P.S. Write Back Soon: 3 Letters That Molded Me as a Writer
I held onto three letters for decades — until a towering twin tulip tree crashed through our roof in a 2010 storm. My husband and I had to empty the attic and move our family out for eight months so the house could be rebuilt. In the flurry of activity, I found this treasured mail again, then promptly misplaced it. But I’ve never forgotten the joy the mail carrier brought.
Beauty mail. As a young girl, I sent a fan letter to Schering-Plough, makers of Coppertone, and hinted for free samples. I loved baby-sized everything, from Jergens hand lotion (cherry-almond scent) to Johnson & Johnson powder. The company’s Consumer Affairs Office sent me back a letter and some little bottles. Who knew this call for products foreshadowed the magazine roundups I would later do, requesting dozens of samples of the hottest holiday toys or the top beauty creams? UPS and FedEx drivers rang our bell constantly.
Role model mail. I wanted to be a writer since Mr. Vafier asked about our career goals in sixth grade at St. Mary’s. I saw a byline for sportswriter Mary Garber in The Bergen Evening Record, based in Hackensack and delivered to our door by a paperboy. I didn’t follow sports reporting, but the name MARY popped out among a field of black and white —with mostly male bylines. I wrote a fan letter to Ms. Garber, and next thing I knew, an envelope with The Record logo was in my mailbox. She said thanks and go for it, just not in those exact words.
Famous writer mail. I read my big sister’s copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays by Joan Didion (published in 1968). I fell in love with the storytelling — Ms. Didion’s precision, her gift for crisply painting a picture with the sparest of strokes. In “On Going Home,” she wrote of her baby girl’s birthday: “a white cake, strawberry-marshmallow ice cream, a bottle of Champagne.” It wasn’t just ice cream but strawberry-marshmallow ice cream. Details, details — transport me there. I got lost in the words on a casino bus to Atlantic City to visit my college boyfriend in 1984. I wrote the author a letter about loving her essays, gave the ice cream example and told her I wanted to write, too, but was a fashion editorial assistant at a magazine. I penned FAN MAIL on the envelope. Returned to sender. I put it, unopened, in a bigger manila one — off to her New York publisher. Then, gold: A handwritten note from California. My idol told me she had started out at Vogue, writing “the copy that ran between the advertisements” and to “Keep writing!”
I know snail mail is losing its luster, but for the sake of young dreamers everywhere, I hope fan mail — and cherished replies — will survive. I’m not sure where I would be without these three magic letters that inspired me to believe in myself and the power of the written word.
Alice Garbarini Hurley is a writer who has worked on staff at Seventeen and Good Housekeeping magazines and published essays and articles in The New York Times, Coastal Living and InStyle. She sold one short story and plans to write some more.