The power of the written word

To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere
without moving anything but your heart.

— Phyllis Theroux

I remember when my elementary school teacher walked into the classroom one morning and asked who would be interested in corresponding through letter writing with kids from a school in England. Exchanging letters with another person, someone I had never met and who lived far away in a different world, or so it felt to me at the time, was fascinating and intriguing. And so I ended up having my first pen pal in second grade, when I could hardly put a string of sentences together myself. This (pen)friendship didn’t last very long. I think we exchanged a total of 3-4 letters until the correspondence seized, but I still remember that this was a moment of change in me. I wanted to write letters, I wanted  to receive mail in my mailbox and to correspond with people that I had never met. I wanted to know what life was like in other places.

So, I had a lot of pen pals over the years. I found people to write with in different places. When we were on our family vacation, I asked other girls that we met and that stayed at the same hotel if they wanted to write letters with me. I exchanged daily letters with girls in my class. I sent letters in respond to pen pal ads in kids’ magazines. And then one time, I applied for a pen pal ad in a magazine myself and it was published. I received hundreds (!) of letters from girls all around Germany and beyond. And all of them wanted to write letters with me. I was thrilled, but obviously, I wasn’t able to respond to even half of them. I did correspond with a few girls for a few years, but then that fizzled out as well.

Then I was introduced to something called “friendship books” (oh hey, there is even a link on Wikipedia that explains what they are), or FBs for short (not to confuse with the abbreviation for Facebook). Are they still around?

This opened a completely new world of opportunity for me. I started making my own friendship books and sending them off to the small number of pen pals I had, they passed them on and my number of pen pals grew from there. I received letters from Germany and from all over the world… Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Denmark, UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Israel, Indonesia, you name it.  I had 50+ pen friends at one point. Some of those pen-friendships were short-lived, but there were and still are a few people that I still keep up with to this day.

One of those people is someone who I call one of my best friends today. Cathy and I will celebrate our friendship anniversary of 20 years this year! She’s from Sydney, Australia and we exchanged hundreds of multiple-page letters over the years. We shared joy and heartache, struggles and successes. We even were lucky enough to meet each other  in person once, 13 years after becoming friends through the written word. She and her husband traveled to California in 2005, where I had moved to previously. It was one of the most exciting moments in my life to finally hug her in person.

This is one of the most amazing friendships that came from my letter writing.

I still love – even prefer! – to make friends through writing. It’s easy to carefully craft your first messages and then slowly evolve from there. By the time you find yourself in the situation to meet up, you’re already close friends.

I guess, it only makes sense that I started blogging at some point. It seemed like a logical choice and it made it so much easier to learn about and connect with people from all over the world. Writing has always been more about communication for me than just for the sake of writing. Of course, like every proper female, I used to also write a journal for myself, but then I always had the urge to share thoughts and ideas with others through writing.

I still write letters. There is nothing better than a handwritten piece of mail in my mailbox. As you can imagine though, blogging and emailing has replaced a lot of the interaction – just because it’s more immediate and you can easily be in touch every day  (and because I trust the postal service less and less. But that’s a whole different story).

  1. And *this* is why I adore you. We both have a shared love for writing. Not necessarily the fictional writing of novelists, but writing of our everyday lives. And YES to why blogging is a natural extension to that! Around 2nd grade, I was also paired up with a pen pal in Sweden. We actually wrote letters fairly frequently for 4 or 5 years … but, that friendship trailed off. I also kept in close correspondence with a family friend living in England. We’d see each other every few years. I haven’t spoken to her in years and wonder how she’s doing. I never heard of those friendship books, but they sound amazing!

  2. I love this so much! I, too, had several pen pals growing up but they didn’t last very long. I still wrote letters whenever I could, though. My grammie, who lived in the Bay Area, used to write us letters every week. I loved getting her letters in the mailbox. She had gorgeous handwriting and always sent the prettiest cards and fancy paper.

    My parents divorced when I was 7 and my brothers and I would spend summers with my dad every year. It was so hard leaving my friends every summer, but we always wrote letters, sent care packages, etc. It made it much easier, and I still have boxes and boxes of those letters. I will treasure them forever!

  3. I totally did the same thing, and I knew about Friendship Books too! I don’t keep in touch with any of the people I’ve exchanged letters with, and I do miss writing letters, but you’re right, the internet has sorta taken over. It makes it easier if I can just update all in one place. :)

  4. This is beautifully written and, well, just plain lovely. I concur with all your points, but have never truly made the necessary time to ever communicate with anyone and build a friendship upon the written word sent via snail mail. What a most lovely story and memory. Treasure her always! :)

  5. Lovely post, San!

    I also love snail mail and i agree that there is nothing better than to find a personal / handwritten letter in the mailbox. :)

    I started to write letters when I was 12 or 13 years old and I love my pen pals (I have 8 or so now, from Germany, Finland, Croatia and the USA) and two of them are true and close friends. ♥

    Thanks for reminding me of FBs! How could I forget them! As a teenager I was crazy about FBs and made and sent tons of them to my pals. A few times I even swapped FB-packages (up to 500 grams) with strangers. And I was soooo happy when a full FB was sent back to me…
    Back then I also sent my pen pal ad to a few magazines but it was never published. :(
    Did you also use Diddle-stationary when you were younger? ;-)

  6. There is nothing like receiving a hand written letter. I, too, had many pen pals through the years. Most were fairly short lived, but I did maintain friendships with friends I met at band camp (dorky, yes) by exchanging letters. It was the most exciting feeling to get a letter in the mail! I miss those days, and really need to make a point to write more letters. I always keep the ones I receive – I put them in a hat box in my closet and sometimes I go back and re-read them.

  7. Hi there San, I’ve just come from Ti’s blog, and I’m so glad I did :) My best friend and I started out as pen friends too, and now about 15 years later we’re such a huge part of each others lives. I’d never heard of FBs though, what a beautiful idea! I wish I had done that when I was younger.

  8. I totally agree. There is nothing better than getting a hand written note in the mail. My mom always made us write thank you notes when I was a kid, and I didn’t see the point then, but to this day, I always write hand written TU notes to anyone, when they come over for lunch, have me for lunch, get me a gift or just do something nice. I am also a huge post card writer and love sending people a little piece of myself from afar. I think it shows a little more effort than an email, even though these days, I will take either one! But there is still a bit of magic in opening the mailbox and seeing your name on a beautiful hand printed card!

  9. This made me tear up a little! I can’t believe you guys have been able to stay friends for so long through letter writing. What special friendship! I was into penpal writing when I was younger as well but I don’t vividly remember keeping in contact with anyone in particular… Not until blogging anyway. But I can honestly say that the bloggers I’ve come to know better in the last two years have truly changed my life. And who knows? Hopefully one day I’ll be able to meet some of you! :) That would be so great. We should all plan a mega meet-up at BiSC next year or something.

  10. I love this post, San! It’s such a great feeling to create a friendship with someone just through letters. I think it’s awesome that you have been writing pen pals since way back in grade 2! And that you were able to meet your pen pal of 20 years! WHOA. Crazy that you two have been doing that for so long, crazy & AWESOME.

    It’s a shame that the postal service is so unreliable. Bah. I totally feel you. & it is EXPENSIVE! In Canada, at least. I mailed a hat to someone in British Columbia, and I mailed the same hat to someone in NYC. It cost me more than DOUBLE to send to someone in my own country! Ridiculous! Haha. But I won’t go on about that. ;)

    I set a goal of writing at least 100 letters this year. I was expecting to do a great job of it & probably pass 100… but I haven’t even hit 10 letters yet! I have your address from cards that you have sent me in the past (I keep every envelope & the packaging to everything that I’ve ever been sent, haha. I’m not sure why, I just can’t get rid of it!) and I have been planning on writing you a letter or two or three, I am just not sure when. So, one day you WILL receive something from me! :)

  11. I totally agree. I have had pen pals over the years and since I’ve joined twitter- a good chunk of my friendships have been developed through the written conversations. I think something about not seeing the person, people tend to open up more. maybe. I also think that it is important to write handwritten snail mail and thank you notes. They seem to be rare now but its that personal touch that really shows you care.

  12. I would have loved to have you as a pen pal back in elementary school. I’m happy though, I have you as a blog pal now :)

  13. I love sending letters. And receiving them, obviously. I feel like I don`t know what to write about though. As a kid, I would write multiple page missives to some of my pen pals.

  14. I love letters- receiving and sending them. Want to be pen pals too?

  15. I think it’s amazing that you’ve been friends with her for that long, all from being pen pals. And I’m also super impressed with the number of pen pals you had!

  16. I’ve been meaning to comment on this… Sorry I’m so late but: THANK YOU so much for reminding me of such an important part of my growing up! I too had a few pen pals and always kept looking out for good matches in children’s magazines. Wow, I forgot all about that. And on friendship books: my best friend from high school and I have more than a dozen such books filled with awesome and embarrassing writings. Sometimes one of us filled half a book in a day, sometimes a whole book before we gave it back to the other girl. So crazy and weird and wonderful. <3

    Letters are beautiful and more meaningful and personal than anything digital; individual handwritings are magic. Heh.

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