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The magic of the pen-pal experience

The joys of letter writing

There’s little doubt that we’ve all been staying at home longer than usual during the current pandemic. Amidst economic and social disruptions, one of the more amusing corollaries of our extended time in isolation has been the rise of quarantine hobbies. Whilst others baked banana bread or learnt how to crochet, I decided to try my hand at another craft — pen-palling. 

At its simplest, pen-palling is the act of writing letters regularly to a stranger, often in a different country. Email and other digital variations exist, but the tradition has always been rooted in postal correspondence.

The first step in my pen-palling journey was, unsurprisingly, to find a pen-pal. In the past, I might’ve had to scour the classified ads of newspapers or periodicals for candidates but living in the age of the internet meant there was no shortage of websites I could use instead. After a few failed attempts with people across various continents, I managed to get into contact with Josef, a boy my age from Manchester. We swapped addresses, and regular correspondence ensued.

Save for a few instances of Gen Z incompetence — such as the time I mistook a gummed stamp for a self-adhesive one (and spent several embarrassing minutes trying to peel off its backing) — my experience pen-palling so far has been nothing short of wonderful.  

There are so many reasons why one might look for a pen-pal: it exposes you to different cultures; it allows you to explore the world vicariously through the eyes and lived experiences of another. You might also want to use it to practise a foreign language or to connect with a kindred spirit halfway across the globe. These are all pertinent points, especially in our current climate of travel restrictions. Communicating with Josef opened my eyes to the Mancunian cultural scene (The Smiths!) alongside the fascinating differences between our lives at a quotidian level.

But in addition to these apparent benefits, I also gained insight into some of the other qualities of snail mail pen-palling which make it so intrinsically enjoyable. If you will, the magic of the pen-pal experience.

Indelibility

In the digital age, we often find our fingers hovering over the backspace key, both literally and figuratively. We have the liberty of going over our existing paragraphs, tweaking the structure of our messages, changing a word here and there. This is great, but it can also lead to hesitation. When you write a letter, the ink is indelible on the piece of paper. Your sentence isn’t retractable. What’s there is there, in all of its irrevocable glory.

This proved to be a source of personal anxiety when I first started pen-palling. Unhappiness with the phrasing of a particular sentence led me to scrap the entire page it was on. But I soon learnt to embrace the indelibility. My letters became more organic and flowing, a stream of consciousness in written form. Pen-palling helps you gain confidence with your message construction and fearlessness with your expression. 

Meaningfulness and Patience

Pen-palling allows for more meaningful conversations. The effort and time it takes for a letter to be delivered warrants a message more substantial than ‘lol’ or ‘wyd.’ There’s a degree of deliberateness to it as well — you are choosing to write specifically for the sake of the message as opposed to the reactionary or pragmatic nature of instant messaging.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a rant about the downfalls of social media which you’ve heard ad nauseum. Without the immediacy of the internet, I wouldn’t have even gotten into contact with Josef. But in our current era of perpetual connectivity and ‘always on’ culture, there’s something to be said for the delayed gratification which snail mail brings. The anticipation of waiting for a letter makes it all the better when it finally arrives. Not to mention the sheer excitement of receiving something in your mailbox that isn’t a bill.

There are even apps out there, such as ‘Slowly,’ which recognise the value in slower pace communication. ‘Slowly’ attempts to recreate the pen-pal experience digitally by delaying the messages sent between users. But nothing beats actual snail mail.

Aura

In a 1935 cultural criticism essay, German scholar Walter Benjamin famously argued that the mechanical reproduction of art diminishes its ‘aura’. In other words, it is stripped of its authority and authenticity.

When your messages can be easily forwarded or copied and pasted, how authentic are they? What effect does the ease of reproducibility have? Think about the canvassing DMs you receive from people during stupol season or the generic university emails sent out to everyone.

Contrastingly, there is something so personal and intimate about a handwritten letter. It has its own essence, evoked by factors such as the scent of the paper or the individuality of someone’s handwriting. When you hold a letter, you hold the very same letter which your pen-pal held a few weeks ago, the same letter that travelled across the world from abroad to your doorstep. As Benjamin would assert, it has a unique presence in space and time. It has an aura.

The postal medium of snail mail also allows you to enclose physical objects and gifts with your letter. Polaroids, annotated maps, brochures, coin frottage artworks… they all enhance this experience to the next level.  

Tourist in Your Own City

As much as pen-palling teaches you about other places, it also works the other way round. In the process of telling Josef about Sydney, I inadvertently found myself gaining a renewed appreciation of the city. Whether it was the specific species of the eucalyptus tree in my neighbourhood or historical facts about the Harbour Bridge, my attention to detail became heightened. Pen-palling provides you with fresh perspectives on the mundane and insight into the regional idiosyncrasies of your hometown.

The pen-pal experience is truly remarkable. There are nuances of the craft and the enjoyment it brings which cannot be expressed in words. For anybody considering finding a pen-pal, I could not recommend it more. The magic of pen-palling is something you need to experience firsthand.