Dear Joy Williams

Dear Joy Williams, 

I love you. 

Speaking of objects, “The Hat” by Cathy Sweeney uses the epistolary in one of my favorite ways—as a means of speaking to a photograph or a dead ancestor. 

“These Men, These Little Men” by John Pluecker also uses the epistolary form in dialogue with images, poems, and fragmented thoughts. Here is how it begins. (To read the entire thing, click on the numbers at the bottom of the screen.) Notice how Pluecker moves through thoughts almost like a diary, and how he draws meditations on art into an epistle?

Anecdotally, when resting in a roadside ditch a few years ago, my iphone showed me the list of “Eight Essential Attributes of the Short Story” that you published somewhere. Do you remember writing this list? I’m reproducing it in full below:

  1. There should be a clean clear surface with much disturbance below.
  2. An anagogical level.
  3. Sentences that can stand strikingly alone.
  4. An animal within to give its blessing.
  5. Interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior.
  6. A novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.
  7. Control is necessary throughout. Constraints allow the short story to thrive.
  8. The story’s effect should utterly transcend the naturalness and accessibility of its situation and language.
  9. A certain coldness is required in execution. It is not a form that gives itself to consolation but if consolation is offered it should come from an unexpected quarter.

Due to the soothing ambiance of the ditch, I didn’t realize then what I realized last week, namely, that there are nine essential attributes enumerated in your list of “eight.” I admire you for defying your own title, and launching a rhetorical move opposite to a paralipsis. I’m not sure the opposite even exists, which is likely why you are out here, doing it. 

On the other hand, there is a distinct relationship between the first attribute and the final one— which is to say, number 9 enacts number 1. If number 1 is the clean clear surface, then number 9 is the disturbance. 

As for number 7—the constraint that allows the short story to thrive— I have cuffed myself to epistolaries this weekend. It is a strange and silken constraint. There is something erotic about it. Maybe eros draws on the insinuation of backstory that correspondence presumes . . . What I love about the erotic is its penchant for misunderstanding, overwriting, idealizing, recreating . . . There is so much freedom in being able to invent the reader. By now you’ve probably realized my transgression, namely, that my fantasies got away with me. I wanted to see what would happen if I based my letter to you, Joy, on a misunderstanding. In this case, the misunderstanding was a simple decision to lop off the second half of the title, which, in its entirety reads: “Eight Essential Attributes of the Short Story and One Way It Differs from the Novel.”

And your list reads differently when one includes the novel, or when the writer doesn’t take you out of context. As I did. Because I love you.