Amidst the deluge of useless emails came a gem that made my day.
It was December 30, 2020, in that liminal week where everything seems to stand still as we transition from one year to the next. I was in my own transition period. After completing an unorthodox master’s degree in theoretical physics, I was now a fresh PhD student trying to integrate myself in a new research group and university.
In fact, the email concerned this master’s program. It was from an undergraduate student, and it was remarkable for three reasons. First, she had enjoyed an essay I wrote about my experience in the program (when essentially the only other personal experience online was from a decade-old blog post). Second, she had also seen and loved my webcomic. And third, I had no idea who she was, which meant they had literally reached out from the goodness of her heart.
This email kicked off an exchange with the student, and I was fortunate to play a part in helping her apply and join the program. All because she did more than just read my work. She reached out.
In writing this essay, I went back and read the email. It still brings a smile to my face! Having someone take the time to write and say they enjoyed my work is such a nice feeling. It validates that I’m on the right path, doing work that matters to others, and not shouting in the void. Believe me: the usual response to my work is radio silence.
And yet, I didn’t reach out to creators as often as I could. My default was to read an article or book, take about three seconds to contemplate it, and then move on to the next thing. It’s easier to read something new than to switch contexts, find a way to contact someone, and compose a note. Each task added extra friction, nudging me away from acting until it became a habit. I was as guilty as anyone of doing this, despite knowing how lovely it is to receive a kind word from others.
As a writer and artist, I can tell you: It means so much to get a nice note from someone that says your work moved them. And for the 99% of us who aren’t so famous that we’re inundated in emails, I suspect most would be glad to hear from you. I like email because it’s personal, but commenting on their site or mentioning them on social media can also work. Who knows, you may even forge a connection with the artist that turns you from a passive reader to an active fan.
I know I did. I’m a huge fan of the mathematician Jim Propp’s monthly essays. One month, I decided to go beyond reading. I reached out, thanked him for his work, and offered to give feedback on his early drafts. I’ve done so many times since. I became an active fan, and that wouldn’t have been possible without sending an email.
Now, I fight back against my impulse to simply move on. If I come across a piece I really like, I write the creator a quick email. Nothing fancy, just a heartfelt message that expresses what I like about their work. My favourite part is hearing back from the artist who is usually so appreciative that I took the time to reach out. I try to do this a few times a week because it’s a kindness that costs me so little yet provides the artist so much.
For a medium we often associate with busywork and drudgery, email also offers us an opportunity. Whose day will you make by sending a note of appreciation?
Thank you to Jennifer Morales, Jeff Giesea, Robert Tracinski, Becky Isjwara, Sarah Khan, Michaela Kerem, Tina Marsh Dalton, and Alex Telford for feedback on my initial draft.