Please Write! Confessions of a Lousy Pen Pal

If I were to grade myself as a pen pal, I’d give myself a C-. Honestly, that’s being generous. I have such good intentions. I cherish each letter I receive, pore over it, then dutifully log it into my dedicated Circa notebook. Weeks, or even months, pass before I sit down to pen my reply. What the hell?!

Part of the problem is that I feel like I have to, or should, write long newsy letters because that’s what I receive. If I don’t have time to do that, I write nothing. Dumb. Surely a nice card or a short note would do in a pinch. But my all-or-nothing brain thinks that it’s better to hold out until I can get a handful of pages written. Even if that means waiting. And waiting.

It’s no wonder, given my issues, that I was immediately drawn to the vintage postcards I came upon at a recent antique show. One vendor had so many postcards…literally thousands of them…that I had no idea what to hone in on. Cats? My hometown? New York State attractions? Owls? Then my eyes fell on the “Please Write” section. BINGO.

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Some postcards feature polite verse, while others get straight to the point. “WRITE! I’m tired waiting for you to write.” Both provide a much needed nudge to slow-poke letter writers like myself. “It’s not how you write, but the words you indite…” (Is “indite” a word?) “Makes me anxious your writing to see.” Forget about writing the perfect letter. Just write. A few pages. A few paragraphs. A few sentences.

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I found and purchased a couple more gems, as reminders to myself. The vintage rhymes not so subtly admonish the recipient to sit down and write. Now. Tonight. They pull no punches.

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On the back of the 1916 Dutch girl postcard is a handwritten message that made me laugh. In case you can’t quite make it out, I’ll transcribe it here…

Lost! Strayed! or Stolen! Mabel Kritzmacher. Any information regarding her whereabouts will gladly be received by her friend Florence E. Senn, 32 First St, Newark, NJ 

Then…

Hello! Mabel. Thought I’d remind you that I’m still living. Why don’t you come over or write? Write soon. F.E.S.

I love Florence for her comical and direct approach. Florence wants a return response and Mabel is dragging her heels. This postcard is 101 years old but the plea penciled here never goes out of date. We crave mail, and we want it now. Real mail lights up a day more than any text or Facebook post or email. Real mail is a treasure.

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I’m using InCoWriMo—International Correspondence Writing Month— and the kick in the pants from these postcards, to break my letter writing procrastination—this belief that I need a large block of letter writing time and the perfect setting. Yesterday’s mail brought me two postcards and one note from three InCoWriMo participants, which thrilled me. As our chicken dinner roasted, I sat at my desk and wrote my replies, rather than getting sucked into CNN or falling down a Twitter rabbit hole. I don’t want anyone thinking I’ve been “Lost! Strayed! or Stolen!”

How will I improve my letter writing turnaround time? If a day or week looks particularly busy, I’ll turn some of my morning journaling time into letter writing time. I’ll make letter writing appointments with myself in my Hobonichi planner as I tend to honor the commitments I’ve written down. I’ll use random pockets of time to write postcards or quick notes. I’ll back away from social media and the news a bit (better for my mental health, anyway). Sending and receiving handwritten mail is important to me. It’s about time that I made it more of a priority. I owe that much to my loyal pen pals and to the new ones I’m meeting through InCoWriMo. I owe that to myself.

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Postcards look very different these days. I bought these stunning “Afghan Girl” notes and postcards after going to Steve McCurry’s photography exhibit at our local art museum and love using them. It takes just a little time to dash off some thoughts or a couple of paragraphs. There’s something satisfying about dropping a few pieces of mail into the mailbox on the way to work—forging a connection with a new acquaintance, or strengthening the ties to friends you’ve known for years.

And so I will write. This very, very night.

Added later: I did it!

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Letter Writing: Stuff That Helps

I used to write a ton of letters, usually on my typewriter. (Imagine that.) When I landed my first job, I bought an electronic one that had a one-line LED read-out that seemed like an amazing upgrade from the clunky manual version I used all through college. Eventually I sprung for a Magnavox Word Processor (bliss!), and then, finally, for my first Mac. With the computer, came the internet and email and my letter-writing trailed off. Then came messages and texts, and sometimes, just emoji (as if actual words are too hard). Communicating with friends and family has gotten easier and quicker, but has it gotten better?

Silky with letter

Isn’t receiving actual mail the best thing?! Receiving a letter—with stories and humor and common interests laid on paper by someone’s hand—can make a blah day zippier. I find myself making a little ritual out of reading a letter—comfy chair, ample time, a cup of tea. A letter is a dessert of words that you really want to savor.

"Thanks for the letter!"

I have a couple of faithful pen pals (hi, Michelle and Tracy!) and InCoWriMo has given me some new friends. I’m not the fastest responder, but I find it so relaxing to sit down with pen, paper, and ink then letting the words fly. As I thought about my letter-writing process, I realized that there are some tools and products that might be fun to share.

PAPER

Tomoe River Paper

I pretty much stick to Tomoe River paper for all of my letters, except for cards and quick notes. It’s shockingly thin, yet delivers an incredible writing experience— without any feathering or bleed through, even with wet and wide fountain pen nibs and inks. There’s a touch of show-through, but nothing that keeps me from using both sides of the page.

Tomoe River Paper

I buy packs of 100 sheets (A4 size) from JetPens, then fold the sheets in half to make little booklets for four-page letters. For shorter two-page letters, I just tear the sheets in half. The dimensions are as follows:

  • Tomoe River A4 Full Size: 8.3″ x 11.7″ (210 mm x 297 mm)
  • Tomoe River A4 Half Size: 8.3″ x 5.85″ (210 mm x 148.5 mm)

This is gorgeously smooth paper— feather-light but able to handle even the wettest inks. I can’t recommend it enough.

ENVELOPES

Envelope template

Inspired by my pen pals, I’ve started making my own envelopes from the stacks of 12″ x 12″ scrapbooking papers that I have on hand. (My scrapbooking phase sputtered and burned before it could get off the ground.) I use the Handmade Envelope Template—Western Version—available from JetPens.

Tracing the envelope shape

The process is super simple. Just trace around the guide on the back of your decorative paper, cut out the traced design, score, fold, and glue.

Cut out envelope designs

Scored and folded envelope

I always make the largest size available on this template as it’s perfect for holding a quarter-fold sheet of the A4 paper (i.e., the letter “booklet” folded in half), but depending on which guide you trace, you can make four sizes of envelopes with this one template.

  • 2.6″ x 4.1″ (65 mm x 105 mm)
  • 3.9″ x 5.8″ (98 mm x 148 mm)
  • 4.5″ x 6.4″ (114 mm x 162 mm)
  • 4.7″ x 6.7″ (120 mm x 170 mm) —> My favorite!

Assembled envelope and Glue Pen

I use the Kuretake Craft Glue Pen to assemble the envelopes. Like I said—it’s all very easy, and kind of relaxing. I address the envelopes by using 1″ x 2-5/8″ address labels, so that the recipient’s address and my return address are legible against the graphic print of the envelope.

LETTER CONTENT

Ledger of ideas

As I get older, my brain seems to be “spongier” than it used to be. Ideas flit through and drip out, so it takes a little more work to make them stick. I’ve discovered that I need a system to keep track of 1) the topics I want to cover; and 2) the unplanned topics I end up writing about. Funny story— I started a letter to a friend one day, then wrapped it up on the following day. When I read the pages over before sending it off, I was horrified to find that I’d written about the same topic in both halves of the letter. Egad.

Ledger full of ideas

SO–to combat the encroaching memory issues, I use one of the Field Notes Ambition ledger books to jot down things I want to write about. I then check off the topic when it’s covered, and also add the date of the letter where the subject was discussed. I also make note of things that weren’t on my original list in order to capture each letter’s details on the fly. With this simple system, I repeat myself less often, much to the delight of my oh-so patient pen pals.

STAMPS

Limited Edition Forever stamps

There’s no need to use the same old same old, run-of-the-mill Forever stamps. The post office carries a bunch of limited edition Forever stamps that add just one more cool touch to your letters. My current favorites—shown above—are Batman, Farmers Market, and Celebrity Chefs.  I now stalk my local post office looking for fun new designs.

Letter-writing is a great way to slow down and reconnect with friends and family in a deeper way than any emoji can accomplish. Use those pens. Write a letter.

"Bye for now!"

Credits: The adorable drawings were part of a recent letter from my new InCoWriMo pen pal, Thèrése. (I can’t draw to save my life, but her cute figures and scenes make me want to take a stab at it.) The Tomoe River Paper, Kuretake Envelope Template and Glue Pen were originally purchased using some sponsorship money from JetPens. I can assure you, though, that I continue to replenish my supply of these items with my own money. There are no affiliate links in this post.