Epistolary Fanfiction: A Story and an Exercise

I recently read Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? after a few people, including13526165 my good friend Laura Sibson, had enthusiastically recommended it. (Laura wrote a post that was partly inspired by the book here.) I loved the book, and I also loved Maria Semple’s short story “Dear Mountain Room Parents,” which appears at the end of the Kindle version of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Both the book and the story are epistolary: written in letters/documents/emails, although the messages in the book are woven together with some narration and the story includes emails only.

So here is my holiday gift to you—a gift for which I can claim absolutely no credit, admittedly—a link to the hilarious short story, which was originally published in The New Yorker. Go ahead and read it now, if you haven’t already. And you’re welcome.

After you’ve read it, if you’re anything like me, you might find yourself itching to write your own version of the story for fun. Back in October, I posted about how I often assign my middle school students “fanfiction” challenges that invite them to use the characters, setting, or style of a published piece. I thought that Semple’s short story would inspire a lot of fun writing, so I shared it with my eighth grade students and encouraged them to write their own stories consisting of one person’s emails.

I did one, too, and it was a great writing exercise: it forced me to create a brief story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and to develop a character primarily through that character’s voice.  I think epistolary stories and novels often feature especially engaging first-person voices because so much of what we know about each character comes from how that character expresses herself, so writers really give the characters trademark expressions or ways of putting together sentences. I know this is a busy time of year, but after the holidays, I recommend this exercise, especially for people who want an excuse to play around with a first-person voice.

Here’s my story. I cheated a little bit, bringing a second narrator in at the very end to close it out. I’d love to see what anyone else does with this prompt, too! Enjoy!

Holiday Concert Dress Code: A Reminder

Dear Parents,

We look forward to seeing you on Thursday night at the annual Winter Concert! This is just a friendly reminder that your children should come dressed all in black. Young ladies should not wear spaghetti straps, and they must wear tights or leggings underneath if they choose to wear skirts. After all, it’s cold outside!

Have a joyful evening!

Ms. Peridot

Hello again, parents,

There seems to be some confusion in response to my last message, so this email is to clarify that young gentlemen should not come wearing spaghetti straps or skirts without tights or leggings, either. In fact, the gentlemen should wear slacks (and the ladies may wear slacks as well—perhaps that is simpler if everyone does).

Finally, please bear in mind that “slacks” does not mean those track pants with glaring white or neon stripes down the sides.

Joyfully yours,

Ms. Peridot

Parents,

Some of you seem to have two remaining concerns about the concert dress code, even after my clarifying email. The first concern stems from some parents’ feeling that there was not enough notice about the dress code. Thanks to lengthy emails from several of you, I realize that some of our families need to go out and purchase black shoes and/or clothing at what feels like the last minute. I understand that the need to fit in a last-minute shopping trip in the midst of the holiday season might create some anxiety and/or resentment.

Let me assure you, however, that my email from earlier today was, as I noted then, a reminder, following up on this month’s “What’s New in Sixth Grade?” e-newsletter. Those who actually read the newsletter have had a full three weeks’ notice about the concert dress code. I didn’t want to have to bring this up, but because of the electronic tracking system, I can tell that only one-third of the recipient list took the time to open the newsletter. Perhaps in the future, more of you will at least glance at the updates that your children and I work hard to prepare.

Second, others of you seem to believe that we at Evergreen Middle are “stifling the creativity,” “banning the freedom of self-expression,” and/or “suffocating the inner light” of our sixth graders by prescribing a limiting dress code for the concert (which, I will remind you, is one evening only).

Please know that your children’s creativity, self-expression, and inner light are very important to all of us at Evergreen Middle. We are simply attempting to create a cohesive and visually appealing look for the winter concert so that the audience can focus on the beautiful music your children will be creating.

Thanks in advance for understanding!

Ms. P

Hello.

We all now know that Madison G’s grandmother feels that black is an inappropriate color for children to wear because it is too “adult” and “sexy” (which is difficult to understand in light of my explicit comment that no one should wear spaghetti straps and/or skirts without tights). In addition, Tyson’s babysitter has shared with us all that, in her opinion, nothing could be more visually appealing than a stage full of children wearing festive, colorful holiday outfits that “welcome Baby Jesus into the bleak, wintery world.” I do want to reiterate that this is a holiday concert, and not a Christmas concert.

However, contrary to what seems to be the accepted belief, especially among those of you—I won’t name names—who think it is appropriate to accost me at the ShopRite deli counter to question a grade on a spelling quiz, I cannot give over all of my time to debating every minute detail of your children’s education.

Therefore, fine. Let your children come to the concert in ugly Christmas sweaters, bumblebee costumes, Eagles jerseys and sweatpants—whatever they feel like. God forbid I attempt to enforce a rule every now and then.

-Ms. Peridot

Dear Sixth Grade Parents,

Ms. Peridot has been asked to resign from her job as lead sixth grade teacher, effective immediately. We all wish her the best in the next chapter of her life. The assistant teacher, Miss Lucy, will take over, with help from Madison G.’s grandmother, a retired teacher with thirty-two years of experience, and Decker’s father, who is currently taking some time off from his job as a corporate lawyer, until we can hire a replacement.

Looking forward to seeing  you at tomorrow’s concert!

Eugenia Wharton, Head of School

3 thoughts on “Epistolary Fanfiction: A Story and an Exercise

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