Letters Tell a Story
by Donald R. Barbera
Letters tell stories. Each day billions of letters crisscross the globe filled with stories about love, romance, travel, fantasies and much more. Most of these letters are written by average people who are only trying to convey a since of ďbeing thereĒ to the reader or they are informing the reader of recent personal history. Each one of these letters tells a story.
The Diary of Ann Frank, the writings of St. Augustine, and more recently, the collected writings of Andy Warhol are examples of the letter as a serious writing device. Generally, the information contained in these writing is non-fiction. They pertain to events that actually took place in these individualsí lives. However, as a fictional tool letters open a realm of creative opportunities for storytelling.
Generally, letters generally appear in limited ways in fiction. Normally, they convey a short story or they appear in a series to tell a story that takes place over a longer period. Writing in this manner allows the writer to introduce characters, setting and plot in just about any fashion they desire simply because to read as real letters, they must have an air of personal authenticity about them. In other words, it cannot seem like a literary device but must appear to be an actual letter.
This personal touch gives readers the feeling of being part of the story. The letter may be to someone else but to the reader, it seems the writer is talking directly to them. This is the power of the letter as a storytelling device. Letters also allow the writer to take on different personas in a short space without having to invent an elaborate set-up for each character because the writer is writing to a person who already knows most of the people or, at least, may be aware of some parts of the story.
Letters allow careful setup of characters, story-line and circumstances when written in a series. Introduction or elimination of characters can be accomplished easily and without detailed explanations; because the fictional writer and reader are familiar each other. They are like close friends. It is not necessary to tell the entire story because each of them is familiar with some or most parts, but more importantly, they are familiar with each other. The familiarity allows the freedom of taking some things for granted.
Letters act as a kind of oral history allowing the writer to ďcatch upĒ the reader on the latest events. This freedom makes the letter a powerful form for building a story. The following is the first letter in a book of letters written by one friend to another.
Letters from Junebug Johnson
Dear Jimmy Lee:
Well, it finally happened. You always said Big Head Melvin was a little light in the fingers and you were right. The Man grabbed his big ass Saturday night. He walked right out of the local Rip Trip convenience store and right into the arms of the police with his trench coat filled bologna and Twinkies. They slapped the cuffs on him on the spot while he struggled trying to swallow two whole Twinkies he had jammed into his mouth. You should have seen him with Twinkie cream oozing out of both sides his mouth talking about ďI didnít do anything.Ē
I waited in the ride while they put his big butt into the police car. You would have cracked up when the cop put his hand on that big onion head and pushed him into the backseat. It looked like a baby trying to palm a basketball. I almost laughed aloud watching that big head squeeze through the rear door of the police car.
I quit laughing when the cops started coming my way. I wiped that smile off my face real quick because I wanted to be sure that I didnít become an accident, if you know what I mean. Anyway, they asked me a few questions and then left with Melvin. As they drove away, you could see Melvinís big head bobbing in the rear window like a pumpkin on a spring. I waited until they were out of sight and then I split. We were supposed to be going to a party at Connie Robinsonís, but after the Big Head bust, I decided that I might be better off going home.
I still almost went to the party. Mavis Henderson had told me earlier that day that she would be saving a special slow dance just for me, but after what happened to Melvin I didnít have a good feeling about going to that party. I almost went. John Henry almost talked me into it, but I decided to keep old John Henry in my pants and mind my own business. I just had a bad feeling about that evening.
As it turned out, as much as I would have liked to play western movies with Mavis and ride her like the Lone Ranger rode Silver, it was a good thing that I didnít go. Roscoe told me that some cat up in there slapped Mavis and all kind of shit broke loose. Jimmy Ray jumped up in there with his skinny ass and promptly got himself knocked out cold. Roscoe said the boyís eyes were closed before he hit the floor and thatís when the real shit started.
Iíve heard several different versions of what happened but Tony is the only one that I believe because he doesnít drink or smoke that shit. According to Tony, my girl Mavis pulled a gun and was going to bust a cap on the dude who cold cocked Jimmy Ray. Tony said everyone hit the floor and started screaming and hollering while they crawled toward the door and windows. Crazy Walter Perkins was grabbing as much booty as he could get his hands on while everyone was trying to get away. The dog.
Tony said he didnít know what happened after that because he was too busy running down east 24th trying to get away before a bullet caught him in the ass. He said he was running so fast that he passed two cars and didnít stop running until he reached Mickey Dís next to the bowling alley on 39th and Haig. While he was there, he said he ordered a Big Mac and fries before he called Big Tony to come get him. Just as Big Tony drove up, the fight from the party moved into the parking lot at Mickey Dís. Tony said he left his fries and dove through the window of his popís car and left. I saw Crazy Walter today and he was smiling like he just got some, but we all know better than that. He told me that Mavis told everyone that I was going whip the guyís ass that had started all of the shit in the first place. I told Walter that heifer was crazy as he is and she must have dreamed that shit. Mavis and I arenít that tight. I mean we did the dirty deed every now and then but we werenít tight by any means and, we were going to become even less tight after I found out that it was Leroy ďjust got out of the jointĒ Jackson who had started all the trouble in the first place.
Well, that really gave me an incentive to cut Mavis loose. Nothing happened, but it took a little doing on my part. I ran into Leroy a couple of days later at the barbershop and told him that I didnít want any trouble. Of course, I didnít say it like that. I mean Iím a man and heís a man, so I had to let him know that I wasnít bullshitting around. Actually, I didnít say it like that either. Still, I didnít want him to think I was a punk or something. I kind of hinted to him that if he didnít start any shit there wouldnít be any shit. Well, I didnít really say it like that but he understood what I meant.
By the way, he doesnít go by Leroy anymore. He calls himself LaRoy. LaRoy! Ainít that a bitch? That big muscle headed motherfucker calling himself LaRoy. That son of a bitch is built like a damn brick wall. I bet heís even got muscles in his eyeballs. LaRoy! Bullshit! He ainít nobody except plain old Leroy with three Eís -- LeeeRoy. He had better be glad I wasnít pissed off or nothing because I might have had to show him a thing or two. He was lucky.
Well Broí I have to go, but Iíll be in touch. Tell everyone I said ďheyĒ especially your sister, Juanita. Give her a hug and kiss for me. Iím going be your bother-in-law as soon as she realizes that Iím the one for her. Chill out brother.
Justice ďJunebugĒ Johnson
Although this letter would not be to everyoneís taste, it is the beginning of a series of letters about two country bumpkins who have made their way from a small community into the big city and are unfamiliar with the ways of the streets. Each letter starts by referencing something in the last letter and then begins a totally new series of events or continues to build upon the events that are established. The point is letters allow the writer freedom to move in almost any direction. There are drawbacks to this form but the drawbacks are limited and outweighed by the advantages of this form of story telling.
Still, as a vehicle for elaborate and in-depth storytelling, the letter may not be the form that presents the best possibilities for capturing the reader because there is a start-stop quality to letter writing. Some call it hiccup writing because it comes unexpectedly. Still, it is a form that offers creative opportunities for those who wish to experiment.