The Letter Game

14 Nov

8738_10151573275642008_2118856348_nI’ll let Wikipedia give you the dry stuff:

A letter game involves the exchange of written letters, or e-mails, between two or more participants. The first player writes a letter in the voice of a newly created character; in this first letter, the writer should establish their own identity and that of their correspondent, should set the scene, and should explain why they and their correspondent must communicate in written fashion. In subsequent letters, plot and character can be developed, but the writers should not talk about plot outside of the letters and the characters should never meet. Letter games can be a writing exercise or a form of collaborative fiction.

Two years ago today, I returned from work to find a strange e-mail waiting for me. It was ostensibly from my friend Katy, but the salutation (“Your Loving Brother, Clive”) was not especially in keeping with Katy’s personality. The letter was, however, wholly in character, and I read it several times, trying to learn who that character was.

As I read through, I discovered a frustrated middle-manager, a single father in some sort of dystopian future, a person who wants to change, but isn’t quite sure how. So I turned around and invented a slightly younger brother, an intelligence agent with annoying housemates, named Henry. (This is one of those names I keep giving characters. Oops.) Then I wrote back.

I don’t think I have ever created a character so intentionally: almost completely free of plot or even circumstance, and in response to such disparate influences. I had just read Cloud Atlas for the first time, and it had made such an impression on me that accidentally writing Cloud Atlas fanfiction was a very real possibility. I was particularly afraid of Robert Frobisher, thanks to the letter format, so I went out of my way to make Henry as unlike that character as possible. (I doubt anyone but me would spot it, but I suspect revisions have made Henry more like Frobisher, not less.)

The beauty of the letter game is manifold. You must be prepared for the eventuality that your letter-writing partner will at any moment completely undermine your best-laid plans. This forces you to revise even as you write. Even better, the ban on letter g1969400_10152431020492008_6979114783435379000_name-related conversation resulted in an imagined Katy who was constantly hitting refresh, tapping her foot, waiting for my next installment. That pressure went beyond accountability (these days we hold each other accountable; it’s nothing like it was). At the height of the letter game, our turnaround time dipped below twelve hours.

About four months after the first e-mail, we were done, although at that point it felt more as if Henry and Clive were done. I typed the last line and hit send with my heart beating fast. I knew my phone would ring in approximately the time it would take Katy to read Henry’s last letter, and I had so much to say about the past months now that the cork had popped that I couldn’t imagine where I would start.

She called, and we talked for hours, and we haven’t really stopped. We edit and write, edit and write, and talk it all over. We write side stories and backstories and world-build. This is all still happening, and I am happy to report that there’s no end in sight.

Two years ago, if I mentioned this insane, beautiful, impromptu project to anyone, I briefly laid out the premise of the letter game, and then explained how our letter game had eaten my brain. That was true, but these days I’m more likely to say that it changed my life.

When I started the letter game with Katy, years had passed since I’d written anything creative of substance. Somewhere after junior year of college, I ground to a halt and couldn’t get going again. Staring into the post-grad void wasn’t inspiring. Neither was my first, hard year in Chicago. I was considering a radical reevaluation of trivial things like who I was and what I was put on earth to do. Then. Suddenly. There was Clive, in my inbox, and there was I, spewing out word after word, and someone was reading it, and writing back, and keeping me going. I couldn’t let either of us down.


This was going to be much shorter. It was going to be about how accountability is important, and how finding smart, critical readers is important. Finding that one reader who gives you a reason to keep writing is the most important thing of all.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been surrounded by people who gave me books and showed me other lives and read my stuff, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them, but I really, really wouldn’t be where I am today without Katy. I mean nothing less than that I can’t be sure I would have started writing again if we hadn’t started writing together. I like to think I would have, but who knows. It certainly wouldn’t have happened as quickly, or as easily, and it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

Keep your eyes peeled for Clive and Henry. One day, eventually, we’ll be ready to share the love.10368868_10152780406732008_4958776130015134524_o

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