(This essay is adapted from a column I wrote a few years ago.)
The very nature of the relationship between a writer and her readers has changed dramatically over the past two decades. When I used to write a regular column for newspapers and magazines, people would actually have to write a letter to the editor, and mail it. Now all they have to do is type a few words into a computer. Suddenly everyone is a critic.
My former editors liked it when they got letters, because demographically speaking, each letter represented so many thousand readers. I doubt whether editors feel that way about email.
I used to keep a letter file, the good ones and the bad. One of my favorites is this one: “Dear Mlle. Stevenson: Magnificent! Thank you! Your editorial dated (…) is so enjoyable that I made copies for my office. And I will be looking forward to your next presentation. You are to be warmly complimented on your originality, cleverness, and humor. You exhibit a rare soul of freedom of expression and thought. Continue, that you may never become another faceless robot in society.”
Gee, I couldn’t have said it better myself…
Another gentleman, who lived in Chicago, wrote to both the Tribune and the Sun Times about my column in the Beach Reporter in Manhattan Beach (maybe he was a former resident). “I believe you might find these (enclosed) weekly features by Kathy Stevenson quite entertaining. I am in no way related to her, and have no vested interest in seeing her succeed. But considering that each week, a macho, never-married single bachelor type who is 33 years-old and wouldn’t read an Erma Bombeck column if I was paid to do so, would get entertained by such a writer is quite intriguing.”
Of course, not all correspondence is so friendly. Let’s just say that quite often my sense of humor doesn’t quite match up with certain humorless people. Once I wrote a humor piece about how Los Angelenos were flocking up to Washington and Oregon, and I was less than flattering about those two states, remarking on how they were filled with unemployed Grateful Dead groupies who weaved macramé pots for weekend swap meets. And also something about mildew between the toes.
I might as well have written a column about Mother Teresa being a closet cross-dresser. One woman wrote me a three-page handwritten letter calling me the most close-minded, bigoted so-called writer she had ever read.
Another time I received an actual petition calling for my removal from my fabulous and influential position as a columnist making $75/week. Apparently this woman had not liked my column poking (gentle) fun at neighbors you don’t want, mentioning that a day care operator as a neighbor might be less than ideal. She got a petition together signed by other day care operators and sent it to my editor. I watched him as he tore it in two and tossed it in his office wastebasket.
It’s funny how most of the letters I used to get from cranky people with no sense of humor were signed “anonymous.” And today, people can still hide – behind their kooky email handles.
My favorite letter writer sent me notes at the paper fairly regularly. She was a longtime journalism teacher who called my editor whenever she really liked a column, but she also called when she thought I had hacked up the English language. She also used to call and complain when my column didn’t appear that week.
Every writer is lucky to have readers like that.