letter writing

Handwritten Letters in a Digital World

Ivan Cash had an interesting idea: invite people to email him a letter that they wished to send to a friend, acquaintance or family member. Ivan committed to writing the letter and sending it off, as a service project of sorts, as he sought a new path in life.

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Very quickly after launching the website, Ivan became overwhelmed with the requests for letters to be sent. Thankfully, others volunteered to write letters with him and Snail Mail My Email continued. In total, 234 volunteers from around the world sent 10,457 letters (at their own expense) to 70 countries on all continents.


The book, Snail Mail My Email, has copies of at least 100 of these letters and the creativity of the letter senders is wonderful. I heartily recommend this book and I also recommend finding a way, in this rush-rush digital world, for you to connect with others. 

Keep calm and write on!

Dear John...

Life and human nature being what it is, not all relationships will last until the end of time. And that’s okay. It can be sad, especially if you have written to a person for a decade or more, if you get to the point that you want to end the relationship.

Be courteous in ending. I cannot tell you how many penpals have dropped me and never said a word. I notice when I do not receive a letter, but in the spirit of not crowding a person, I don’t always write the first month. I think: well, maybe they are just extra busy with the kids or their job. Or maybe they just want a break from letter writing. No harm, no foul.

But usually after three months I will send a test letter to say, Hey, I notice you haven’t written in a while. Is it that you’re busy? Or do you want to end our correspondence? I always try to say that I don’t want them to feel pressured to be my penpal, but it would be nice to know definitively if they want to end.

Some might say: well, if they haven’t written you, then (duh!) they don’t want to be your penpal anymore.

Not necessarily. Last year, I had two penpals who had not written me since March or so. I sent them both Christmas greetings. (That was my test letter.) One wrote back to say that she had been battling cancer, but she was glad to hear from me and would enjoy continuing our correspondence. Another wrote back to say that she had had some health issues and just felt a bit overwhelmed by the number of penpal letters she had been receiving but was glad I had reached out and “please, let’s continue writing.”

I wish I could say that all of my test letters come back so positively. Of course, that’s not the case.

If I get to the point where I don’t feel the correspondence is growing or maybe I am overwhelmed and don’t wish to write, I send a letter to the person. I’m sure some people have felt surprised to get my “Dear John” letter, but at least they aren’t wondering if I’m going to continue being their penpal.

Be courteous and communicate your intentions.

Keep calm and write on!


The Price of Two Gumballs


In September 2017, I was blessed to attend my 30th class reunion. For the majority of the other planned reunions, I was out of the United States and could not attend so this was special to me to see those with whom I had spent four years of my life. Years that had been the best of times and the worst of times.

Some brought their yearbook to the reunion and browsing through made me think of the teachers I had had. A month after the reunion, I came across one of my former English teachers online. She was still teaching English but at a different school. I made a mental note to send her a letter.

Well, life interrupted and it wasn’t until the Christmas holidays when I sat myself down to write to her. I also wrote two others – French teachers. It took a while, but finally towards the end of January, I got responses from two of them. They both remembered me and were happy to hear what I had made of my life. They shared a bit of what they had done once they left my high school.

I don’t think either my letters or their responses were more than a page in length, but it left me with a warm fuzzy, both in hearing from them and knowing I had brought a smile to their day.

Once again, I was struck with the fact that for the cost of two gumballs (that is, 50 cents), I was able to connect with people from my past...through the simple mechanism of a letter.

I encourage you in letter writing. If you’ve only been accustomed to writing emails or texts, it may seem a bit stilted at first. But as with most skills, it’s the regular practice that develops the muscle. Keep at it. Your letter may bring a smile to someone’s face and that is worth the price of two gumballs.

Keep calm and write on!

The Power of Personal Letters

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“As I learn the advantages and value of e-mail, I cherish some of the old-fashioned ways more and more. When I get a real letter now from a real friend written with a real pen and ink, I read it real slow – several times – and file it away for safe-keeping.” (Linton Weeks)

That quote is a good resume of the premise of the book, Always First Class: The Power of Personal Letters by Lois Barry. Yes, we know that email communication can be more efficient, but there’s something about an actual letter that is special. Worthwhile. Useful in its own right.

Ms. Barry has filled this book with quotes about the benefits and complexities of letter writing. Many of those quoted are famous literary figures, past and present. The chapters are short with intriguing titles such as Of course I saved your letters, Looking forward to your voice on the page, and But wait! There’s more.

I agree with a quote attributed to Goethe: Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind.

Keep calm and write on!

Ask and Ye Shall Receive?

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What if you could ask your mailbox for something...and you would receive it?

This is the story of Liam, a boy who desperately wants mail. So he writes a letter to his mailbox. His mailbox delivers, sometimes more than he was hoping for! This light-hearted children's book by Ben Clanton made me and my eight-year-old son laugh out loud in parts.

More than an idea in an easy-reading book, penpalling is making a request of your mailbox. We never really know how the mailbox will respond. Sometimes, our requests go unanswered, although we send letter upon letter.  Sometimes, the letters seem to come at a steady pace and we are hard-pressed to have the time to responsd.

In addition to letters, some penpals send little gifts or even boxes of stuff for your birthday or Christmas.

I have found, still, that the best response from my mailbox is a steady stream of letters in a correspondance relationship, where I get to know the penpal: her family, friends, the things that bring a smile to her face and those things that make her sigh.

What's coming in your mail?

Keep calm and write on!

The Power of Penpalling

I read the story: I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Stoicsitz and Martin Ganda.

Wow. This story was just great – a success story as far as penpalling is concerned. It started in September 1997 when Caitlin Stoicsitz, a 7th grader in rural Pennsylvania (USA) and Martin Ganda, who was in his 8th year in school in rural Zimbabwe.

The book chronicles how Caitlin and Martin are paired as penpals through a school project and how they grow to be friends through their letters. Even more, we learn that the two families are connected as Caitlin's family help Martin's family through some difficult financial times in Zimbabwe. Martin and Caitlin eventually meet in 2003 and their friendship continues.

I was gripped with the story from the beginning. It was well-written and very interesting to see the juxtaposition of Caitlin’s life with Martin’s life. It was also nice to get real feelings from each of them.

The book is a great advertisement for the power and benefit of encouraging youth to get penpals. This penpal relationship (which is perhaps the only one that endured from all the kids in Caitlin’s class) taught both sides a lot about the other country and people in general.

I would highly recommend the book.

Keep calm and write on!



Penpal Tip: Include a Return Address

I have been penpalling for decades. Although I learned the proper way to write a letter in grade school, until recently, I never included a return address on my letter. I thought it was a bit too much, given that I’m quite religious about always including the return address on the envelope. I figured, My new penpal doesn’t need it in both places.

But experience has taught me what logic did not. Including your return address inside the envelope is insurance. If something happens and your envelope is mangled or doesn’t arrive in the pristine conditions in which you sent it, the return address on the letter will insure that the penpal can write you back.

There have been times when I could not read the return address on the envelope, because the post office has put their mark at just that point. And then I am stuck. I have a lovely letter from a potential new penpal but I cannot respond to it. Not a good way to win friends and influence people.

I encourage you to put a return address on your letter, as well as on the envelope. (The latter is more for you – in case your letter doesn’t reach your intended recipient, it will come back to you.) I would even encourage you to include your return address in each letter. Doing so makes it easier for the penpal, rather than having to look up your address when they reply. The easier it is for someone to respond, the more likely they will do so in a timely manner.

Keep calm and write on!