I thought I was so clever, but it was the lowest mark I ever had dumped on me. It was English 301, a Creative Writing class at Red Deer College. You remember Red Deer College? That’s the place that strove, um, strived, er, had striven to become a university and after years and years of trying, tears and toil and public input and the hard work of many dedicated people finally became the well-deserved Red Deer University, much to the delight of many. And then, somehow, almost immediately when everybody’s back was turned a new bunch of people came in and in about fifteen minutes dumped the university and suddenly and suspiciously created what people like to call Red Deer Pollywannacracker.
Even Lacombe has a university; so does Camrose. The colleges in Edmonchuk and Cowtown, Grant MacEwan and Mount Royal, recently became universities. And just when you think that a polytechnical institution is more or less equal to a full status university, consider the world famous Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto. In 2004, it became Ryerson University. Hmmm.
Still, I guess it doesn’t matter whether you call a spade a spade, as long as the spade doesn’t axe most of the music and performing arts programs, like Red Deer Pollywollydoodle did. But I digress.
The assignment in our class was to write a story revolving around tension or unresolved conflict so in my demented tale a student writes an innocent letter to the college office asking for a small refund for a cancelled class and the office person misunderstands and writes back a snarky letter and the student writes back an even snarkier letter which is forwarded to a manager and the etcetera somehow explodes into a battle of back-and-forth letters ultimately involving the police, Prime Minister and possibly the Queen of England.
It was all tongue in cheek and written entirely with mailed letters and I thought it was at least fairly amusing and maybe even made a point about how a small misunderstanding or mis-communication can get ridiculously out of hand. My instructor heartily disagreed.
“Well,” he said. “This is just fluff. It’s not ‘writing,’ is it?” To which I replied snarkily, “Mmfllllgakkkk??” Let’s just say we agreed to disagree. And I got stuck with a crappy mark. I should have written a protest letter.
My point, if there is one somewhere in all of this, is actually not about the merits of writing fluff or me being a proud fluffy writer, it’s about writing epistolary. Say what??
I didn’t know it then but it turns out that an epistolary novel or story is told exclusively through the form of letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents. If only I could’ve snarked back to the prof invoking the term “epistolary,” which sounds a lot better than “fluff.”
Written stories told only with documents have been around forever apparently, with Mary Shelley’s notorious novel “Frankenstein” (1818) and Bram Stoker’s equally infamous book “Dracula” (1897) both being notably epistolary.
But you don’t have to write about humanoid monsters or scary vampires to pull off an epistolary piece of prose. In fact, one of the best books I’ve read in recent year happens to be an incredibly clever and compelling epistolary novel. I don’t usually recommend favourite books, movies or chocolate bars – each to their own – but I can’t resist touting “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows. The book, not the Netflix! The movie is good, but kind of defeats the whole incredible epistolary achievement of the book. Check it out if you haven’t already.
Although, the former English 301 professor would probably call it “fluff.”
Harley Hay is a Red Deer author and filmmaker. Send him a column idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.