When a nobody like myself writes in letter form to a public figure, there is only a small probability that she will see my words amidst the flood of mail and messages that she inevitably receives. Beyond that, there is an even smaller chance that she will have the time and inclination to respond. Still, I should remember that the probability is non-zero so long as I make the effort to write and send the damn thing. And the probability can only improve if the content is sincere, legible, and relevant to the recipient.
The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky reflects on this very topic in his wonderful book, Sculpting in Time. Perhaps you remember him for his directorship of Solaris (1972), Stalker (1979), The Sacrifice (1986), and other excellent films.
In his book, Tarkovsky says that while he could not respond to every letter or question he received, he read each of them with great interest. He confesses, however, that this was often to his own distress and despair, for many of his letters came from viewers who did not understand or appreciate his films and intentions. He began to question who he was making films for and whether his suffering for the arts was worth it.
But over the painful years, Tarkovsky came to a slow realization about his work. Every now and then, he would receive a warm letter or two from someone who his films had left a deep impression on. He was reminded by these letters that he was not making films for the masses but to the occasional and incidental individual who happens to derive great meaning or feeling from his work.
As Tarkovsky reflects on the matter:
“There was a time… when I actually considered giving up the whole business… But once I started to get all those letters… I realized that I hadn't the right to do anything so drastic… If there were some among the audience who could be so candid and open-hearted, and who really needed my films, then I had to go on working… I spent so many years being told that nobody wanted or understood my films, that [an encouraging] response like that warmed my very soul; it gave meaning to what I was doing… If there are cinema-goers for whom it is important and rewarding to enter into dialogue specifically with me, that is the greatest stimulus I can have for my work.”
It’s worth noting that Tarkovsky kept and cherished these letters of support and expression. He even shared a number of them in his book. What’s equally striking about them is that they are written by everyday folks like you and me. Yet there was something deeply heartfelt and personally beautiful about what they had to say. Here is an excerpt of one letter to Tarkovsky by a woman from Nizhny Novgorod:
“Thank you for [filming] Mirror. My childhood was like that… Only how did you know about it? 'There was that wind, and the thunderstorm… It was dark in the room… And the paraffin lamp went out, too, and the feeling of waiting for my mother to come back filled my entire soul…”
And here is another, this time by a woman from Novosibirsk:
“Everything that torments me, everything I don't have and that I long for, that makes me indignant, or sick, or suffocates me, everything that gives me a feeling of light and warmth, and by which I live, and everything that destroys me—it's all there in your film, I see it as if in a mirror. For the first time ever a film has become something real for me, and that's why I go to see it, I want to get right inside it, so that I can really be alive.”
All of this, to me at least, is a symbol of the power of human connection. Tarkovsky’s films have clearly impressed upon the lives and souls of many individuals. But it was in the lettered replies of these strangers that kept the filmmaker going.
Perhaps we can take from this a new rule for life. When somebody does something most kind, heartfelt or profound for us, we should thank them properly. We might not know them personally. And they might not have time for us. But on the off-chance they see it, and are in need of it, that one message can make all the difference. Unlike the impermanence of the spoken word, heartfelt letters, like a masterful film, are everlasting sculptures in time.