Using the Epistolary Form Helps Us Write Meaningfully

Using the Epistolary Form Helps Us Write Meaningfully

The word epistolary comes from the Greek epistol?, which means “letter.” Writers use the letter form in writing personal essays, poems, creative nonfiction and fiction because the form provides a ready-made container to hold an exploration of events and experiences. Writing in the letter form quickly builds intimacy with readers because a letter is addressed to someone in particular. Therefore, when we read epistolary writing, we are engaged in the relationship the writer has with the understood recipient of the letter and feel a part of that relationship. Importantly, every letter already has an occasion upon which it is being written — the writer knows what has propelled her to speech and learns that she can express the situation to another.


Here are long-time favorite writings of mine that are in the epistolary form:

  1. This first is an exchange of letters in persona form between a writer asking for advice and an advice columnist. I very much like the use of the epistolary form to instruct via creative nonfiction writing:
  2. The second is a book I admire by psychologist Dr. Brad Sachs, which is a compilation of letters he wrote to a teenage client who had tried to commit suicide and whose parents were in therapy with him, too. His book, When No One Understands: Letters to a Teenager on Life, Loss, and the Hard Road to Adulthood, is full of necessary, honest advice and admiration for the 16-year-old. The letters strike a chord with me–they are akin to ones I wished someone had written to me when I was on the threshold of entering adulthood.

Here’s an excerpt:

And here is the prologue explaining the author’s idea for the book:

You can also visit Amazon and use the Search inside feature to view more letters: by Sachs.

  1. The National Library of Congress has a contest each year called “Letters About Literature,” for which students write letters to the authors of books that have meant a lot to them. Mark Leschinsky’s letter to author Lisa Genova about her book Still Aliceis an example. You can read it here:
  2. “On Practice: Letter to Holly from Cougar Ridge,” by Brenda Miller is a compelling letter about writing and living followed by writing ideas and resources for more reading: 
  3. Online, McSweeney’s has a section that publishes letters to people or entities who are unlikely to respond. They are moving, sometimes funny, and often exquisite. If you follow the link below you’ll find a list of titles of current letters people have written. Read as many of them as you can and you will find yourself inspired to write what you have perhaps thought was unsayable or at least ignored about our contemporary life:


What has moved you as you’ve read some of the letters at links I’ve provided? Make a list of the moments and phrases that have done this work.

Now, think about a topic that would compel you to speak to another in the form of a letter:

Would you like to change someone’s mind about an important social issue by recounting an experience you’ve had?

Would you like to share a family heirloom with a particular family member and tell them why they are the one to receive it?

Would you like to praise someone but are usually too shy to tell that someone what you admire and why?

Would you want to admonish a person or entity to set things right?

Do you want to write a letter to a celebrity, inventor, historical figure or fictional character?


Sheila Bender

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