Is a Form Letter Ever Personal Enough?

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.

19 thoughts on “Is a Form Letter Ever Personal Enough?

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  3. I had a writing mentor who suggested that if writers respond to all requests to speak of their work, they’d have nothing left to put in their books. Her advice was to hold back and instead delight the audience with some good stories. It’s difficult to balance this wisdom with demands to be public/publishable.

    1. Yeah, I imagine it’s a very difficult balance to pull off, particularly for people who are still building an audience for their work. I think your mentor is right, though–your life can’t be an “open book” if you plan to include those experiences in your writing.

  4. I can see how being famous would put the breaks on correspondence. But I do find mystery in author’s personalities when they do make statements. The cranky ones are always the most interesting and it gives them character, good or bad.

    1. Yeah, it’s understandable, and I agree that the cranky ones are interesting. Some fans will like that and others won’t. I’m always very impressed when a celebrity does what they can to interact with fans. I’m also impressed that YOU manage to respond to all of your comments and visit other blogs! There aren’t many bloggers who take the time to do that. So, thank you!

  5. I got my first fan mail the other day! It was crazy cool, and I responded very personally to it. I hope I can continue to do this, but I also hope someday I am successful enough that I will be faced with the fact that there isn’t enough time. It’s a difficult line to draw, as if to say the reader isn’t important, yet everyone is because without them the writer wouldn’t be successful. I suppose it has to do with not letting it go to your head. Then again there are nasty reviews to keep ones ego in check.

  6. brianhmoll

    I think it’s interesting that his fan letters were so predictable that he was able to create a form letter like this. I’ve seen quite a few authors give readings, and it seems like the same 5 questions are asked at every one. I can only imagine how repetitive and tiresome fan mail can get.

    1. So true! Maybe the internet has reduced certain types of basic questions because some of that information is easily accessible on author’s websites (like how he defines science fiction, etc).

      1. brianhmoll

        I think it’s because people don’t look at authors as humans so much as these mythical creatures who churn out a book every year or so. And that’s reflected in the kinds of things they put into fan letters. Additionally, there’s a delusion on the part of the fan that because they, the fans, don’t know the answer, that the questions they are asking have never been asked before. I don’t know. All I know is that I feel this bolt of sympathy when I go to an author event and hear someone say, “So ______, I loved ______. Where do you get your ideas?”

        1. Yeah, I would be sympathetic, too. It makes sense for established authors to avoid answering those repetitive questions and to limit interaction. It’s a harder call for up-and-coming authors who need to build a loyal fan base.

  7. An intriguing look back into the days when one wrote and received actual handwritten letters in envelopes with stamps on! Not so long ago either since certain people, on returning from holiday, had to force the front door open against the mountain of mail.

    I suppose today’s top authors – to the extent that they are accessible at all – have an auto-reply of sorts. Lucky is the writer who gets a personalised reply. Is that the way JKR works for example?

    (Like Theo I’ll let you know when it becomes an issue this end :-))

    1. Ah, I have been known to wade through a mountain of mail too, but it’s usually all junk.

      I wonder to what degree people like Rowling are accessible. Twitter seems to be the easiest way to be “in touch” with celebrities, but I don’t know to what extent any respond to their fans through it. Speaking of Rowling, she did write at least one lovely letter to a fan, available here: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2011/07/i-will-treasure-your-letter.html

      And yes, please let us know how you handle all the fan mail in the future!

  8. I still tend to believe that a certain mystique in a writer — their relative grumpiness, shall we say — can actually be appealing to the public. It’s nothing I would ever do because it’s not in my character, but I guess I support the idea that any public figure needs to figure out a way to respond in their unique voice and personhood. A person like Rowling, who’s obviously kind and generous, would simply have to stop responding entirely. No other choice.

    1. I agree that each celebrity has to figure out the best way to handle it. They can’t let themselves drown in mountains of fan mail, tweets, emails, FB messages, etc. After you’ve already become popular, it probably doesn’t matter how much you respond as long as you respond when necessary and never inappropriately (Emily Giffin’s response to a negative book review comes to mind). My guess is that it’s the people who are trying to build their careers that need to be more responsive.

  9. You always have something interesting to say. 🙂

    I follow a very few celebrities on Twitter, and occasionally, rarely, I will tweet them in response to something they post. I never expect a response. So far, that’s been a good attitude to adopt, as none of have responded. Heh.

    I’ve gotten a few fan letters, and I always respond, thanking them. But I’m still pretty much a nobody. I can’t imagine what it must be like if you get as famous as, say, Rowling. It must be overwhelming.

    1. You’ll have to let me know how you handle your fan mail when the letters/emails/tweets/comments start pouring in. I imagine that even bloggers with a ton of traffic must find it overwhelming to respond to comments, and I rarely see responses at the more popular ones. I’m not sure if Rowling responds to fans regularly–I have no idea how she would–but there’s a lovely letter on Letters of Note that she wrote for a fan: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2011/07/i-will-treasure-your-letter.html

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