’s a famous movie star, and the woman who thinks she is Michael Jackson.

Other than the creepster dude, though, none of these people are threatening or scary, just lost in their own heads, unable to get through the maze of uneven brain chemistry in order to bring themselves back into this world. And when I look up from my book and stare at them all, I know I’m doing better than these other patients, know that even though I am depressed, I am not paranoid or delusional or perma-crazy. At least that is what I hope.


At twenty-seven years old this is not the first time I have been in a psych ward, nor is it the first time I have read House of Leaves. Nor is it the first time I have read House of Leaves while in a psych ward. I surged through the novel three times in college. I first read it in the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college. Then had a friend bring it to me in my first psych ward trip the following fall when I first attempted suicide. I wanted the book in order to dive into the loony story again and thus be able to avoid my own mind. Then the next year I was back in college and I analyzed the novel for a literary criticism class in the context of Freud’s theories about dreams. I got an A on the paper. I have never read Freud. I think my professor A’d the paper simply because I had the ovaries to try and make some sort of sense out of this intensely odd and difficult book. Also, he hadn’t ever read House of Leaves, so he had no idea if what I was saying was excellently critical or just made up shit.

That was the last time I read House of Leaves. Seven years later and here I am in the psych ward again with this book in my lap. I’m feeling crazy with the suicidal thoughts and all, and so I want to read a book that reflects my crazy. Reading to escape. Reading to distract. Reading to be in a safe space in which I can momentarily slip away from my uneven mental state. House of Leaves is the first book that comes to mind when I want to distract my crazy self with something else that is disturbing. For this latest trip to the psych ward I didn’t have to call a friend to bring me the book, as I was prepared for this yearning to read it while on the ward and packed it in the bag of clothes I also brought with me. I had the time to pack a bag, because instead of actually attempting suicide this time, I told a friend about the suicidal thoughts, and so she brought me to the psych ward before the thoughts could turn into actions. I packed a bag. I brought House of Leaves. This time I was prepared for the urge to momentarily escape my mind. Now I sit in the dingy hallway of the psych ward, holding a book upside down and reading. The story’s getting too complicated for my heavily-medicated brain to be able to follow it, so I turn the book right-side up and go back to reading the fuck page over and over.


A few minutes later I look up from the fuck page, and creepster dude is staring at me. He has been staring at me for the past few days, and the urge to no longer take this shit, this passive harassment rises in me. I finally stand up for myself, for my right to not be harassed.

“Go the fuck away.” I do not yell this, though I could. Instead, I stare straight into his putty face, push the words through my teeth, and relish the feeling of the word fuck in my mouth.

His body steps back just a little bit. The personal space between us expands. I continue to grind my eyes into his face, and the intensity of my stare finally pushes him away.

Once the creepster retreats around the corner and into the common room, I breathe deep and smile. Most of the people in this ward are harmless, but there’s always got to be those few dudes who act out, the ones who try to escape the ward and who are then tackled by the staff as they get into the stairway. “Code red,” screams through the intercom, and a deep buzzing and pulsating alarm penetrates the ward when this occurs. And then there’s also got to be that one creepster dude who knows nothing about personal space and how leering can be a threat, a violation of rights. While the creepster may not have any intentions of fucking with me, he is still fucking with me.

“Go the fuck away” felt good in my throat. I return to the fuck page and feel an even deeper connection with the text.

Not more than a few minutes later, though, and creepster dude emerges from around the corner, leans his body on the gray cement block wall and proceeds with the staring.

Oh fuck this. I slam my book closed, stand up, lean over the nurses’ counter and shout to the social worker in the back office “This dude is harassing me!”

That’s the magical word. Yell harassment and get the problem dealt with immediately. No one wants a lawsuit. The female social worker whisks over to the creepster, directs him to his room, and closes the door once he’s in.

I nod a thank you to her. I sit back down in the hallway with my back against the counter, relishing the fact that while my independence is non-existent in the ward, I still have rights and can advocate for myself. Fuck yeah.

The social worker sees me sit back down on the ground. She walks over to me and I assume she’s finally going to call me out on being a fire hazard, that I cannot sit in the hallway. Instead, what she does is walk up to me and says, “Chelsey, I think you’re on the wrong floor. This floor is for the non-functioning patients. Below is the floor for recovering patients. Do you want to get transferred?”

“How do you know I’m not a non-functioning crazy?”

“You’re reading House of Leaves. There’s no way anyone on this floor would ever consider reading it.”

I smile down at the book, feeling a bit relieved that I might not have to spend the next infinite number of days on the crazy crazy floor with the creepster. I am transferred to the less-crazy floor that afternoon and graduate from a roommate who mumbles with God, to a young woman who is depressed because she can’t figure out if she’s a lesbian or not. She is reading a book about coming out to your parents, as well as a memoir by a lesbian about being in a psych ward, (as established earlier, a big no-no).

Once I am in my new room I say hi to her and hop onto my bed to continue reading. Down here, my head feels a bit clearer as I am away from the creepster and the patients who cannot unsuction themselves from the TV. And in a way, House of Leaves has saved me. The fact that I try to tackle its insane story makes me look sane. So I sit here with House of Leaves and I exchange one type of insanity with another, though reading this book is a creative kind of kooky. My roommate lies peacefully on the bed next to mine, taking her own mental break from the depression as she reads about how good it can feel to declare your sexuality to the world. I sit and try to continue on with the story, but feel called back by the previous page, the page that empowered me to stand up for my rights, the page I am quickly becoming obsessed with, the page that teaches me about the delicious and precise feeling of “fuck” on my tongue.


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: