By Jeff Salter
I often think about the first (non-family) letter I received which praised my writing … and I used to know exactly where it was. [No longer, however — though I’m certain I still have it… somewhere.] It was approximately 42 years ago.
I was in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at a Tactical Air Command base in New Mexico. It was roughly the middle of my several years of photo-journalism experience, preceded by my work on school publications and two civilian newspapers … and followed by my work on three more military papers and another school publication.
I was editor of the Mach Meter, the weekly base newspaper for Cannon AFB and we were directly under the commander of the 27th Tactical Fighter Wing, in 832nd Air Division, of 12th Air Force.
Before I was promoted to editor, I’d been a columnist, photographer, general writer of features and news, and the sports editor. Once I took on the duties of editor, I had a lot less time for writing but I often collaborated with a very talented photographer named Emmett Lewis for the center spread of (usually) a 24 page edition. Airman Lewis never had a specific assignment for these spreads; while he was out on other photo lab jobs, something would catch his eye and he’d bring me perhaps a dozen different shots on a theme.
And I’d write.
Sometimes it was not much more than a few paragraphs, but other times his photos would move me to a substantial portion of eloquent prose. And it was such an essay that caught the attention of an officer at another base in our command.
One day, out of the blue, I received a typed letter from a captain at this other base. It blew me away. He spoke about my writing talent, predicted a wonderful future for my craft, and explained he was moved to encourage me because he knew writers needed people in their corners. [That’s my clumsy way of paraphrasing him.]
Floored. Speechless. Overwhelmed.
For days, I tried to think of how to respond, what to say, how to express my deep gratitude. For weeks. I finally realized that I simply did not possess the words to do justice to the literary praise he’d poured over me. And for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to send a simple, pedestrian “thanks”. So I never replied. To my everlasting regret and shame, I never responded to that most wonderful letter of praise for my writing craft.
I was about 21 at the time, with two stripes on my sleeve … and my “fan” was a captain. I simply did not know how to handle it. Even then, however, I knew that doing nothing would be worse than sending something (even if phrased poorly). With each passing week, it became harder to think of how to reply and it became easier to let it slide. That I never responded to my very first (overwhelming) fan letter is one of my deepest regrets.
Fast forward through the rest of college, grad school, nearly 29 years of library work, then retirement. Skip ahead to a few months after the release of my first novel, “The Overnighter’s Secrets.”
I got another fan letter. Also overwhelming, beautifully phrased, and deeply touching. This from a dear friend (from my high school days) with whom I’d just recently reconnected through Facebook. She’d also been quite a muse for my early writing. She spoke of how my story affected her and how impressed she was with my writing.
And you’re probably wondering if I was able to respond this time.
You bet I did! I told her exactly how much it meant to me and thanked her profusely. I told her what I should have told that captain, some 42 years ago:
“I’m very humbled by your kind words about my story and its presentation. I already told you that your review is of the sort that an author wants to put in a frame and hang on a wall. I feel the same way about your letter.
I get plenty of discouragement, along with long periods of basically having my writing ignored (or only tolerated). So to have someone with discerning taste actually appreciate it (to the degree that you indicate) … is truly a blessing.
Thank you for the email, for this letter, and for that wonderful review on Amazon.”
Which fan letter has meant the most to you? What was your reply?