Writing in Letter Form (Epistolary Writing) Keeps You Going

I am reposting an article form the 2012 archives with exercises for using the epistolary form to stay inspired and to keep writing.


I had been a reader of letters to Ann Landers and other newspaper columnists to whom the public wrote well into my teens. Even after my own children were grown, I continued to read the Sunday column in Parade Magazine, in which teens wrote in about their concerns, and the following week, other teens responded with what they felt and thought. To me, the most useful letters in these columns were from people who observed and addressed human nature and the human condition first-hand through their own experience. As a writer, I was encouraged by the power of these letters. What follows are writing ideas inspired by my love of those columns — ideas for letters that will help you prove to yourself that you have much to write about as well as a way into material that matters to you.

Imagine that you are writing a letter to a national columnist or one in your area (or even a columnist you make up) concerning an issue you would like him or her to inform others about. Perhaps you no longer want to hear people describe teenagers as lazy because you know that teens have biological reasons for not being able to rise early in the morning;  maybe you are a person whose loved one has been hospitalized and, therefore, you understand how hard medical staffs work and you want to inform others of the kind of tasks not often noted; maybe you are moved by the research that says younger and younger children in our culture are suffering from diabetes, and as a person diagnosed with the illness when you were young, you want young people today to understand what such a diagnosis means and why avoiding such a turn of events is important. Thinking this way, you will find useful things to say to others, but also, by writing you will get to experience your own wisdom and learn more deeply even as you are passing that wisdom on.

If you want to imitate the usual pattern of these letters, you might open with a question you have about why people do something in particular that alarms or annoys you. Then you can provide the information you think they need to get things right.

To do this exercise, brainstorm ideas about what areas in your life have provided the opportunities for the kind of wisdom you can share in this kind of a letter. Put the words “first-hand experience” at the top of a blank piece of paper and begin listing categories of the first-hand experiences you have had — dating, parenting, marrying, supervising, being supervised, fixing machines, painting houses, aiding the sick or dying, public speaking, teaching preschool, for example. Think more about the experiences you’ve had in these categories by writing down details. Remember, in the back of your mind is the idea that you have learned something from at least one of these experiences and you want to put that learning into words. Soon you will feel a particular interest in one of the categories. That’s when you stop collecting your thoughts and begin your letter, which written out of first-hand experience, allows you to find out what your experience has taught you.

Six More Ways to Do Use the Epistolary Form
1. Look at the letter you wrote from the exercise and think about whom in your own life most needs the information. Choose a person to address it to. Write another draft of that letter directly to this person, telling her why you want her to know what you are writing down. How do you feel writing this information to this person? What are you hoping she will do as a consequence of having this information? Do you want to hear back from this correspondent? Why or why not? Include the answers to these questions in the body of this letter.

2. Think about what people might write back as a consequence of seeing one of your letters in a newspaper. Write one or more of the letters they might write back to you in response to your letter.

3. Visualize years passing. The newsprint on which your letter was published is yellowed and brittle now. On a day like the one you are now spending writing, someone two generations down in your family comes across your letter. She brings it to her parents’ attention. Imagine her age and circumstances. Write the dialog that ensues when she asks one or both of her parents about the letter you wrote so long ago.

4. Visualize this child further; dress her, give her a place to live, siblings, cousins, children of her own, a career, a husband, pets, travels, dilemmas, whatever you feel like endowing her with. Let her write a letter to you telling you how the information in your letter affected her.

5. Imagine a copy of the newspaper in which the letter first appeared. What happens to that newspaper — keep it somehow from getting dumped and burned — how does it travel from household to household and make it through the years? What chains of events determine where the paper is used and left? What value does the letter ultimately have even if only a paragraph or a sentence survives? Authors think this way and have organized whole books in this way. I think now of Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes organized around the idea of following a handmade accordion as it gets lost, stolen, and traded over the years. And now we have the movie War Horse, organized similarly.

6. If you are writing a novel, write to your characters. If you are writing a memoir, write to the people who enter into your book. If you are thinking of writing on a particular topic or theme, write letters to editors about why you are the one to write your book. Write letters to your future self about what finishing your book will mean to her. Keep thinking of people to write to and keep writing. You can write to inanimate objects as well, of course — the piano you stopped playing, the piece of jewelry you lost, the scratch on the front door you have always meant to repaint.  Be alert to the information you have that your recipient would benefit from hearing or from hearing what you have realized because of that information.

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Writing in Letter Form (Epistolary Writing) Keeps You Going — 3 Comments

  1. Okay it’s three o’clock in the morning, and I’m wide awake. Thought I’d read my email as a soporific. Now I’m only wider awake, having read this Sheila-stuffed piece. Anyone needing writing prompts has found a mother lode here! Reading through, I can feel this list rolling right out of your brain like a freight train hurtling down the track of your writing skills racing to stoke our writing selves with a plethora of ideas to keep us busy for a year!

    I can’t recall a time when I didn’t write letters. Lots and lots. I am always surprised to hear of recipients who kept them. I confess to succumbing to the ease of email, but having received countless snail mail of my own, email is expedient, but not quite the same.

    I’ll do some of these exercises. Look out. A few are sure to show up in an essay class! Thanks for the stimulation. (tongue in cheek). Maybe I’ll do some ironing as I hope for more sleep….

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