Pen to Paper: Use letter-writing to discover your story or character

Remember letters? Not the alphabet, the kind that begin with "Dear Mom." (Well, technically, "Dear mom," with a comma. But I couldn't bring myself to end a sentence with a comma. When I was in first grade, we had a whole lesson on writing letters and addressing envelopes, and there's no way to properly convey how much I loved that lesson. Although, I guess the fact that I'm reminiscing about it now gives you an indication of how deep that love went. Anything that had to do with pen and paper was right up my alley.)

Anyway, these days the closest thing I get to a letter is an email from my mom because she still follows the formatting of letters in all electronic mail. Other than that, letters have little bearing on my daily life. Except...

Letters play an important role in my writing.

I've used them to write whole essays, find my way through a sticky point in a story, and get to know my characters. I got the idea after I read two essays by Barbara Kingsolver—one was a letter to her mother and the other a letter to her daughter.

They didn't start with "Dear..." or end with "Sincerely", but Kingsolver wrote both in the second person. She spoke directly to the people she was writing about, and it was powerful. (They're in the book Small Wonders: Essays, go get it asap if you're into essays or if you're not.)

As an essay form, letters can be tricky to write. Unpracticed, we sometimes forget that the piece still needs to move like a story or essay, with tension and resolution and some kind of meaning that the reader cares about. It can take several rounds of revision to make sure that the reader doesn't feel left out of the conversation.

But used as a tool of discovery, letters can be done as a rough draft. Even a pre-draft. Here's what I mean:

Letter as a rough draft After I read Kingsolver's essays, I wrote an essay in the form of a letter to my mother. It became a way for me to figure out how my mother's marriage and outlook on life influenced my own. It didn't remain a letter, but it became material that I worked into another essay.

Letter as a character sketch Whenever I'm having trouble getting into the mind of character, I write them a letter. It works for fiction or nonfiction. I say "Dear, Mom..." and see what comes up. Usually, I learn something new or remember something I hadn't thought of in a long time.


flyingmailIf you have a piece that's been giving you trouble, write a letter to one of the characters. If you don't have a particular story in mind, write a letter to someone in your life.

Letters have natural flow that can lead you to intersting places, so write by hand and follow your pen. Remember that it's just a letter. It doesn't have to be "good" and that frees you up to be honest (especially since this particular letter never has to get sent).

Let all of that be true as you write your letter, and see what you discover.