Writing Prompt: The Letter–Memoir Class Fall 2011

The fall semester is here, and it is exciting to be teaching two full (to overflowing) sections of Memoir at Santa Fe Community College. People really want to tell their stories. This week we’ll address the letter form. Is it still valid in a world of tweets? I’m re-blogging the piece below from an earlier post of mine. Whether or not you are in a class–enjoy!

The Epistle
The letter is one of the most ancient and basic forms of writing. Part of its power is that it communicates so directly. It usually has one author, one recipient–the audience is clearly defined and the piece specifically tailored for him or her. Letters are also part of the origin of the novel. One of the first novels in English, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, is written in the form of letters. On a more contemporary note Alice Walker’s beloved The Color Purple is also written in letters. There are Epistles in The New Testament. You can use this pithy form to add structure and intimacy in your own writing.
Dear Diary
Part of what can make diary writing stagnant over the long run is that the form can be purely introspective. Of course some diaries, like that of Anne Frank, are written to an imaginary friend. Using the epistle form can add a new level of liveliness to a diary.
The conventions of the letter are basically the salutation (Dear So-and-So) and the complimentary close (Love always, X or See you in court, Y). Make sure you use these; they are certainly simple, but will key both you and your reader that you are using the epistle. Most of us have spontaneously written unsent letters in our diaries. There is nothing like a broken heart, for example, to create an outpouring of letter writing–and most of these are indeed better not sent! But you can also create such a letter with the intent of giving your writing some shape and focus.

1. Write a letter to someone you know who is dead. Fill him or her in on what is new, and say whatever else you need to. Don’t be inhibited by your idea of what the person can or cannot respond to. Just start writing–and soon the letter will flow. This can be an emotional exercise, so give yourself some quiet time and space to it.

2. Write a letter to yourself as you were ten or twenty years ago. Use the exact name or nickname you went by at the time. Add some details, such as the place you were living, what kind of clothes you wore, work you did. What would you like to tell yourself then that you know now? Address that younger self, and watch him or her come to life again.

3. I like the Jewish tradition of leaving an ethical will. Indeed, the practice has been taken on by people from various traditions. Write a letter to your heirs not about your property but about the beliefs you value. Say what has been important to you, and events you have learned from.

An Epistlatory Story
A piece of fiction does not have to be composed completely of letters for the form to work in a story. A letter, or in contemporary times a bit of e-mail, can add life to your fiction. In Ana Consuelo Matiella’s short story “Home” (in The Truth About Alicia and Other Stories, University of Arizona Press) the narrator writes a letter to the house she is leaving:
Dear House,
The roots are deeper than I thought.
So long ago I asked for a pact and you came through with your part of the bargain. And now it’s time for me to go and thank you for all your years of home. Someone kind will come and fill your space, and children will once again run down the hallway.

The speaker then even “mails” the letter. She says: “ I didn’t sign my name. I taped the note to the door, confident it would be read. When I settled into my sleeping bag, the house creaked and the redwoods rocked. And to me the owls said their last good night.” The letter adds directness and emotion to the story here, just before the ending.

Some ideas for letters that add a fictional technique might include taking Matiella’s idea and writing a letter to something inanimate:

1.. Write a letter to a cat, dog, tree, or plant.
2. Write a letter to anything non-human. It could be your favorite place in nature, or even a city. Let your imagination go wild here.
3. Write a letter to a historical or fictional character.

A Letter To The World
You can also use the letter form to create a short prose poem, or its own entire piece. Classical poets such as the Roman Horace used the epistle form in his poems to discuss philosophy and politics. You can use less weighty matters, too. When my daughter was tiny, I left her for a few hours at her godmother’s while I taught a writing class. Like most new mothers, the separation made me nervous, even though I knew she was in capable hands. I wrote a piece called “Postcard To The Baby” (Baby Baby. Noctiluca Press.) which began “You are just across town on Agua Fria but I wanted to drop you a note to tell you not to cry but to be nice to Debora who loves you because she saw you get born.” I concluded, more to reassure myself than anything, “I will see you at 9:07 sharp. Be there.” Since I still had time to spend writing in class, I dove into fictional technique and let the baby write back. She “wrote,” perhaps less than reassuringly, “I know you think I like you the best but I really like the parakeets the best because they are the only people in the house I am smarter than.” And she concluded: “I will see you at 9:07 sharp. Be there.”
So when you use the epistle, have fun and allow it to take you in unexpected creative directions. Letters have a strong sense of voice, and of intent. If the only letters you write are an annual holiday report and an occasional thank you note, now is the time to expand your range and use the letter as a part of your memoir practice.

7 thoughts on “Writing Prompt: The Letter–Memoir Class Fall 2011

  1. Dear Max,

    I hope I was right and that you have unlimited access to catnip and tuna now.

    Do you miss us?

    I try to fill the void in my heart with laughter, chocolates, and assorted trifles.

    I even had a boyfriend for awhile.

    He didn’t last.

    They rarely do.

    The pain of breaking up with someone pales in comparison to the vastness of your absence.

    I think you would like Austin.

    Feel free to visit any time.

    I would be honored to be your mom.



    • Thanks, Miriam.

      The writing prompt was cathartic for me.

      Just when I think I’m done grieving.

      I realize that I will never be.


  2. Thanks Miriam. This was a great lesson in class and I enjoyed cruising your blog. The letter writing makes me want to rush out and buy stationery, sealing wax, stickers, colored pens, fancy stamps…. Nothing could ever replace the good old-fashioned letter!
    Julie Yowell

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