Notes From the Ashtray

Quit Lit

Dylan Gyles

"It's safe to assume that by 2025, guns will be sold in vending machines, but you won't be able to smoke anywhere in America."

When You Are Engulfed in Flames (Little, Brown and Company) is a collection of 22 essays by David Sedaris detailing a range of topics; his memories of a white trash babysitter, attempting to make coffee without water, using album covers to scare away birds and concluding with his struggle to give up smoking.

"The Smoking Section" outlines Sedaris' smoking career, beginning with his first pack of Viceroys bought and smoked in Vancouver. He quickly converts to Kool Milds, having realized the unspoken hierarchy of the smoking world: Kools and Newports are for black people and lower-class whites. Camels for procrastinators and bad poetry writers. Merits for sex addicts. Salems for alcoholics. A Marlboro man may ask to borrow money, but a Marlboro Menthol smoker will not pay you back. As the anti-smoking campaign spreads across North America, Sedaris finds his habit slowly turning him from one of the cultural elite into a social pariah, confining him to only the worst restaurants, dingy hotel rooms, and the final straw, the air port fish-tank-like smoking lounges. Although he ridicules America for its over-bearing contempt of smokers, with publishers going so far as to edit out sections of his work that involve characters smoking, Sedaris accepts his need to quit.

The literary genre of Quit Lit offers an abundance of methods to kick the habit: the patch, nicotine gum and lozenges, acupuncture, hypnosis, replacement hobbies and miracle drugs. Though a seemingly endless genre, all works suffer from a lack of synonyms for “smoke” or “cigarette” and the writing usually descend into dreary poetry about death sticks, coffin nails, cowboy killers and lung busters. The only advice Sedaris takes away from a pamphlet is the suggestion to uproot his life, in order to destroy the routine smoking has become a part of. He moves to Hiroshima, Japan for three months, where the culture clash and language barrier provide a level of stress that makes quitting seem both impossible and vital. In poorly translated Japanese advertising, Sedaris finds accidental philosophy to help him cope. Particularly, a safety manual entitled “Best Knowledge of Disaster Damage Prevention and Favors to Ask of You” lists bullet point advice for “When you check in the hotel room”, “When you find fire”, and “When you are engulfed in flames”.

Sedaris leaves Japan an official non-smoker, bragging that his personal technique of quitting only costs $23,000. A pricey solution, though it may not be the most expensive or elaborate technique ever suggested in Quit Lit. Like all self help genres, Quit Lit is inundated with quick fixes, but it is widely agreed that the only way to truly quit, is to change your entire personality. Smoking becomes a part of smokers; to give it up is like giving up the use of one of your arms, not something many people would do by choice.


Dylan Gyles

Dylan Gyles is a writer and barista. He writes short fiction and creative non-fiction. He is originally from Winnipeg and now lives in Vancouver.


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