Epistolary Writing

The Oldest Trick in the Book.

Much of these artifact forms may seem daunting or needlessly complicated. Maybe the simplest way to think about it is this: how do humans communicate through text? Any answer to that question can become a form for a work of artifact lit.

The oldest form of artifact lit, which some argue is the first example of the “novel,” is epistolary writing. “Epistolary” is just the pretty word for correspondence writing. Poems, stories, and books written in the epistolary form are often letters. Though (as we’ll explore), ‘correspondence’ can be a playground of other forms ripe for literature. It can get pretty experimental, too, but that’s not necessarily the point—the point is that a letter can cut through the layers of storytelling artifice to one of the most honest and direct artifices: Hey you—yes, you, Maude—I’ve been meaning to tell you something.

It’s also important to remember that some of the first works called “novels” were actually imagined travelogues (which are a special form of correspondence, a form I like to call The Manly Man’s Diary of My Wondrous Trip Abroad). As David Shields points out in Reality Hunger: “The novel sprang from the letter, the diary, the report of a journey…the origin of the novel lies in its pretense of actuality…novel meant the form of writing that was formless, that had no rules, that made up its own rules as it went along.”

So we’re going to begin by writing letters. If you want to write fiction, then your main character might write a letter. But don’t tell us, “Gus sat down to write a letter.” Skip the framing. Trust your reader, and just tell us what George Saunders tells us at the outset of “Semplica Girl Diaries”:

Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax.

Saunders puts the word “Diary” in the title of the story, and that’s all the handholding the reader needs to figure out what the heck they are reading. Notice too how this allows the narrator/letter-writer’s voice to be the first thing we notice. Those choppy, a-grammatical, run-on sentences written in an effort to save time and wrist-pain…they say so much.

Lydia Davis uses a similar non-filtered / non-framed approach in her classic “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer”. You’re just reading the actual letter, no narratorial voice over.

Pin It on Pinterest