What Ever Happened to Pen Pals?

“There are a lot of us, some published, some not, who think the literary life is the loveliest one possible, this life of reading and writing and corresponding.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

stationery box

Stationery Box (Photo credit: Spyderella)

When I read the above quote recently and got to the part about corresponding, it really made me stop and think. Granted, Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird in the mid-1990’s, so a lot has changed since then. Still, if writers don’t keep the art of correspondence alive, who will? There aren’t many great epistle writers anymore simply because there isn’t the necessity these days (one exception is my father—ask anyone who’s read one of his emails).

It is a sad reality that the art of letter-writing is becoming rather dinosaur-ish. An elderly woman I know who has bravely moved into the world of technology starts every email to me with “Dear Sarah,” and she ends with “Love,” followed by her name. She types it exactly as she would a letter, complete sentences and all. The first time I received one of these emails, I chuckled to myself, but I also appreciated the thoughtfulness behind her message. She sat down and carefully chose every word, and I’m sure she proofread it at least once. I am also sure that she hand-writes letters, too, probably on monogrammed stationery, and everyone who receives one of these feels special because of the time she takes. (Granted, she is a retired English teacher, but that means little these days. I can’t tell you how many of my college English professors sent emails full of typos, yet took points away if I so much as misplaced a comma in an in-class essay.)

Here’s what Aibeleen from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help has to say about writing:

I been writing my prayers since I was in junior high. When I tell my seventh-grade teacher I ain’t coming back to school cause I got to help out my mama, Miss Ross just about cried.

“You’re the smartest one in the class, Aibileen,” she say. “And the only way you’re going to keep sharp is to read and write every day.”

So I started writing my prayers down instead a saying em.

When I read this, I was struck by the novelty of writing prayers. The whole “use it or lose it” cliche applies here, and cliche or not, it’s absolutely true.

Of course, I do write a lot, always have. And I must confess that one of my weaknesses is stationery. As a girl—well, even now—I loved to go into bookstores and lose myself in the writer’s gift section. I’ve turned into a little bit of a Moleskine snob, but I still love looking at all the leather-bound journals, just waiting to be filled, or the fountain pens, fancy notebooks, writing cases, and all the different note cards. I used to scrape together what precious spending money I had to buy these little goodies, and when I was much younger, I used that stationery like it was going out of style, starting with my first pen pal. I guess I was in the second or third grade—old enough to write complete sentences and get annoyed when my pen pal couldn’t copy my address correctly (ever), much less get my name right. But I digress. I had a reason to use that stationery, and use it I did. It also gave me reason to practice writing cursive, which I loved, or as I got older, I experimented with different styles, changing the way I wrote A, E, S, and Z. When I separated from many friends after eight years at the same school, I spent the whole summer writing to a handful of them; I still got the occasional letter from one of them until well after I was married.

As for my sons, I wonder if they will enjoy this same activity. Or will they Facebook or text message each other? I admit, I love using Facebook to keep up with old friends without having to be too social. It’s a great way to keep tabs. But it’s also not very personal (or sometimes a little too personal, and that’s when that “Unsubscribe” option comes into play). Peter, who is five, loves getting things in the mail, though. And at his age, anything with his name on it is always positive. He doesn’t get bills or reminders for his annual eye exam. I can’t tell you how many times he walks with me to the mailbox, hopeful that something in there has his name on it. So is the art of correspondence going to survive his generation? When he’s old enough to fill out an address on the front of an envelope, will he have someone to write to? I fear that one of the reasons our country’s literacy rate is so low is because many people have given up. They don’t care, don’t see the value in it, especially when spell check (they think) will find all the errors for them.

I’m here to say that I care; I want to continue buying and using stationery. Besides, it’s not just the children who appreciate receiving letters in the mail, nor are they the only ones who need to be reminded how to write. I’m not going to let progress and this technological age turn my brain into a smooth glob of mush that only absorbs what it’s fed in one hundred forty character bites or only understands three-letter abbreviations. Oh my gosh, yes, I went there.

8 thoughts on “What Ever Happened to Pen Pals?

  1. Tom Lobello says:

    Sarah:
    This was an excellent entry. While I compose very few personal letters, I still prefer to write/type on letterhead stationary for business letters. Somehow sending an email does not seem business like and almost too personal. The only time I will always write a little something personal is on the Christmas cards my family sends out. I just feel that is the best time of the year to write a note to someone. On the flip side, I love getting the cards with pictures of families I do not get to see that often. Although it really makes me feel old when our former baby sitter is sending out cards with photographs of her own children!

    Please keep writing your blog. It is always fun to read.

  2. […] What Ever Happened to Pen Pals? (fulltimewritermom.com) […]

  3. […] What Ever Happened to Pen Pals? (fulltimewritermom.com) […]

  4. Don’t give up on cursive either. It’s sad, but my high school students can’t read my notes when I write in cursive.

    • No kidding. My son’s school isn’t giving up on it, thank goodness.

    • To be fair, sometimes I think teachers should have to have a refresher course on cursive 🙂
      I love cursive, but unfortunately I have gotten into the habit where I combine my cursive and printing depending on which way I think the letters look better (“z” and “f” are my favourite, for example). Oops?

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