Paper Airplanes: Sending Notes out into the Literary World

In her book, Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See offers advice for aspiring writers looking to connect with the greater literary world. She has an entire chapter dedicated to this advice called Charming Notes.  Her advice is this: In addition to writing 1,000 words a day (or two hours of revision) five days a week for the rest of your life, she recommends writing one charming note (“or a phone call that makes your hands sweat”), five days a week for the rest of your life. This note should be written to someone you admire, whether it’s a novelist, an editor, a painter, a journalist, even an agent.  She says this about the notes:

These notes are like paper airplanes sailing around the world, and they accomplish a number of things at once. They salute the writer (or editor or agent) in question. They say to him or her: Your work is good and admirable! You’re not laboring in a vacuum.  There are people out in the world who know what you do and respect it.

The notes also say: I exist, too. In the same world as you. Isn’t that amazing? They can also say: Want to play?

These notes are just notes. You don’t want to burden some poor wretch with the entire story of your life. You absolutely don’t want to ask them for a favor… Be gracious. You’re entering into an emotional and spiritual courtship with the literary world that will last the rest of your life.”

I’ll admit that when I first read this advice I felt terrified.  Many of us put writers up on pedestals. Authors are certainly my celebrities. You may have read my post about the time I saw Mary Gaitskill in a café and interrupted her dinner to babble on about what an inspiration she was. We all get nervous: a classmate of mine was riding an elevator with Wally Lamb once and she couldn’t stop talking. He must have thought I was crazy, she said. When I took a picture with Nicole Krauss this fall, I practically sat on the poor woman’s lap.  My friend Jessica just stared at her, until Krauss said: Um, Miss, do you have a pen for me to sign that book? Authors are our crushes. And don’t we risk something when we let out crush know how we really feel?

The truth is: it’s good to push ourselves to do the things we are afraid of. And so I forced myself to write those charming notes. I craved that connection and more importantly—I wanted those authors, who probably don’t hear it every day, to know just how good I thought they were. Carolyn See says, “Life is a matter of courtship and wooing, flirting and chatting. If you don’t know a soul in the literary world, you can choose to stay home and sulk until the cows come home.” And so I sent those paper airplanes into the world.

And what do you know? People wrote back. Big time authors wrote back. Sure, some simply wrote two words: Thank you. Others wrote more. One even wrote: Could you please write me everyday and tell me how much you like my work? No one wrote: You’re a complete freak, why are you writing me? One author even graciously agreed to read one of my stories.

It is surprising, even when you don’t ask for it, how many writers are willing to offer advice. The charming notes are, after all, meant for them. But they too crave connection just as much as we do and many are more than happy to offer help to fledgling writers. Some are just grateful for the correspondence. Much thanks for your good words, A. M. Homes wrote me, good luck in work and in life. I must say, that response was enough for me.  There are times, Carolyn See says, “Everybody’s life was changed for the better.”

These are paper airplanes of affection.  They are the glue of human sweetness in literary society. What our mothers told us (if we were well brought up) is true: Manners and civility count for everything.”

-Carolyn See


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