The Case for Writing Fan Mail
On a flight to Toronto a few months ago, I read an astonishing magazine profile of a feminist filmmaker. While reading, I fell in love — not with the filmmaker herself, but with the journalist’s warm, generative writing. Falling in love on a plane is easy, but this went beyond a brief, altitude-inspired infatuation. I had seen and enjoyed this filmmaker’s movies but found them sleepy. Now I was convinced I’d missed the whole point. Here, the profiler argued, was a way to depict life as art without demanding more drama than life already provides. There was a startling lack of conventional conflict in the filmmaker’s work, which allowed these films to make plain how intense it is to simply negotiate the boundaries between your inner experience and the world. The journalist’s excitement and admiration for the director’s work drove the piece. The writer was turned on by the director’s perspective; I, in turn, fell in love with this writer for helping me see what she saw.
I couldn’t get the profile out of my head. I needed to keep thinking and talking about it. Like this journalist who had pursued an interview with the filmmaker she adored, I wanted to declare my admiration directly to the source. I wanted to write the author some fan mail.
If there is a better feeling than falling in love, I don’t know it. Falling in love makes me feel insatiable and abundant at once. It makes the future seem more expansive, more worth taking risks for, more bountiful than I thought. I appreciate how it makes me dreamy but alert, anxious to stretch time so the intensity lasts. I am happily married but still crave the enlivening rewards of new romance; I am a heat-seeking missile in search of an emotional target. Thankfully, I’ve come to realize that I will never stop falling in love with art. When I am activated to the point of mania by a book, essay, song, poem or photograph, I feel the distinct, familiar nausea of desire. And when I’m truly possessed, I say I love you: I write fan mail.
“I am high on [your poem] this morning, it’s done the best thing and set off some cascade of song in my brain” is a direct quote from an email I once fired off to a complete stranger around 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. The poet was a physician, and her poem was a clever arrangement of hospital-room vocabulary that underscored the dissonant interplay between the spiritual and the hyper-technical in medicine. I am also a physician, and I loved how this poem made words I had learned to integrate into my daily speech seem once again alien and portentous. In the clinic that day, I mentally rearranged overheard phrases to echo the poem’s cadence, delighting in connections I hadn’t thought to make.
Writing fan mail creates an opportunity to take pleasure in my own intemperate passions. Articulating what turns me on about beautiful work transforms distant admiration into intimacy. I do not send these letters to receive a response. Instead, my fan mail is correspondence in the same sense that prayers or blessings are correspondence; it is something I do to consecrate a powerful connection, turning reverence into generosity and making no demands of the recipient.
You can write fan mail to anyone; there is no public work too momentous or too personal to write about. To quote a song performed by the musician Bonnie Raitt (to whom I have written fan mail), “Love has no pride.” Fan mail doesn’t either: Sometimes I’ve no choice but to divulge my heart’s true feelings via the lowly Twitter D.M. or to send a note to someone’s publicly available email, where I know it will go unread. They’re a confession whispered into the wall, cathartic and fulsome because you doubt that anyone is listening on the other side. Done correctly, fan mail is sincere, risking indignity through self-exposure and naïveté. I once admitted to a writer that “I felt affirmed by [your piece] and chastened by it, for not having myself come to such elegant ways of seeing the world.”
A few years ago, I worked up the courage to write fan mail to a novelist I had long admired. His most recent book had exhilarated me, and I was sleepless over it. Before I sent this note, I sheepishly asked a dear friend, a much better writer than I, to read it over. She was mortified on my behalf and edited the letter to make it less effusive. Hers was the better version, but before I sent the letter, I restored everything she had cut. This was no time to play coy! Had I tried to be cool, I would have given up the catharsis I was seeking.
The woman who wrote the profile I adored did sweetly respond to the note I sent her, expressing gratitude. But her reply, while appreciated, wasn’t the thrill. The thrill was in my writing, in putting my adoration into words. The romance of the confession depends on holding nothing back. And the effect of expressing so much, so lavishly, creates leveling between the fan and the object of her affection. In pressing send, I’ve scratched the itch of inspiration; I need not obsess any longer. I’ve joyfully said my piece.
Rachael Bedard is a geriatrician and palliative-care physician in New York City.