I’ve been sending words of thanks — sometimes paragraphs of slobbering praise — to writers for longer than the internet has made it possible to track down their contact information.
In college, after reading Russell Baker’s newly published memoir, Growing Up, I wrote to him. A few days later Baker sent me a note, handwritten on thick bond paper. My letter might have waxed gushy and he gently cautioned about manufacturing heroes, who, he said, "often have feet of clay and make childish mistakes in grammar."
When I landed a job as an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press, I got to work with a young author on his book, Between Washington and Jerusalem: A Reporter’s Notebook. As an American Jew raised with no sense of religion or community, I’d understood little about Israel until I read that manuscript. The author came into the office many times, and though he was unfailingly friendly and warm, I felt small and scant in his presence, too inarticulate and ill-informed to say anything worth hearing. Then one night, after I’d finished Xeroxing and logging in manuscripts, I stayed late to type out pages of earnest prose telling Wolf Blitzer how much reading his work had meant to me.
For my book on running, I used Pat Conroy’s memoir of playing basketball at the Citadel as a kind of model. My Losing Season is, after all, a book as much about love as it is about sport. Conroy was the only person from whom I really wanted a blurb for my book.
I wrote him a long fan letter and sent it to a friend who sent it to a friend who got it to Pat, who called me immediately and we spoke for an hour. He called me for another long chat after he’d read half the manuscript and again after he’d finished. On the phone Pat Conroy was exactly the man I felt I’d come to know and care about on the page. I recognized his voice, his sentence structures, his ardor, and his rage. When he died last year, I was bereft. I think I loved him more than any other man I’d never actually met.
Going all fan-girl over someone’s work is different from how those in the business of scholarship approach texts. Academics are often, I find, less generous to writers who are still breathing. Those who haven’t experienced the anguish of trying to create a piece of writing that will entertain as it enlightens can be quick to find fault, pronouncing a piece "not unproblematic" or, at best, "brilliant but flawed." I try to avoid such conversations because they make me sad.
Becoming an acquisitions editor was a natural progression for someone who embraces reading as a fan. It’s an enviable profession: You get to follow your passions and must learn to trust your taste. The role puts you in contact with those you most admire. You get to talk to them about work that inspired or even awed you.
Now, as a rank-and-file professor, I miss that kind of connection. Between teaching and serving on committees, I don’t have as much substantive, intellectual exchange with people from different disciplines and at other universities, as I did when I was an editor. I miss the adventure of dilettantishly skimming fields. I miss learning about what’s hot in areas I know little about.
And so, when I read something I love, I tend to reach out.
I get a frisson of delight when someone whose work I appreciate accepts my request for "friendship" via social media. But I prefer direct and unmediated encounters — a message from me to the person whose ideas changed my mind, whose sense of humor caused me to snort diet A&W out of my nose, or whose sentences I had to read aloud because I wanted to hear them sing.
After sending out such missives I’ve gotten back brief thank-you notes, had lively back-and-forths, and forged some decades-long friendships. Each of those interactions makes the big, flinty world feel close and intimate.
And, much to my surprise and giddy delight, I have also been the recipient of emails and letters from strangers telling me they’ve liked something I’ve written.
The truth is: The approval of others fuels me as a writer. Rather than having an imagined ideal reader, I think about specific people I respect and ask myself how they might respond to my work. That’s not to say I change my voice or approach to suit what I know they like — my panel of judges is too diverse to satisfy them all. And at this point, trying to transform my writerly voice would be like hoping to alter the color of my eyes.
As I struggle with an essay or a book, I conjure those I most want to impress. When I’m tempted to go all fancy-pants academic and use words like instantiate, heteronormativity, or, God help me, problematize, I think about my dermatologist. If I’m tempted to get puffed up and self-important, I summon the Midwestern reserve and modesty of my poor book editor who toils to keep my ego and narcissism in check. When my brow slumps too low, I remember that a distinguished Ivy League historian and a former university president read my columns. I want to impress at least one friend from high school, some college classmates, a handful of students, and the best-selling suspense novelist I’m Facebook friends with. I know I can’t satisfy them all, but I want, regardless of my content, to be able to write in such a way that each of them might find pleasurable.
I also think about the haters. I once dated a man who told me that his former wife — a doctor, fellow ultramarathoner, and an aspiring writer — used to read my work in running magazines and start sputtering. Who did I think I was, she wondered? She believed I needed to be taken down more than a few pegs.
And, for a while, I had my own personal online hater, someone who was always among the first to take a crack at my essays in The Chronicle. This person was a terrific writer, had trenchant insights, and was meaner than a snake, often starting posts with "Seriously?"
The comments were personal and hurtful — even dissing my appearance and career choices. Based on the tone and tenor of the comments, I had sexistly assumed my hater was a man. In fact, she eventually revealed herself, her personal problems, and her resentment over my tenure-track appointment while she was forced to teach online. I felt slightly better when I read her vicious comments on the excellent work of others; she was an equal-opportunity hater. A few years ago, she disappeared from my comments. I hope she got the job she wanted and is putting her vast abilities to better use than mere anonymous online malice. Yet I have to admit: She sometimes made me think harder.
I don’t think about my potential fans and haters when I’m in the process of writing, of getting down a draft. At that point, I focus only on my ideas and how best to express them. I compose — as Stephen King said in his unexpectedly useful book, On Writing — with the door closed.
But then, as I review and revise my drafts, I swing that door open and allow myself to imagine the faces and voices of people I know — or hope — will be reading my work. I want not to disappoint those who say they like my stuff. I want to try to win over the haters, or at least give them fewer reasons to groan.
A while ago I asked a group of former graduate students if they’d ever sent messages of praise to writers whose work they loved. Not one of them had. That probably shouldn’t have surprised me, given the instinct ingrained in graduate school to critique and question everything. But it made me feel kind of sorry for them.
I enjoy writing fan mail, however much that renders me uncool. Like telling someone you love them, or that you’re sorry, I believe that if you appreciate something that someone has made, it should never go without saying.