As a follow-up to my post yesterday on the tension between privacy and writing that so many people feel, whether they’re relatively unknown bloggers or famous authors, I thought I would highlight the way Robert Heinlein limited his personal interaction with his many fans. Until 1984, when Heinlein and his wife found that computers reduced the time it took to write personal replies, Heinlein responded to fan mail with a check box form letter that included some interesting responses, including this selection (see Letters of Note for the full list):
( ) You say that you have enjoyed my stories for years. Why did you wait until you disliked one story before writing to me?
( ) I get 4 or 5 or more requests each week for help in class assignments, term papers, theses, or dissertations. I can’t cope with so many & have quit trying.
( ) It is not just for a student’s grade to depend on the willingness or capacity of a stranger to help him with his homework. I am ready to discuss this with your teacher, principal, or school board.
( ) … I don’t discuss private life, politics, religion, philosophy
( ) Please do not write to me again.
( ) Pressure of work causes me to avoid interviews, questionnaires, radio & television appearances, public speaking.
( ) Your letter was most welcome!—loaded with friendliness and with no requests or demands. You suggested that no answer was expected but I must tell you how much it pleased me. I wish you calm seas, following winds, and a happy voyage through life.
I wish Robert Heinlein could have talked to my 7th grade Social Studies teacher about making students write to celebrities. His comment reminds me of the grumpy letter that E.B. White wrote to a young girl’s librarian in which he admonishes her for encouraging children to write to him. Of course, despite complaining, White still took the time to write long, detailed responses to his fans instead of sending easy “check the box” form letters.
As interesting as Heinlein’s form letter is, I wonder whether a similar type of limited response would satisfy the fans out there today who expect to interact with celebrities, from notable authors to movie stars, through blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Social media reduces the amount of time it takes to respond to comments, but form responses—cutting and pasting the same few sentences over and over again—would look ridiculous in a public forum.