Lit Counts: Notes on Time, Sickness, and the Short Story

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By Christopher Merkner

It is time for sickness. We should be sick.  Utterly. In a few days, at any rate, I will be sick.  It will be a gift. It will be something in the chest, something in the head.  It will be uncomfortable for everyone. Everyone I know will look at me, kindly, and then look away. The writers with whom I work will make their most animated faces. They will be wary, luminous. Someone will suggest I take some time off, cancel class.

I will not cancel class.  I will bring sickness right into class.  I will sit down at the table with all of them, because it is time to discuss short stories.  

Nothing makes you sicker than a short story.   I don’t know what to say. Short stories get right up in the lungs.  They engorge the heart. They pester the legs. They kill or deepen relationships. Chills are involved. They plunder time. They jilt and animate insight.  They agitate perception. Lydia Davis, Joy Williams, George Saunders, Rikki Ducornet, Karen Russell, Carmen Maria Machado, John Edgar Wideman, Alexandra Chasin, Jane Delury, Alissa Nutting, Meg Pokrass, Kristin Valdez Quade, Mona Awad, Lorrie Moore, Diane Williams, Kelly Link, Edward P Jones, Jennine Capo Crucet, Dorthe Nors…

Charles May gets it. He concludes his 2004 essay, “Why Short Stories are Essential and Seldom Read,” with the assertion that no form of fiction or art-making is more closely attendant to the complexities of what we think of as “natural” or “real” life than the art form of the short story.  

His final comment on the matter is worth the full excerpt:

If we feel that beneath the everyday or imminent in the everyday there is some other reality that somehow evades us, if our view is a religious one in its most basic sense, that is, if we feel that something is lacking, if we have a sense of the liminal nature of existence, then the short story is more “realistic” than the novel can possibly be.  It is closer to the nature of “reality” as we experience it in those moments when we are made aware of the inauthenticity of every day life, those moments when we sense the inadequacy of our categories of perception.

In a few days, I will walk into a Lighthouse Writers Workshop class on Writing the Short Story.  I will be gifted with sickness. Eight short story writers and I let the short stories of Laurel Davis, Roxanne Gay, Peter Nemenoff, Percival Everett, Ginger Collins, Marykate Zukiewicz, Sharon Novy, Patty White, Sara McMahon, Adam Mohrbacher, Adam Johnson, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro…bring us into conversation with the inadequacy of our perceptions of this troubled country, this troubled world.  We will be sickened. We will be sick. But all will be well. Very well. We will know and not know the difference.

Editor's Note: Lit Counts is an essay series in which readers and writers from our community express why they believe in supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. The series will countdown toward Colorado Gives Day on December 4, the annual statewide fund drive for nonprofits. For 2018, Lighthouse has set a goal of $90,000, to support the continued growth of our literary programs. If you believe in the mission of Lighthouse, consider scheduling your contribution today.

Christopher Merkner is the author of the story collection The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic (Coffee House 2014). He teaches courses in fiction writing and American literature for the English department at the University of Colorado Denver. His next short story class at Lighthouse starts in January.