Hey there, campers! Head Counselor Sam Martone here, with another installment of Camp OZP!
The next activity in my formally playful fiction workshop deals with the epistolary form. Stories and novels in the form of letters have existed for as long as there’s been a word for fiction (probably longer!), but it’s still a form that sees a lot of action today, despite declining prominence of snail mail in this age of direct messages and Skype calls. Just check out this fantastic story: “P.S.” by Jill McCorkle.
Here’s the first paragraph:
DEAR DR. LOVE,
By now you have gotten several letters from me and this will probably be the last. I don’t care that you never respond. In fact, I’m glad that you don’t, because if you did, a response would show a weakness in your professional ethics. In all my other letters, I have been trying to explain myself a little better because I always felt that maybe you liked Jerry more than you liked me. And what about human nature makes us all want to be the one liked the most? In those other letters I was still trying to convince you that I was the right one, but the truth is that now so much time has passed I just don’t give a shit. The right/wrong stalemate is what keeps people in your office for way too long. I thought I might settle things in my mind by writing you this final letter. And I will tell the truth—not that I haven’t told the truth in the past, I have, but let’s just say I also lied.
As you keep reading, ask yourself: what language does she use to imitate the letter form? Are there any moments that break from that or violate the form? How does she handle revealing information without making it feel like blunt force trauma exposition? What does the voice tell you about this character? I like to point out certain things to my students. For instance, right off the bat, even if we don’t know who this Dr. Love is, we know she’s written to him several times before with no response. I also like to point out that she calls this her final letter. If we were to map this story out on the traditional plot diagram, the fact that she says this is her final letter is our “one day.” It’s what makes this letter the story worth telling.
Today’s exercise is best to do with a partner. Each of you, individually, write a story in the form of a letter from one character to another. The writer of the letter has got to want something specific. This can be something tangible (a new car, a cup of sugar) or less so (love, to be left alone). Focus on how you can use the voice to make this character distinct. Avoid clunky exposition—remember that the person your character is writing to presumably already knows who he or she is, so no “As you know, I am your uncle.” Make the letter about a page long. Then, trade with your partner, and write as the letter-receiver character responding to the first character. Happy writing!