Noy Holland, one of my most beloved former teachers, talks sometimes about how good writing contains within it the suggestion—the presence, even—of a listener.
I like this term “listener” because, as Noy sees it, it’s not necessarily the same as a reader or an audience: the listener in a piece is the person who makes it possible for the writer or the characters to speak. This can be someone named within the text, or it can be more subtle—someone whose effect on the narrator haunts an essay, for instance, or an interested party alluded to by the structure of a story.
In epistolary prose, the subject of my upcoming class, that listener is always directly addressed. Why have so many writers—from James Baldwin and Franz Kafka to Ta-Nehisi Coates and Lydia Davis—chosen to write essays or stories shaped like letters? And why do we become absorbed in certain people’s correspondence when it is published, even when the letters were never intended for our eyes at all?
Writers are sometimes scared off by the epistolary form because it can feel like you’re choosing to exclude everyone from your piece but the addressee. But once you start reading some of the masters of direct address, it’s clear that this isn’t the case. You don’t feel excluded at all; in fact, you can’t stop turning the pages. Why?
Sometimes I think about successful epistolary prose in terms of magic, and I mean that both in the sense of an ineffable, incandescent force and in the sense of (honorable!) sleight of hand. Here are a few of the ways in which that magic manifests in the art of letterwriting:
Narrowing your audience can open your writerly field.
You can probably think of at least one person you’ve known whose presence freed you to speak about a whole range of topics: a friend, an especially close family member, a therapist. If the person you or your character chooses to address is a trusted listener, you might find it possible to connect disparate subjects or make exciting leaps within the text, simply because the relationship between speaker and listener is strong enough to support that kind of movement.
Chris Kraus’s epistolary novel I Love Dick, for instance, ventures into art criticism, quasi-historical reportage, literary theory, and personal confession, all contained and made vivid by the intimate form of the ever-expanding love letter Kraus’s protagonist is writing.
Picking a specific person to write towards can help you particularize what you say and how you say it.
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book-length essay addressed to his son, circles around themes that Coates’s body of work as a journalist has also covered: racism as a driving force of American history, violence against black men and women, the lifelong process of education. But because Coates is speaking to his son in the book, the urgency of his ideas escalates, and we get a sense of both why he’s moved to write about these themes and why his son in particular needs to hear what Coates has to say.
Even if our context is radically different from an addressee’s, that intensity of purpose can be contagious for readers. There’s a term in rhetoric, kairos, that’s used to refer to the timeliness of an argument or a piece of writing—why is this being said now? Epistolary prose often has kairos built right in, and it can be a powerful form for taking on big ideas without getting too abstract.
We are drawn to confiding voices.
Anyone who’s ever experienced the pleasure (or pain!) of eavesdropping on a personal conversation knows that it can be hard to stop listening to an intimate exchange. The best epistolary prose both creates that sense of confidence, of closeness, and provides enough information for every reader to partake in a feeling of familiarity.
Writing in this form builds confidence.
So often we’re stopped short as writers by the fear of not having a listener. It can be intimidating to write with the questions of Who cares? Who needs to hear this? in your head. Writing in the form of a letter answers those questions before you begin. I’ve found that the more I write epistolary prose, the more listeners I can summon in my mind when I need a little bit of bravery, writing-wise.
Marilynne Robinson structured one of her novels, Gilead, as a book-length letter from an aging reverend to his son. Early on in the book, narrator John Ames writes:
For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean…
It’s my hope for myself, and for all writers, really, that we can always feel like that, no matter what we’re writing—that writing can be a way of being alongside and in conversation with others across space and time and differences. But the epistolary form is the perfect way to strengthen this part of your practice.
Come try it out! Write a name at the top of your page; see who might be listening.
Liza Birnbaum‘s fiction and essays have appeared in Web Conjunctions, jubilat, Open Letters Monthly, and other publications. She is a founding editor of Big Big Wednesday, an annual print journal of literature and visual art, and has taught creative writing in a number of settings, most recently at an alternative school for young women who are pregnant or parenting. In 2019, she will be a funded resident at the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. She holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.