Thursday, February 19, 2009

On The Pen Pal Experiment

I know I only committed myself to one blog post on the great pen pal experiment, which was meant to come at the end of this first year of exchanging letters, but I’m realizing now what a ridiculous notion that was. It was a notion that completely ignored my natural passion and excitability, one that assumed I might suddenly become a calm, rational sort who could go an entire year enjoying the process of reviving a dying art without squealing to everyone I know, “This is the best idea I’ve ever had!” And I’m not kidding. I really think it is (or at least one of the best).

Oh sure, letter-writing has its drawbacks. My pen pals already know that Ms. Instant Gratification here sticks a letter in the post one day and begins checking for a response the next. I have had to squash urges to race to my computer and send email responses and questions the day I receive a letter. Oh! for the days of old novels when the mail came twice a day (then again, that could easily mean twice the opportunity to be disappointed by a mailbox full of nothing but bills and Victoria Secrets catalogs). Ms. Instant Gratification has also been known to query pen pals on Facebook walls to find out if her letters have arrived safely.

Meanwhile, I’m not exactly “leaping to” when it comes to quick responses back. I open each letter excitedly, can’t wait to see what it says, and then realize, after the initial urge to email is put in its place, “Oh. I’m supposed to write a letter back. Will I ever have anything as interesting to say?” (You have to realize I’ve got pen pals around the world who are doing things like working and playing in NYC or learning to surf in Australia while I’m what? Playing Pathwords or Scramble on Facebook for the 200th time tonight?) I’m unsure what the correct letter-writing etiquette is, but I’m pretty sure that letting a letter sit around unanswered for 2 weeks, waiting for something interesting to happen to include in the letter, is not really acceptable. Luckily, I have not quite reached the two-week mark yet with any of my responses.

I can assure you, though, that these drawbacks are mere trifles in comparison to all the great things about having pen pals and why everyone needs to run out and find some of his own right now. First of all, there’s just the letter itself. It’s such a wonderful, permanent-feeling object. You can read it. Then you can re-read it. And then you can “read it just one more time,” while you impatiently await the arrival of the next one. I don’t know why, but there’s something very satisfactory about returning to a letter, finding out what did and didn’t sink in with the last reading. I don’t do that with emails. I tend to read, respond, and then save them somewhere never returning to them again. Emails are short stories. Letters are novels. Don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy a good short story, but my reading material of choice has always been the novel. I want to know and live with my characters, not meet them in passing.

“What makes letters different from blogs?” you may very well be wondering. I’m having trouble pin-pointing the answer to that question (my dear pen pals, if any of you wants to comment, please do), but I think it’s, believe it or not, that letters are even more personal than blogs. Blogs are meant for an audience of many, and yes, we do get personal, but a letter is meant for one special person. The writer caters to that recipient and reveals what will most interest her, going into depth in a way we don’t on blogs. Blogs have actually proven to be a great way for me to get to know some of my “real life” friends and acquaintances better. I’m beginning to realize that in the past, letter-writing served that same function – it’s a little easier for some of us to bare our souls from a distance, when we can’t see anyone staring at us trying to control laughter/a strained expression/a concerned, “Maybe you should see a therapist.” I’m now beginning to suspect that letter-writing served that function better than blogs. Not that my pen pals and I are free-associating and acting as substitute psychoanalysts with each other (far from it), but I can see how a certain sort of intimacy can develop that is even more special than that I’ve discovered through blogging.

It’s funny, because it’s not as though I’m new to letter-writing. I wrote friends and family members (even those who never wrote me) faithfully all my life until email arrived on the scene. I guess the difference is that I had nothing to which to compare letter-writing in those days. Talking on the phone was so completely different to me from writing letters that I never thought to compare the two, even though they could easily be lumped together as “means of staying in touch long-distance.” But now that we have all these ways of conveying written messages via wires, I can’t help noticing the differences.

So, what are some other things I love (besides the pen pals themselves, who write beautiful, informative letters)? Stationery, of course! I’m finally using (and using up) stationery I’ve had for years. I’m browsing in stationery stores. I’m anticipating what I’ll buy once I’ve gone through what I have. I’m enjoying others’ stationery (even when it’s notebook paper, because I’ve written my fair share of letters on notebook paper in the past and expect I will certainly do so in the future). We’ve been noticing that stationery is not always so easy to find. Note cards are available all over the place in abundance, but one has to look hard and long to find good stationery (which is a good excuse for those of us looking for excuses to feed our stationery fetishes to stock up when we find something we like).

I’m enjoying handwriting (and praying everyone can read mine). I’m amazed by how legibly others write, especially on unlined paper, but legibility isn’t really what’s important. I love the fact that the letter “e,” and all 25 other letters of the alphabet, can be formed in so many different ways, unique to individual people. We don’t see a whole lot of handwriting these days. I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to see the handwriting on an envelope and immediately to be able to identify who’s written me.

Oh, and of course, I have to mention pens! My pens are all getting good workouts (both the ridiculously expensive ones and my favorite cheap ones). And Francis (the cat) even had the brilliance to walk down to the Amish bookstore to buy me a green (my favorite color) Le Pen for Valentine’s Day. It has a very nice, fine tip on it.

Finally, there’s the sound of the mailbox. Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved pulling open the door on one of those big blue mailboxes, listening to the distinctive low moan of its hinges, and tossing my letters down the chute (what a fun way for letters to begin their adventures, mixing with other letters, pretending not to be afraid of the dark, and talking about where they’re going and why) and hearing the clang as it shuts. Thanks to online banking, I rarely even mail checks to pay my bills anymore. I’m enjoying being reacquainted with the big blue mailbox and its moaning and clanking (it could be a character in a ghost story, couldn’t it?).

Yes, I’m squealing. This has been so much fun, I’m almost tempted to shut down my blog and say, “Everyone who wants to read me, write me letters, and I’ll respond.” But I know that’s silly. This blog serves a purpose, and I love it. Also, I’m very glad to have so many different means of communication, and I wouldn’t really want to focus solely on letter-writing. However, I do think that, come the six-month mark, I may be requesting more pen pals, if I’m still feeling I can keep up with the letters. Keep that in mind, all those of you who may be interested.


Anonymous said...

Emily - Getting pen pals was one of your best ideas ever! And I am so glad that I was one of the lucky ones. I love getting letters, and that sense of anticipation that maybe there will be something nice in the post today (that didn't actually cost me something). And I agree, it is a different form of communication entirely from blogging. I will say your handwriting was tough the first time (woman in glass house throws brick) but it was a lot to do with getting used to reading actual handwriting again, as well as your style. Which is somehow very you!
Long may we continue.

litlove said...

So glad this is going well and you are having such fun with it!

Anonymous said...

Even though I didn't get to be one of your pen pals this time around, I still acquired three and I am so glad I did. It has been great fun so far. And I am glad I am not the only one who anticipates the return letters and wants to send emails wondering if the letter arrived and when one will be sent in return!

ZoesMom said...

Stationery! LePens -- I love those! What fun. It sounds like your pen pal experiment is working out to be fantastic. Glad it is working out so well. Please keep me on your list should you decide to expand your number of pen pals.

teabird said...

I'm so happy to read about your new penfriends and how happy you are! It's true that penfriends can be better listeners than in-person friends - you're not distracted (or inhibited) by their responses (or lack of), you know they have time to consider what you've said, and they know you'll do the same.

Rebecca H. said...

Sounds great. You're making me miss the days when I wrote letters -- mostly to one particular friend of mine, but we wrote letters that went on for pages and pages and we wrote each other a couple times a week. I can totally understand characters like Clarissa or Pamela and how they record their whole lives in letters. I agree about how fun it is to have various ways of knowing people -- I'm not writing letters these days, but I like the mix of face-to-face, phone calls, emails, blog posts, facebook and twitter updates that I have with some people. There are a lot of things I'll write down that I won't say, so I like having a part of the friendship be maintained through writing.

Emily Barton said...

MFS, glad you agree, and you should be receiving the latest epistle from me either today or Monday.

Litlove, too bad we haven't been able to entice you to join. (I have horrible handwriting, too, you know.)

Stef, oh I'm glad you acquired 3 and are having fun with yours.

Teabird, thank you, and thanks for commenting.

Dorr, well I will keep you in mind for the next "hat pick," if you'd like.

Emily Barton said...

ZM, sent you a message via Facebook. Let me know what you think.

Anonymous said...

I'm just getting back to the land of blog after a bit of an unintended break. I just got your letter Friday night and started writing back already. You are so right about the waiting and anticipation. And I do love just looking at handwriting. You see so little of it these days. You can only tell someone's personality if they choose to change their Times New Roman to a Century Schoolbook or (gasp) Arial. I'm reading and re-reading and re-reading because it's so fun and so real - it's something to hold on to. I already started my reply so you'll get it soon. But not Monday!

Emily Barton said...

Sara, so glad to hear I'm not the only one obsessively re-reading. I've also been eyeing ribbons in the Amish bookstore, thinking of tying up bunches of letters with ribbons the way you see them in old movies. Can't wait to get my next one from you.

Susan said...

Can you keep me on the list if you decide to add more penpals? I'd love to be yours!! And I totally agree - I'm starting to write to a few other bloggers, and just getting the paper ready, and the cards, and thinking about what to write, is exciting, because you are right, what we put in a letter is different from what goes on a blog, and it can be more personal and intimate. I used to write letters all the time also, right up until the advent of computer/email. I think i've missed writing letters! So lovely post, Emily, you say it for all of us!

Emily Barton said...

Susan, most definitely I will keep you in mind for the next go-around.

Emily Barton said...

Susan, most definitely I will keep you in mind for the next go-around.