Bad Advice Wednesday All Stars: Write a Fan Letter!

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


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Let us start with Robert Browning’s fan letter to Elizabeth Barrett, January, 1845:

“I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart — and I love you too. Do you know I was once not very far from seeing — really seeing you? Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning ‘Would you like to see Miss Barrett?’ then he went to announce me, — then he returned . . . you were too unwell, and now it is years ago, and I feel as at some untoward passage in my travels, as if I had been close, so close, to some world’s-wonder in chapel or crypt, only a screen to push and I might have entered, but there was some slight, so it now seems, slight and just sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be?”

Would it kill you to right a letter like that to me?  Or at least an email.  Email is fine.  And email makes it so much easier to write as a fan, of anyone, really, but today I’m talking writers.  The advice: Write a fan letter.  Or fan email.  If you love something you’ve read, take a minute to articulate why.  This is smart just for your own development as a thinker and writer, but it can also open the door to literary friendships.  If sincere.  If intelligent. If heartfelt. And especially if you’re seeing what no one else has seen, saying what no one else has been saying.  You don’t do this for any reason but wanting to say what you think.  No thought of advantage, no thought of favors sought.  Any such petty concern will taint the very paper you write upon.  Or taint whatever digital hocus-pocus brings emails home.

My favorite notes start something like this: “I was poking around in X library in X town and happened across your book.”

You know?  A book that’s been twenty years out of print and some kindly soul has found it in the stacks on vacation (or once, in jail–be sure to send your books to prison libraries!).

But really.  You finish a book.  You love it.  Write a fan letter.  If you’re famous, all the better.  But if not–don’t be shy.  Just be real.  And don’t freak when you hear back.  Unless you’re writing to dead poets.  Then you can freak.

That’s a good exercise, by the way: write to dead writers.  Make yourself say it: this is why I love this book.  Maybe after a few books, you’ll have the start of an essay.

Another fine thing to do is to write yourself a fan letter–especially if you’re just getting started publishing and others haven’t thought to do it.  Again, the idea is to articulate just exactly what you’re doing right.  I’d mail this, too.  Or give it to your husband to copy out and send.  Or wife.  Or sig oth.

In college I wrote to Carl Sagan, partly because he also lived in Ithaca, partly because he’d spoken to my physics class at Ithaca College, partly because I loved his newest book, and also because I disagreed with some point he’d made about parathanatic experiences (I was also reading Edgar Cayce at the time, fully credulous).  I closed by mentioning that I thought I’d try my hand at construction work after college so I could have enough money to write.  He wrote back!  His parents also lived in Ithaca!   Soon I was waterproofing their basement. And it did help my writing.  They were holocaust survivors, Mom with a number tattooed on her forearm.  You learn one thing, then you learn another.

But even if you don’t need work, write a letter every time you finish any book no matter what.  And send it.

You can practice here!

And tell us about writers you’ve written to, and whether they’ve written back.

[Follow Bill on Twitter for #DailyLove, such as “I love you like bees in the wildflowers, my kind of buzz”: @billroorbach   And Like us on FB, damn you!]


  1. john harvey writes:

    Hey Bill R!

    Thanks for the Riverside Writers Group.

  2. Elizabeth Hilts writes:

    Dear Mr. Roorbach,
    I wanted to thank you, first, for “Writing Life Stories,” the book I turn to again and again as I have grappled with a memoir, a revision of that memoir, and countless personal essays; thank you also for the hours of enjoyment with which you gifted me by writing (and publishing) “Giants.” So much fun and so much food for thought about all the elements of writing a novel that’s such good story-telling.
    One author who I admire greatly is Marilynne Robinson. I have to admit that I’ve never written her a fan letter. But my best friend—knowing of my admiration of Robinson’s “Gilead”—sent Ms. Robinson a copy of that book along with a letter explaining that I was about to embark on an MFA in Creative Writing and asking if Ms. Robinson might offer a few words of encouragement. Which she most graciously did. The best 50th birthday present—the best birthday present—ever!
    Thanks for all the good advice, too; I’m so glad we got to have dinner together that one time.
    Elizabeth Hilts

  3. Beth Peyton writes:

    I was so moved by The End of Your Life Book Club, I wrote to Will Schwalbe. We had a lovely correspondence, and then he gave me a jacket blurb. A very sweet thing to do since he didn’t know me and he’s very busy.

    I would like to write to Tony Doerr, but can’t find access. So loved All The Light We Cannot See, and wanted to give him an attaboy.

    And now I’m writing to Bill Roorbach. CNF anthology hooked me on creative nonfiction and inspired me to grad school, and I loved Giants. Looking forward to the new book and hope to get one signed in Buffalo this November. #justafan #notastalker

  4. Susanna writes:

    Hey! I do write fan letters. Not as often as I used to, but still. I got a lovely reply in college from the poet Linda Hogan. Jonathan Safran Foer sent a weird little plastic case with a photo of his dog. I made a fan pie for one kinda famous author and she ate it in her hotel room (it had a reason for being, and she had evidence for trusting I wouldn’t poison her).

    And oh! I wrote to one Bill Roorbach, thanking him for Writing Life Stories, which helped me start writing after a long, long, long drought, and he wrote back and said he was teaching a few hours from me, in Casper, in a few months, and that’s how I met you.