When I was thirteen years old I had an industrial-sized crush on Bernadette Peters and, in a burst of pre-adolescent exuberance, I fired off a fan letter. Ignorant of the ways of Show Business, I addressed the letter to the Academy Awards where she had recently performed, not realizing that this was a one night event and that she’d be long gone by the time my letter arrived. To make matters worse, I sent it return receipt requested, hoping that she’d sign for it and I’d have an autograph. My naivete and off-the-charts dorkiness is now painful to see in print. I now show my freshman the movie The Odyssey, where Bernadette Peters plays the seductive sorceress Circe, and every year my students say the same thing, “How many times are you gonna rewind it, Mr. T., we wanna see the whole movie.”
My daughter just sent a fan letter to her favorite celebrity, The Disney Channel’s Debbie Ryan, and received a full color, signed 8×10. This tells me that things have not changed that much in the world of thirteen year olds. Except that I would have taken people hostage for a signed 8×10 of Bernadette Peters. But there you have it.
Creative and talented people often touch the world in a way that makes the average person want to acknowledge that work, get closer to the source, or at the very least, say thank you. And I think it’s very important for us, as fans of creativity, to speak up when an artist has moved us. I learned early in my career as a teacher that unless one of my students tells me that a lesson I taught, a point I made, or a comment I threw out to The Universe made a difference, I might never know. Consequently, I have made it a point to reach out and thank my old teachers for what they did for me as I was growing up. Fortunately, I still live and teach in the same basic area where I went to school, so my old teachers are still around. And I’m always pleased that they seemed slightly surprised when I thank them. As creative types (and I’m including teaching here), it so often feels that what we do is occurring in a vacuum and it’s always nice to hear that someone’s listening.
After reading the Pulitzer Prize winning short story collection A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler, I was so moved that I wrote him a fan letter to tell him it was the best book I’d read in a very long time and that his stories would stay with me for a long time. Having grown up some since stalking. . uh, I mean admiring Bernadette Peters, I knew enough to research what college he taught at and find a legitimate address. A month or so later, I received a very nice note from Mr. Butler that is still tucked in my copy of his book. It was a very gracious reply, and he even invited me to join the MFA program at his school.
It is critical that we acknowledge those artists who have made a difference in our lives, that we let them know they’ve moved us in some way. Not only should we communicate our gratitude that these artists are enriching our lives, but I guarantee that they will be grateful that you did so. So my challenge to you is to find a creative type person—artist, singer, teacher, writer, actor, potter, painter, graphic artist, anybody, really—and just jot a quick note, e-mail, letter, or card saying how much you enjoy that person’s work and that it has touched you in some way.
You’ll be glad you spoke out and the artist will know that what he or she is doing is having some kind of impact—which, it seems likely, is at least a fraction of an artist’s mission. You can even start here on Scrib. Find a writer whose work you admire and tell her so in a scratch pad note or private message. It will help your Karma (the universe kind, not the Scribophile kind).
And when my students complain that I’m spending too much time on the scenes with Bernadette Peters in The Odyssey, I think about saying how I went to college and I can run my class the way I want and if they want to be in charge they should consider pursuing higher education, but it always seems to come out, “Shut up. It’s my remote.”