The Art of Writing the Literary Thank You Note
Every week, I set aside some time to write two letters to writers and artists whose work has moved me.
By Tiffany Babb
August 4, 2021
Every week, I set aside some time to write two letters to writers and artists whose work has moved me. When I can track down mailing addresses, I send physical letters, but oftentimes the letters take form as emails or Twitter messages. But I do always keep to the set rules which are that I have to send at least two letters each week and that each letter must be thoughtfully written and as specific as possible. This letter writing practice began as an exercise in gratefulness. I realized that I was constantly taking in all of this amazing art and film and literature, but I never really talked about it with anyone but my friends. It seemed polite, in a way, to reach out to a creator or artist specifically to let them know that their work has moved me—like a literary thank you note.
Over time, my weekly ritual of letter writing became a way for me to process the work I was responding to in a more hands-on way. Because I was trying to be as specific as possible in each note, I had to pay more attention to how I was reacting to a work of art and what exactly in the art had caused me feel that way. I started to search out those little details that I normally wouldn’t notice. All the tiny craft choices that went into a poem or a play, an art exhibit’s deft lighting, a film’s experimental score. Much of what I noticed was not at all in my expertise, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t appreciate it.
Though at first I was worried about running out of people to write, I have yet to reach a week without coming up with at least two people. I now keep a running list of people who I have in mind. At the beginning of this practice, I specifically wrote in response to what I was currently reading or watching for the first time, but over time, I’ve also begun to write to people whose work had influenced me over the long run. Sometimes I would even hear back from my heroes, people whose work are part of my literary DNA. It began to seem silly that I never reached out to them before. Their work had influenced the way that I saw the world, and I had never even thanked them for it.
For many writers, it can feel like the connection between the writer and the reader is only experienced by the reader as they are reading. Now that we have social media, sometimes there are liked tweets and Medium post claps, sometimes even comments. But there seems to be this always unbreachable delay. I think that as readers, we don’t reach out often enough. It’s up to the reader to let the writer know that the connection was there. That a piece of art had an impact. If we are so lucky to be moved by something, let us be moved to do something. Even if that something is so simple as writing a thank you note.
Funnily enough, since I began writing these letters, I have also started to receive some letters in response to my own writing. There’s really nothing quite like hearing that someone has found something of yours insightful or thoughtful or funny. Or even that your work has made someone feel anything at all.
Writing is a lonely craft, and it can make one feel wildly isolated at the best of times. This past year, the world was thrust into a prolonged moment of forced isolation, but this isolation has also led to a wave of people reaching out for a different kind of connection. People are calling friends they haven’t talked to in years, scheduling regular video chats with loved ones, and writing letters.
It’s almost like we were waiting for an excuse to reach out and connect to the people who may not always be central in our lives— a reason to start a conversation with people in our periphery. But the thing is that we don’t need an excuse to connect or to reach out. This is something we can do any day. Words are not only meant for essays and poems and books, they can also be used to say “Hello” or sometimes even “Thank you.”