I have always been a “fan”, the kind of person who listens to the same song over and over, who will read entire bibliographies in a three month span, who will write fan letters, mail them off and hope for a response. I’ve learned that not everyone is like this. These days I indulge in the first two activities, but not so much the last. I don’t remember the last time I wrote a fan letter. Does one write fan letters anymore? I imagine that these days pre-teen girls write emails to the Jonas Brothers or send Myspace messages instead. There is probably a better chance of getting an @ reply on Twitter than there is of getting a letter that requires an envelope and postage. As a child I spent a significant chunk of time writing to my celebrity idols, researching their addresses in the back pages of Teen Beat. I wrote to Kirk Cameron and when I considered the chances of actually hearing from him, I hedged my bets and also wrote to Tracey Gold and requested a signed photo from the entire Growing Pains cast, which would be almost as good as getting an autograph from Kirk alone. I wrote to Alyssa Milano and asked her about her prom and I wrote to Tiffany a few times as well. What was it like touring with the New Kids anyway? I never heard back from any of these celebrities, not even a printed glossy headshot, and I’m sure I remembered to include a SASE. I don’t blame them; they were busy getting sucked into the Hollywood machine or finding their version of God. But, let me tell you who I did hear from: authors.
I was equally devoted to the writers of my favourite books as I was to the actors in my weeknight syndicated sitcoms. You couldn’t find authors’ addresses in teen mags, but you could find their publishers at the front of their books. I wonder what I wrote to these people. Something chatty, I think, like writing to an absent cousin or long distance lover. I picked up cues from Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw, figured I could spill my guts about my life and my problems. I wanted to be a writer too. Do you have any tips? I asked.
My parents are packrats of the highest order and I’ve inherited this trait, except I’m lucky that they live in a big a house in the suburbs of Toronto where I can store my crap forever and ever and continue giving the illusion that I live in a carefully curated home in Montreal. One of my favourite things about visiting my parents is digging through these endless piles of papers, incredulous at the stuff I used to think and keep. This past weekend I opened a box in my old desk and found something wonderful: responses from two of my favourite authors when I was ten years old, Judy Blume and Ann M. Martin.
1990. I was in the fifth grade. I was going through a phase where I was shedding my less cool friends for the more popular kids. I was an asshole, forgive me. But I was reading the Baby Sitter’s Club and practicing personalities the way I practiced handwriting.
Found in an old notebook, me trying out each of the baby sitter’s handwriting. Stacey’s writing, with the i’s dotted with hearts and slanted s’s and e’s appealed to me most, followed by Mary Ann’s flowy cursive.
I stole my favourite characteristics from each of the girls: I got a perm, but it gave me a triangle shaped head rather than the look of a New York sophisticate. I wore a black and white leopard print dress with fringe to class pictures. Claudia Kishi would approve. I was kind of Asian exotic like her, maybe? But I wanted to be a good student too, and nice, like Mary Ann. Nah, I just wanted her boyfriend, Logan. Either way, I paid close attention. I read Judy Blume a bit differently – she wrote about stuff I didn’t talk about out loud. At the time we weren’t quite open about things like wanting to have bigger breasts or getting our periods. We joked about it, whispered it at sleepovers, but we didn’t reveal how crucial it was. Margaret, on the other hand, was so brazen about these quiet desires. And friend politics were discussed perfectly in “Just As Long As We’re Together”. I understood. I wrote to Judy and Ann and one day I got replies from them.
JUDY BLUME vs. ANN M. MARTIN
You can click on the photos to read the letters:
Ann M. Martin
The form letter: On first glance, Ann’s letter looks genuine. It’s printed on a dot matrix, like she typed it up at her desk and then printed it out for me. Dear Teri, it begins, thank you so much for your letter! But, as you read on, it screams fanletter_template.doc. She told me she was born in 1955. At the time it made her 34 years old and she lived in New York City , unmarried, with a cat. She flipped through Name Your Baby books for name ideas, and her first book, Bummer Summer, took 3 years to write. Sure, great.
Judy’s letter came a few months letter when I was in the thick of grade six, March 1991. She didn’t hide the fact that her fans got the same letter. It was pre-printed, her picture with a copyright mark in tiny print along the side. Hi: she starts. She anticipates her questions. “Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself” is my most autobiographical book. Okay.
The brush-off: Ann hides it in a P.S. at the end of the letter (“As much as I love hearing from you, I must tell you that I just don’t have time to answer those letters.”) She included a photo of herself wearing a smart looking sweater and fake pearls, buried in a pile of letters.
Okay, okay, we get it, Ann, you get a lot of fanmail.
Once again, Judy was more direct. After some pleasantries, she says in the second sentence: I wish I could write to you individually but then I’d never have the time to finish another book.
The personal touches: Ann signed her letter. See the smudge? 10 year old Teri was skeptical enough to lick her finger and test out the veracity of the pen ink. It was real. That was cool. But you know what was even cooler? I sent a story to Judy – I don’t remember what story it was, but I do remember including fiction – and look, Judy acknowledged it!
Loved your story! she scrawled at the bottom of the form letter. And the writing matches the printed signature so she must have written it herself. If Judy Blume “loved” my story, maybe I had a chance of writing better stories, stories that would be loved by other people.
So, in the fan letter department Judy edged out Ann. Also, Ann’s envelope came with a little note from the post office: Postage Due: 10 cents. What a scatterbrained Claudia move! Luckily the post office waived the 10 cents and I got my letter regardless.
THE BITTER TRUTH
I will be honest, at the time these letters disappointed me. I remember the excitement of an envelope in the mail followed up by a feeling of “that’s it?” The problem with being a fan is that you will invariably be let down: your idol will never love you as much as you love them. How can they? They haven’t listened to your songs for an hour straight; they haven’t copied passages of your writing into their own notebooks. You will be disappointed until you grow older and learn that the best thing about being a fan is how having a deep engagement with a piece of art – whether it’s a song or a serial novel about a group of girls starting a slave-labour wage baby sitting club – gives your life a secret, lovely depth, how cultivating an inner life populated with fictional characters will stave off loneliness for an awfully long time. Twenty years later (seriously? twenty?), I’m thoroughly tickled by these responses from Ms. Martin and Ms. Blume, pleased that someone on their staff printed off a letter for some kid in suburban Toronto and dropped it in the mailbox.
But I don’t write fan letters anymore because I know better.
(I will, however, probably blog about you or friend you on Twitter. Old habits die hard.)