A Northwest Based Literary Journal

Using the Epistolary Form in Nonfiction

I’ve just come off teaching a workshop for the wonderful Inlandia Institute. One of the things we covered over our three sessions together is the use of the epistolary form in nonfiction.

It’s a sticky wicket, to be sure: Strictly speaking “epistolary” means in letter form, but in more recent years it’s come to mean everything from letters to newspaper articles to lists. I’ve certainly received some work for consideration in letter form, and some experimental essays that act like works of found art, where the writer cobbles together a picture for me, with the interstitial material comprising original writing and the backbone of the piece—the “events,” if you will—being composed of letters, diary entries, newspaper or newsletter articles.

Either is fine. But I’d love to explore a little more of what the epistolary form can do for a work:

  1. It provides immediacy.

When you read a letter, or are writing a letter, you are as close to the recipient or sender as you can possibly get, even if the recipient is not you. As a writer, you’re whispering in the reader’s ear, metaphorically. The reader feels your presence, up front and personal, and there’s no getting around it, no matter how coy or clever you think you’re being.

  1. It provides intimacy.

When you’re writing a letter or a diary entry, you’re literally giving voice to a story, regardless of whether you’re telling an imagined point of view or quoting from someone else’s letters or diary. As a reader, you are getting the sender or writer’s point of view. Even if you are using a newspaper article to convey events, you are providing that rare omniscience that has fallen out of style for narrative purposes.

  1. It provides a challenge.

What could be easier, or more relaxing, then penning a letter or a diary entry? In fact, isn’t it in vogue now to give vent to your feelings by writing in a daily diary, or jotting a quick thank you note to a friend? Sure, that’s all true. But when you sit down to write an essay in letter form (open letters are an absolute favorite), or begin to cobble together a family history, maybe, using diary entries, you begin to see it’s much harder to convey only what needs to be conveyed in order to move a story forward. And, of course, to convey all that needs to be conveyed so that a reader doesn’t feel lost in, or left out of, such an intimate form.

At the end of any piece, what matters is that a reader can turn the page and feel as if he or she has gained some insight. Perhaps that’s a feeling of deeper understanding, or maybe that holy grail all readers look for, some sense that we are not alone. The epistolary form can help with that.

TLR is open for submissions through December 31st. Remember, the nonfiction category’s Feedback Option is now live.

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