31 March 2022
I have a friend I’ve never met in person. We found each other through a writer’s critique group that communicated solely via e-mail to accommodate a hearing-impaired writer among us who struggled to feel comfortable with in-person groups. Over time, most of our members drifted away, but I kept writing to JP, occasionally exchanging pieces and becoming close through letters describing our hopes, dreams, and setbacks. She trusted me with her manuscripts, and I read them, a chapter at a time, sharpening my skills. We spoke once on the phone, but it was awkward. Writing was more natural. This fall will mark three years of my correspondence with JP. Attached to our e-mails are dozens of pieces we’ve read for each other, along with the responses, the rewrites, and shots in the dark.
Despite all this, it took me years to realize I have a pen pal. It’s such an old-fashioned idea. When my grandmother died, my mother found her yellowed love letters tied in a blue ribbon, a romantic gesture from a bygone era. In my childhood, I was paired with a pen pal from an elementary school in New Jersey. We were twelve; our letters didn’t last long. Now, I am writing every week to a person I couldn’t recognize in a crowd; we’ve never exchanged photos. Though we use emails instead of parchment and quill pens, we are the most old-fashioned of pen pals.
And the letters, even if they’re digital, are something special. They remind me we can say more in writing. In spoken conversations, especially on emotional subjects, our words drown out much of what we hear. Planning what to say next takes precedence over careful listening and tendencies to anticipate the other’s response undermine deep connections. Letter writing allows us to speak uninterrupted. We preserve the flow of our thoughts without distracting questions, digressions, and outside muddling. In letters, we choose our words with care, re-writing, adjusting, re-phrasing for emphasis and clarity. We can reread them for deeper meaning and cherish them when we are lonely.
For a writer, letter writing is not a lost art. In our letters, we practice our craft, learning how our words can touch, amuse, and gall our reader. Responses will be full of the same honesty, humor, and snark. Especially if they come from a fellow writer.