The Power of Writing to YOU
Several months ago, I visited the Rubenstein Rare Books & Manuscript Library at Duke University. My purpose? I needed to research an individual for a possible picture book biography. Duke housed my subject’s archives in one of their collections. As I sorted through photographs and papers in the quiet of the reading room, I stopped, every so often, to read a letter addressed from friend to friend, mother to child, sister to sister.
Each time I read a salutation, I navigated a mixture of strange emotions. Maybe a little giddiness at access to words intended to be shared between writer and recipient, as if I now knew a secret. Also, perhaps a dash of impropriety as if I were reading someone else’s mail. Which I was, of course, reading someone else’s mail. I’m sure we’ve all been there before, that sense of reading something written to another, something intended for someone else’s eyes—not necessarily yours.
A particular energy arrives on the page when we read an epistolary essay or direct address essay, this form of writing that the author seemingly intends for someone else. As readers, we find ourselves pulled in because of the excitement of being part of an inside conversation.
Also, maybe we feel just that tiny, delightful touch of sneakiness. Are we supposed to be reading this? Is this a bit like slicing open a letter sent to your sister? Reading your boss’ email? Finding a note slipped into the back of the library book the previous borrower used as a bookmark? No one intended these words for you. Oh, the intrigue!
In my view, the narrator in a direct address essay writes to a “you” character (not to be confused with writing in the second-person point of view). Perhaps a parent, a friend, or a stranger. I consider the epistolary essay to be a subset of the direct address because these essays take the form of a letter. For example: Dear Mom. Love, the narrator. (While I won’t say more about this here, it’s important to note that sometimes the “you” character can be an inanimate object).
One of the noticeable qualities of the direct address or epistolary essay is the sense of intimacy rising from the page. Since the intended reader is no longer a nameless, unknown person, the words often convey a deeper sense of knowing. Of course, increased intimacy isn’t necessarily a characteristic we always want to achieve in every essay. But for certain content, the heightened intimacy contributes to the strength of the writing.
The Writer Benefits of YOU
In addition, I recognize several benefits you as a writer can gain when you use the direct address or epistolary structure:
Circumvent the Internal Critic
When you choose to write your essays directed toward another individual, this can often circumvent that internal critic always wanting to comment from the side. The imaginary audience of possible readers shrinks to just a person: a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend, a stranger you saw at the grocery store. Of course, the presence of one person versus many doesn’t necessarily eliminate the critic’s voice, but it can certainly be a tool that might help.
Bring a Sense of Community
The direct address can bring a sense of community to your writing practice. Often the act of writing is a solitary venture. You craft the words alone. However, with the direct address, you invite another presence into your story, and you remember in a tangible way that you are not alone. This addresses “you” joins with your creative practice.
Communicate a Difficult Subject Matter
The direct address easily becomes a sideways opportunity to explore or communicate topics a reader might directly ignore. The direct address feels somewhat less like the author intends the content for the reader. As a result, the reader can develop more of that “fly on the wall” posture as they engage with the words.
Lower the Stakes
The direct address can reduce the stakes as you are drafting. After all, these are just words you are writing to another person, or it’s just a letter. You may find that you can write with greater ease if you choose a person to write to and then adapt a phrase of encouragement such as, “It’s just a letter. It’s just a letter.”
YOU Leading Us to What’s Next
Up until now, I’ve talked of how the direct address might be a good format for an essay. However, sometimes the direct address is the pathway that leads to the final essay. The direct address can serve as a powerful tool to help you say what you may not have realized you wanted to say. Perhaps you’re trying to write about a conflict with a friend, and you’re struggling to identify the emotion present in a scene. Maybe a helpful strategy is pausing in the work and, instead, writing a letter to that person, an authentic, genuine letter that may enable you to unearth emotions you didn’t realize you had. In the end, you can use this new information to help you craft a stronger essay or other work. Ultimately, the direct address or epistolary form can serve as another pathway to find the deeper material.
Where do YOU go from here?
Maybe you already love the direct address or epistolary essay (yay!). Or perhaps the thought of bringing in this YOU seems strange or unfamiliar. Wherever you may find yourself in the writing journey, here are a couple of writing prompts to help you further engage.
1. List five conflicts you’ve had with other people; these can range from minor to major; from just today to a lifetime ago.
2. Pick one item from your list and write a letter to the other person involved in the conflict.
3. Reread what you’ve written. Perhaps this is an essay, OR perhaps this content is the springboard for an essay.
1. Think of an essay where you find yourself stuck.
2. Rewrite this essay but begin with a greeting to someone. Perhaps an old teacher, a friend, a relative, your neighbor, a stranger, whoever you want.
3. See if any new content, emotion, or reflection emerges from bringing another into the writing.
1. Write a letter to your past self or your future self and see what essay may emerge.
2. As with the previous prompts, also examine if this letter brings you new content, emotion, or reflection for future writing.
Of course, feel free to lop off the Salutation and Closing in any of these letters and see what happens.
1. Take an in-progress essay. Choose a person in the essay to address directly rather than refer to in the 3rd person.
2. Note what happens to your essay when you do this.
I wish YOU the best with bringing in the YOU!
Examples of Direct Address or Epistolary Essays
- This Far: Notes on Love and Revolution by Daniel José Older
- Girl by Jamaica Kincaid (note that this direct address writing is officially categorized as fiction but still is a powerful example)
- Swerve by Brenda Miller
- For a Recently Disco or a Recently Discovered Shipwreck at the Bottom of Lake Michigan by Matthew Olzmann (an example of directly addressing an inanimate object; note that this example is officially categorized as a poem)
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an example of a book-length epistolary essay
Tell us in the comments: Which of these prompts are you going to use to write a direct address or epistolary essay?
Patrice Gopo is the child of Jamaican immigrants and was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. She is an award-winning essayist and the author of All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way (a Fall 2018 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection). Her ties to Jamaica and other parts of the world sparked her early desire to travel to the cities and countries she traced on a globe. In time, as she began writing about her experiences, Patrice became interested in how places contribute to the people we become. Ultimately, she hopes her stories celebrate the beauty of living a multifaceted life. Patrice lives with her family in North Carolina—a place she considers another home. All the Places We Call Home is her first picture book.