I’m always thrilled to release a new GUEST POST into the world, because really, there’s nothing like getting a peek into your favorite author’s brain. I’m especially excited to unveil to you the post by Michelle Wildgen –author of But Not for Long (just released in paperback!), You’re Not You and executive editor of Tinhouse magazine– because I’m pretty sure she defined a new go-to term in her post: “Literary Xanax.” She may not have coined the phrase, exactly (I’m a good fact-checker so I googled, of course), but it’s the most apt usage of the term yet, and also reiterates the very valuable point that “light” writing need not be (and often isn’t) “fluffy” writing (I’d say ‘light’ is to ‘fluffy’ what xanax is to holding-your-breath-until-you-pass-out).
Back in college, I went to a showing of John Waters’s movie Pink Flamingoes. Everyone said it was some kind of classic, so I grabbed an unsuspecting friend and went to a theater in downtown Madison. We thought we might get dinner afterwards.
You probably know where this is going.
We couldn’t face dinner. In fact I had a hard time eating anything for several days, and I never ever have a hard time eating. Maybe it was because thinking about what I’d like to eat meant I let my guard down for a millisecond, but every time I did, some image from the movie came roaring back: Sticky threads of sperm. Dog shit. Chicken abuse.
The worst part was that I’d sensed when to look away during the movie— only to cast my gaze downwards and see the film’s images reflected in my sunglasses, which were hooked in my shirt.
I knew I was supposed to find it subversive and hilarious and purposefully ridiculous, but I just wanted to forget I’d ever seen any of it. I went queasily about my business for a couple days before I finally gave up and reread Laurie Colwin’s Happy All The Time, a novel so urban-pastoral that nothing more unpleasant than uncertainty punctures the bubble. It was a tremendous relief. To this day I use that book like Xanax.
Then a couple of years ago, I was doing the last revisions to my second book, But Not For Long, and generally freaking out. This was in fall of 2008, so I wasn’t alone. The world seemed to be crumbling, and my novel was about a bunch of people who suspected it was as well. And I guess it probably is.
But maybe not. I sometimes find it oddly comforting to come across glimpses of the 70s, the early 90s, any moment in my own lifetime and before when the economy was aflame and the political situation polarized and people seemed in the grips of an inchoate rage. I’d like to think such unease cycles through every few decades. I’d like to think the heightening intensity of each impending shitstorm is just a reflection of natural human self-importance that makes us think our time is the time. But maybe that’s just what people in other, now lost, civilizations thought too, right before the earth split.
All I know is that in my first two books I was always moved to send the story down some darker hallway, and when my characters felt too relaxed I tried to undermine that ease, because it felt untrue. So people got sick, lights went out, money ran out… justified, all of it, but now that I am starting a third book I just can’t do it anymore. I’m making the attempt, anyway, to write with lightness. Not floaty lightness, but fleetness. I’m writing about family, and about restaurants, and hopefully the wry side of both. In some ways turning one’s attention to a smaller portion of the world, not letting the bigger more frightening world into it, feels like a shirking of responsibility, like not voting. But it is also a tremendous relief, and maybe whatever world this book appears in (whatever miniscule sliver of said world is even aware of it) will want a little relief, too.
But maybe I’ll end up with something darker than intended anyway, no matter how hard I try. Some nerves will likely creep in somewhere, the images I hoped to avoid reflected right back up at me. Why, even just now I tried to distract myself by writing about a walk through the market this weekend, for example—trying to generate my own literary Xanax. So I can tell you there were great heaps of dusty violet grapes, scarlet peppers, chalky white goat cheeses, spiky sprays of lemongrass; even the meat seemed more beautiful than I remembered, from the homely hunk of pork shoulder to the rolled-up fist of a burgundy and white skirt steak. And it was going well, until I realized I was not even thinking about what I’d cook, but about what I’d squirrel away in the freezer for some other time, some necessary time when I’d be relieved just to have it, just in case.