Writing letters can be a joyful experience, especially if you’re sending someone a compliment. Here, author Emma Forrest explains why she writes four fan letters a year – and shares a heartwarming anecdote about the time she confronted Keanu Reeves for not replying to one of her missives…
I call this essay “In praise of fan letters” to establish, from the start, the religious precedent. The number of people who engage in religious ritual is in decline in the West: three Hail Marys on waking, the bowing towards Mecca for five daily prayers, Orthodox Jewish “davening” (rocking back and forth as the prescribed liturgies are recited).
Instead, on waking, people ritualistically look at their phones. The modern version of “davening” is tapping the ‘like’ button, and swiping left or right. Over and over, a kind of 5G meditation. We may have walked away from religion, but that doesn’t mean we don’t subconsciously try to recreate it.
It’s why Fleabag season two touched such a nerve. We all want to feel devotion. If it’s not going to be Catholicism then we’ll reach for something else, from Extinction Rebellion to the How To Fail podcast. We crave having a belief system. Fleabag’s infamous “kneel”, that apotheosis of where lust and faith meet, is not two emotions at cross purposes but rather at a crescendo. With that “kneel”, anything was possible – for her, for him, for the viewer. A three-point spell casting. And that’s where fan letters come in.
It’s one of the things we are taught to put away with childhood, but for me, writing letters to people who move me is an act I’ve deliberately reignited in adulthood. It’s akin to a yoga class where the teacher asks you “Where do you the feel the breath?” What I like about taking the time to buy a stamp in order to thank a stranger for doing work that touches me, is that it makes me feel very clear about where I put my attention.
The last fan letter I wrote was to Ocean Vuong, the author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. The one before that was to Harry Benson, the 82-year-old photographer whose picture of The Beatles having a pillow fight had brought my five year old child such elation, I just wanted to tell him. It’s important to go into this assuming no one really cares what you think. But you should care what you think.
As a tiny child, my first crush was Adam Ant. My dad bought me Adam Ant stationery that I would have written him a letter on, but I was too obstinate to learn how to write. When I was 13 I wrote to Stephen Fry. It was a fan letter, in which I pleaded for an interview for my school newspaper. He said no, but his reply was thoughtful and kind. With hindsight, it’s interesting that Adam and Steven drew my attention, as they were covering fragility and mental health struggles that would one day overwhelm them, as would my own.
A great fan letter should use as few words as possible to express what the artist means to you. It should not be sexual (though it may feel sexual as you write it). I’d suggest writing four fan letters a year, one for each season. The stationery or post card should be chosen each time for the artist.
Assume you will never meet the recipient, and don’t send the letter if that is your hoped for outcome. If it’s about wanting to fuck someone (which I totally understand), write it and put it in a drawer. You never know, it may happen: after all, the world is big and life is long. The link between what moves you and what arouses you is real and worth thinking about for use in your own life.
It’s important to note that you absolutely can be a fan and an artist. In fact, I think it sometimes makes the artist purer. In her memoir, Patti Smith writes lovingly of her altars. Think how she lit one for Bob Dylan and how, in Scorcese’s recent documentary, Dylan watches her as if she’s a deity. You can be both a devotee and a goddess. To be devotional is good practice, a template for the rigour of making your own art.
One of the greatest Letters of Note is that from Iggy Pop to a French teenage fan – the vulnerability and sensuality in it, the frailty. You’d never extract that with a selfie request, which is the opposite in every way of the fan letter. It is a collector pinning butterflies because they can, because they hit the net, only finding out later what they caught.
In my memoir, Your Voice In My Head, the key wisdom I hear at the feet of the Rabbi to whom I was devoted is: “Have you the courage to raise your voice to the sky, knowing you may never get an answer?” Think of that when you write and mail a letter to a stranger whose work has affected you.
I wrote a fan letter to Keanu Reeves when I was 12. My family were about to move in with my grandparents. I remember sitting on the patio of the house we lived in until the bank re-possessed it, sealing this letter with a Greenpeace sticker. The impetus for the letter may have been him, as I’d just seen River’s Edge. It may have been about what was going on in my life – the undercurrent of financial trouble, the itching of new breasts, a search for emotional volume control.
I wrote the letter because I was always afraid that I’d see Keanu Reeves and not be able to express to him what he meant to me, and I thought that if I wrote it down, it would make sense. I never got a reply, but I never again worried about running into him. Twenty-five years later, I was asked to work with him on a screenplay. At some point, I jokingly told him I’d written him fan mail and he’d never replied. A few days later he wrote to apologise for not replying and to explain that he’d been a teenager, overwhelmed by new fame, and had responded by retreating.
As you mail your letter, it’s important to remember not just that everyone around you is fighting their own internal battle you know nothing about, but this: even when people don’t reply, they can still hear you.
Royals by Emma Forrest is available to buy now
Images: Getty, Unsplash