Lit Counts: Wanton Destruction

By Laura I. Miller

The thought of writing about why literature inspires me makes me want to roll my eyes and sigh. I mean, it’s almost 2019 people, do we really still need to talk about this? Everybody I know spent their childhood in libraries, finding books that stood in for best friends and organized sports. I actually don’t think that being a well-read child, or adult for that matter, has much to do with engaging with literature at all. You can read books the same way you binge watch television, i.e. passively. I think the challenge is to learn how to keep being surprised—stunned? awed? affected?—by stories, even when you’ve literally read every trick in the book.

For me, that feeling comes from reading (or writing) a really kickass ending. One that undoes everything the story has told you and cradles you in the space between order and chaos. There’s actually a word used in gaming that I’ve come to associate with this feeling. From the Greek for whirlpool, ilinx is described as “voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind” or the “strange excitement of wanton destruction.”

Think of it like this: Do you remember sandcastles? I used to live on the West Coast, and my brother and I would fill countless buckets with the perfectly damp sand from the shoreline and painstakingly sculpt rooftops, windowsills, and doorways for our sandcastles. When we were finished, we’d send our bare feet through the topmost towers and giggle as the whole architecture came crumbling down. I get that same kind of satisfaction from finishing a really good work of literature.

By way of example (and not at all for shameless self-promotional reasons), let’s look at a short story I’ve been obsessed with lately, Adam Johnson’s “Interesting Facts.” SPOILERS AHEAD. If you haven’t read the story, stop reading this and go check it out, perhaps at your local library.

This story, from the perspective of a woman diagnosed with cancer, moves through all sorts of craft gymnastics: tense shifts, meta-narrative commentary, an unreliable narrator, definitions of foreign words and medical terms weaved throughout. But how many stories have you read that do backflips all the way through, only to land flat on their faces in the end? Nothing that comes before in the story matters if the ending is crap. I learned this by reading submissions for Fairy Tale Review (which I still do!). Anyone can write a beginning and even muddle her way through the middle. It’s the ending that counts.

After reading the last line of “Interesting Facts,” which is: “And that, I suppose, is all I will have been, a story from when they were little,” I learned that the narrator is a ghost. I had no idea she was narrating from beyond the grave! When I re-read the story, I realized how little attention I’d been paying. How did I not see it before? It’s so obvious!

I felt ilinx profoundly with Adam Johnson’s story. The narrator’s lifelessness is like a big middle finger to everyone’s expectations of how stories operate. It’s like building a sandcastle, and then taking a chainsaw to it.

Perhaps when we think about why we love books, we go back to our childhoods because children are so much better at surrendering to stories. As adults, we strive to protect our sandcastles, but I don’t think you can really ever fully engage with literature if you’re not disrupted in some way—whether it’s by twist endings, excellent sentences, atmospheric settings, creative character arcs, or all of the above. To borrow a metaphor from Johnson, you have to allow yourself to “go off the cliff” with the writer, then learn to enjoy it.

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

Laura I. Miller is a program coordinator at Lighthouse. She received an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona, where she served as co-editor-in-chief of Sonora Review and managing editor of Fairy Tale Review. Her fiction appears in Mid-American Review, Denver Quarterly, Passages North, Entropy, Psychopomp, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Spork, among other places. Her short story manuscript, We're Not Heroines, was a finalist for the Madeleine P. Plonsker Prize.