The Epistolary: Writing Exercise and Personal Journey

Back in July, I was going through a book of writing exercises and the one I was working on was called an epistolary. You pretend you come upon a stash of letters, or even use a real stash of letters, and write story from that, basically reconstruct the letters into a story.

Such an exercise is actually one of the earliest versions of the novel, or so my professors taught me when I was at Western. Fanny Burney’s novel, Evelina, was one such novel. Carrie Fisher wrote her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge, using an epistolary form for the first part of the book, leading the reader from postcards and letters to journal entries, before finally landing them in the first person narrative of the story.

Well, I thought I would take a stab at it, though it was probably going to take longer than a single night. But I got caught up in creating this thing, and ended up working on it most of that evening before finally winding up to the ending that had been in my head since the beginning of the story.

I feel good about that story, what I did and where I took it. The style reminds me a little of one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino. I hope I haven’t inadvertently copied him. I’ll have to look into that. I’ve gone through the piece once, but it’s still “baking” (Rising? Proofing?) right now before I go through it and do some more tinkering. It’s been a few years since I sent anything out there. Not even sure where I’d send it! But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. It needs a few more drafts before I even think about that.

In the middle of writing that piece, I also realized I had material ready-made for a real epistolary. I had letters and cards I had sent to my dad from the time I was in grade school on up through college.

But let me back up a bit so you get where I’m coming from.

As my friends and I get older, more and more of us are becoming members of the “adult orphan” club. Some people “lose” their parents at a young age (though I hate that term “lose” – as if a person were an earring or a set of keys) and that is a devastating experience I’m thankful I never went through. The rest of us who are lucky enough to have our parents around into our adult lives, usually don’t have to worry about becoming members of the “adult orphan” club until we reach at least our 40s and 50s.

And then we watch and wait as each of us in our cohort becomes a member of the club. Whether suddenly, or as a result of a long illness, eventually our parents die. And even though we are adults, that experience of “losing a parent” crushes the child within all of us. I remember years ago talking with a neighbor about it. She was in her 60s and she talked about how much like an orphan she felt after her mother died some years before. Another friend of mine whose parents had both passed away a few years ago has said it was like losing his champions.

Neither of these people had perfect relationships with their parents. And yet, they still felt overcome with loss when their parents died.

And when that happens, when a parent, or anyone close like that dies, those left behind are left with putting the rest of those lives, the personal belongings that had meaning once upon a time, to rest. Because it’s not over when someone dies. I mean, some people are more prepared, more organized, than others. My grampa had a list with all the information needed for accounts, who to call and notify, the stuff about the will, what to do with his body, etc. Most people aren’t that prepared. Even with all that, it still took time.

After the body and brain have ceased to work and have been cremated or laid to rest or otherwise taken care of, it can take months, or even years, for a person’s entire life to be put to rest.

After all the relatives, friends, agencies, acquaintances and everyone else has finally been notified of your loved one’s passing, after the body has been disposed of, after you have acknowledged your own grief, there’s still all the material possessions to go through, homes to figure out, the online life to slowly shut down, the financial threads to be untangled and released. Jumping through hoops with people over the phone or in person who are trained NOT to believe you when you say, “I’m trying to shut down the email/account because my father/mother/spouse died and no, I do not have the PIN, but I might have the password and I do have the death certificate/social security number….” Or whatever else it will take for them to believe you.

And as much as you think it will be something you will have cleared up maybe a month after the death, that’s just not how the world works. Your body holds your grief as pain, and every task you do in laying your loved one to rest is taxing your body, your brain, your emotions. It is all painful. If you can accomplish one task a week while continuing to carry on with your life, that’s doing okay. If you can do one task a day? Phew! Wow! Make sure to give yourself time to crash and burn, because your body will demand it; laying a loved one to rest is hard work.

After watching other friends of mine who have had to go through this, and now as my family goes through a “laying to rest” of my father’s life, I think a safe guess for how long this takes is 18 months. Yes, after a parent dies it could take 18 months before everything with their lives is finally settled and laid to rest. Maybe more, maybe less.

But when this happens to you, and it will, remember that. Mark it on your calendar and hold it out as a marker to hang onto when it seems like everything is taking so long to sort through and manage: 18 months.

Earlier this year, in the spring (about six months after Dad died), one of the projects I took on to help lay my father’s life to rest was to go through the personal correspondence he had kept over the years and, if possible, mail it back to the people who had written him.

At first I just picked at the pile of correspondence that spilled out of the package. I figured it would be an easy evening in front of the TV. You know, just tossing the cards and letters in piles whilst watching Star Trek or Grimm or something. Right? I might cry, but that would be par for the course.

But it was more difficult than that. I couldn’t seem to approach it head on. I pulled out some folders I could use for keeping them organized. I’d pick a card or letter up, see who had written it and put it in a pile, but then pull another one out and the first one would tumble somewhere and get lost in the pile again as I read the second letter.

And then one day, I just started in. Not just sorting them, but reading them, thinking about these people who loved my father and wrote him, remember the stories he’d told me about these people he loved back.

My dad wasn’t sentimental, most of the time. He was English, which is not quite the same as Nordic, but bordering on it (Viking genes, you know). But he wouldn’t have kept these letters and cards if the people who wrote them hadn’t meant something to him.

I know. I was reading private correspondence, and a part of me felt squeamish at that. But the writer in me was fascinated at the breadth of story that could be mined in this correspondence. The daughter in me, who missed her father so much, just wanted to hang onto one more thing that was part of her daddy.

I could only do a few each night. The more I read, the more I remembered about my own life, what Dad had told me about his life, and the more I learned about these people my dad loved, as well as about him. I cried every night thinking about the love in this family. It was exhausting.

For example, there were cards and letters from my Nana and her mother, “Mrs Edwards.” Nana, or more formally Grandmother Iris (but we just called her Nana) was my dad’s stepmother. I remembered Dad describing a distant relationship with a woman who may or may not have cared for him. For my sister and I, she was the grandmother in England who would send us the occasional nice gifts for Christmas and had the handwriting that was nothing like Dad’s or Mom’s or Grampa’s and Gramma’s. So, I never really knew her. However, these letters were from a woman who really cared about Dad. She encouraged him, asked about him. And her mother, even, really enjoyed my dad, sending him a card or two as well.

There were also cheerful and newsy letters and cards from his brother and brother’s family. Letters from my sister Heather and I that ranged from one-liners from camp to long, rambling missives about our lives and asking him about his. A couple from Mom. Cards from Meeg. More newsy letters from my sister Elizabeth. And then there were a few letters and postcards from friends who must be long gone now. I couldn’t even decipher the names to figure out a proper place to send them back to; those “orphans” are finding a home with my own cards and letters and the ones from Nana (who passed away a few years ago).

Rambling letter I wrote Dad while I was at college. I was babysitting and we were playing with markers.

Rambling letter I wrote Dad while I was at college. I was babysitting and we were playing with markers.

 

Card I sent to Dad for Father's Day, because the antelope was wild and free like my junior high self thought Dad was.

Card I sent to Dad for Father’s Day, because the antelope was wild and free like my junior high self thought Dad was.

 

So, back to the idea of epistolaries as a writing exercise.

In July, when I was working on the writing exercise, I was also still sorting through those letters and cards. And after writing the faux epistolary, I had what I thought was this brilliant idea. I thought that after I had sorted through all the cards and letters and sent them off to their homes and only had mine left, that I would do a close read of them and write an epistolary based on my real letters.

I KNOW! Great idea, right?

Well…

Not so much. Or at least, not yet. Well, you can try it if you want to, but I can tell you from experience that trying that less than a year after someone’s death is not a good idea.

Beside, real life doesn’t always have a story, an arc, an easy beginning, middle, crisis, and end. And so it was with my letters. There wasn’t an easy arc to follow, no beginning, middle, crisis, and end as I wrote my dad the rambling letters about school and music and sports and boys and moving and jobs. It was messy, like real life.

And that’s the other thing. It was messy, funky, bloody, and too soon, too close to home. The girl that I was, and the woman I have become are completely different and at the same time also exactly the same. But separating out what is story and what is not and how tell a true story out of it all – well…

I have a bumper sticker up in my home office from a publisher as a reminder to be true to the work: “Write Gutsy. Write Lovely. Write Bloody.”

Bumper sticker from Write Bloody Publishing (the founder, Derrick Brown, is also a good poet).

Bumper sticker from Write Bloody Publishing (the founder, Derrick Brown, is also a good poet).

 

I’d like that to happen sometime with my letters, sticking close to the bone and writing gutsy, writing bloody lovely, but it’s just not going to happen any time soon.

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