So I wrote a letter the other day. A real letter, on paper, albeit typed then printed. Into an envelope it went, stamp on the corner, addressed on the front—to Tom Robbins.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with this magician of the weird word, Robbins is one of the most acclaimed authors to emerge from the haze of the 1960’s counterculture. Novels such as Another Roadside Attraction, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and Jitterbug Perfume have spiked the mental and spiritual punchbowl for millions of readers, including myself.
A few months ago Robbins released his autobiography—Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life—and upon reading it I was struck by two things. First, I was overwhelmed by inspiration due to the fact that his strange life in many ways mirrored my own odd existence, and because my writing career has moved along a trajectory that is somewhat similar that which he followed. (Or fell into, or ran toward, or something along those lines.) Second, I never realized that Tom Robbins was born during the Great Depression, that he is pushing well into his 80’s, and that he’s getting old and will probably die soon.
So I decided to write him a letter. My reason for this was two-fold: I wanted to thank him for his work, and invite him to sit down for an interview.
I’d heard somewhere that he is dedicated to reading all his fan mail (he can only be reached through snail-mail), so I knew the thanking him part of the equation was doable. As for the interview, he lives near the town where I grew up, and I happened to be visiting, so I thought that if he wasn’t busy touring to promote his latest release, he might be persuaded to sit down with me.
Here’s how I opened my missive (it explains why he signed his letter from “Jim”):
Dear Jim, First off, I should open by explaining my salutation. I gave “Dear Mr. Robbins” a whirl, but such a formal address is too stuffy for my personal inclinations, as I suspect it may be for your own. Then I gave “Dear Tom” a shot, but that seemed suspiciously personal. Jim popped into the mix because, well, why not?
Why not indeed? I sent the letter with absolutely zero expectation of receiving a reply, but if he was willing to sit down for an interview, I knew that one of the publications I work with from time to time would run it.
Much to my surprise, he wrote back. And if you’ve read the letter above, then you already know that he was too exhausted from promotion to meet with me. By then I was in New Orleans anyhow.
An interview would have been great both personally and professionally. I would have gotten to meet one of my heroes, and just about any publication out there would have been happy to run my interview with such a prestigious author. But the letter I received benefited me in a different way.
Simply put, it inspired me to keep on keepin’ on.
I sent that letter without any real hope of every hearing of it again, but the fact that such a literary giant took a moment out of his day to write a few kind words to me will forever bolster my resolve to continue forward into the literary jungle. And it struck me that if I hadn’t exerted the effort to reach out to him, it never would have happened.
In the increasingly cut-off yet interconnected world in which we live, reaching out makes all the difference.
The world of today is a paradox. Technology has made communication easier than ever, but at the same time it serves to keep us isolated. Why go into the office when I can work from home? Why call when I can text? Why talk to an old friend when I already know what they’re up to thanks to Facebook?
Communication is so easy, yet we find as many ways as possible to avoid it. We’ve got to re-learn what it is to connect to people authentically. When you take a chance on reaching out, you never know what might happen.
- You strengthen (or repair) ties to friends and family.
If you haven’t experienced it yourself, I’m sure you know someone who has that old friend or family member with whom they are no longer on speaking terms. Usually these people have even forgotten why they were angry in the first place, and they avoid contact out of mere habit.
You know what it’s like to answer a phone call and hear the voice of an estranged friend or relative after years of separation? I can tell you from personal experience and the experiences of those who are close to me, it’s amazing. Whatever argument initiated the break is almost always instantly forgotten. Usually the first reaction is a surprised laugh.
I’m not going to lie to you and say that it works every time. Sometime bad blood runs deep. But why not try? The alternative is to continue carrying around the weight of the disagreement, and to go on living with a wall between you and someone you care about.
- Your career can benefit.
I was never much of one for cold calls before I got into writing, but once I entered the random and chaotic realm of freelancing, I learned that it was essential to reach out to potential contacts, even if they have no idea who I am.
All I’m really talking about is networking. For me, that means contacting publications who have never heard of me, sending letters and emails to other writers, and connecting to industry people via LinkedIn and other social media.
Start out by making a list of people who could in some way benefit your career. Separate them into three lists: people who you can realistically connect with, those who are a little higher on the food chain and therefore more difficult to contact, and a few giants who you can’t imagine would ever condescend to speak with you. Then simply work your way from the bottom to the top. It’s kind of like laying a foundation then building a pyramid—the sturdier each level of connection, the better a platform you have to reach up.
You might find yourself surprised at who will be willing to open lines of communication. I was, and it led to…
Some people knock external inspiration. Sure, wouldn’t it be nice if we all had the strength necessary to reach our goals stored away inside us? Well that’s not how it works, at least not for most people.
Listen to the stories of highly successful people. Almost universally, no matter who they are and what business they’re in, they’ll mention some hero of theirs who took a moment to encourage them (and when they talk about it, they’re always wearing the same expression of authentic appreciation). Maybe that hero went on to continue mentoring them, or perhaps they received nothing more than an “atta’boy”. It doesn’t matter—Inspiration is the wellspring of accomplishment.
Whether it means sending an email, picking up the phone, or even going with old-school snail-mail, reaching out helps to tear down the walls between who we are in our isolation and who we can be when we allow ourselves a breath of fresh air outside of our box.
And it’s addictive—once you’ve made one connection you want to make another. Once you rekindle one faded friendship, you feel a sudden urge to pull out the proverbial Rolodex and see who else warrants a call.
I’ve got a few old friends who I haven’t called in too long, and it would certainly brighten my day to hear from them. And Neil Young, Tom Waits, and Kris Kristofferson are getting on in their years…
I should probably try to look them up before it’s too late.