The author as celebrity
Today I got a packet of letters from the students in English 206 at Hudson University (not the real class or university). Their teacher had them read my latest book, a history of writing technology. Then she assigned a letter to the author. The letter had to be handwritten, because it was National Handwriting Day (Jan. 23) and she wanted her students, who grew up with keyboards, to try out an older writing technology. The teacher gave students who didn’t bring their own paper to class some arty post cards to write on, and by the number of notes in very light pencil, I’m guessing she had extra HB pencils on hand as well.
Then she put the letters in a big envelope, added a note explaining the assignment, and dropped the packet in the mail. They call it snail mail for a reason: I got the letters three weeks later, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
The letters weren’t all valentines. Many students did not find my book a page-turner. This didn’t surprise me. One said it was the worst book he ever read, though another found it passable. I worry both of them were just being polite.
Many students printed instead of writing in longhand. This, too, didn’t surprise me: script began to die the moment typewriters appeared. Two students disobeyed the instructions and keyboarded their letters. They were the easiest to read. One point I thought I was making in the book was that National Handwriting Day was a waste of time, since handwriting is no longer an important skill. Even the keyboarders didn’t pick up on that.
They missed other points as well. A few of the students thought I wanted everyone to go back to writing on clay. One asked if I wrote the book out in longhand first. Another assured me that old people feared computers.
Some students liked their teacher’s assignment. Others thought it was dumb. One wanted to know if I inflicted similar assignments on my students. A student thanked me for sharing my valuable insights. Another asked if my book had a point to make.
A student said she looked at my web page and my next book sounded much better than the one she had to read for class. And another hoped I didn’t force my own students to buy my book, the way her boyfriend’s professor made students buy his.
I knew the students wrote to me not because they wanted to, but because it was required. And although the instructor told them she wouldn’t read their letters, they wrote with a sense that she was looking over their shoulder, red pen in hand.
I was extremely flattered to get the letters, even the critical ones, even the ones that garbled what I said or spelled my name wrong. The letters made me feel, for a moment, like a celebrity. I wasn’t wearing dark glasses, and no one asked me for my autograph, but three or four students did ask me to email answers to their questions. I’m guessing they have to write another paper. No one asked me to drop those answers in the mail, so I’m guessing that paper will be due soon.
I can’t really answer the students' questions, because I have unanswered questions of my own to work on, not to mention another book to write. But also I’m not writing back because I suddenly began to worry, what if, when the teacher grades their essays, she might mark me wrong. I don’t mind being told I’m wrong—writers have to get used to that—but I don’t want to send anyone a valentine that gets them a low grade.