Nonfiction | Diary

A Woman of Letters

How many pen-pals can one person have?

I got a letter in the mail today, which I saw when I went downstairs to take a break from my work and eat some lunch. The letter is now sitting on the floor beside my desk, unopened, next to a pile of books and scraps of paper. I don’t usually make myself wait to open a letter, but I’ve taken this week off from work to do some writing, and being disciplined has felt like an important part of that. When I knock off at five I’ll treat myself to a gin and tonic and the reading of this letter.

What I usually do is greedily tear the envelope open immediately after pulling a letter out of the mailbox. When I lived alone and had a P.O. box, I’d read my letters as I walked the few short blocks home with them. I never thought about this habit one way or the other until a few years ago, when a pen-pal friend (who is also an in-real-life friend) told me that she won’t open a letter until she has the time to answer it, which means a few weeks might pass between the time she receives it and the time she reads it. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Who has that kind of self control?

I’ve got around 20 pen-pals, I estimate, at any given time—though as anyone with pen-pals knows, this number is always in flux. Letter-based friendships go through ups and downs just like other relationships do, and people sometimes drop off in their correspondence because they don’t have as much time to sit down to it as they once did. Also, I also add new pen-pals to the mix all the time. Many of the people I write letters to are people I’ve met at through publishing zines: as a promise to stay in touch after a good conversation at a zine fair, maybe, or in response to an excellent zine I received in the mail. I don’t place or answer ads in search of pen-pals, though; I’ve most often acquired them without meaning to. Like, if a friend gives me a gift or does something thoughtful I’ll write that person a thank-you note, and if they respond to the note with a letter then it is on.

One of the interesting things about having a number of pen-pals is seeing how varied the friendships are. Some folks write letters that are very in-the-moment: They’ll tell me where they’re sitting as they write, how they’ve been feeling that day, what they plan to do after lunch. Those people tend to write shorter letters, more often. Others use letters—or their letters to me, at least—as a space where they can share very intimate things. These letters can be pages and pages long, and their writers don’t usually send them too often. The first type of letter is wonderful because it’s like having a conversation that goes on for months or years. The second type is wonderful because it’s like reading something more literary: a personal essay or an excerpt from a diary, only it was written just for me. A readership of one. At its most highly developed, letter writing is an art form, and it provides something like the kind of satisfaction you might feel if you could write a letter to your favorite book—and THEN IT ANSWERED YOU. 

In a way, pen-pal friendships are the closest I’ve come to living a life that is pure mind—my mind connecting with your mind—but the truth is, the physicality of the letters themselves is an integral part of the pleasure of all this. Pretty writing paper, flecks of food or coffee stains, cute stickers on the envelopes, idiosyncratic handwriting styles that you have to squint to make out—all of these things bring the letter writers to life. I find I don’t tend to wonder very much about what my pen-pals look like, and I think this might be due to the fact that I know what their letters look like, and those serve as a kind of stand-in for their physical presence.

In fact, I have saved damn near every letter I’ve ever been sent. In a closet in my home office I have a few plastic bins that are full to bursting with thousands of them, including some folded-up notes on index cards and notebook paper that girls passed me in class in the sixth and seventh grades. Yeah, no kidding. I have a bit of a tendency to collect and hoard things generally—clothing, thrift store tschotschkes, stuff that belonged to my parents—and at any given time, I’m considering which of my dubious collections should be on the chopping block. But never the letters. I don’t feel a whiff of guilt or unease about saving them all, forever. My only wish is that they could be reunited with the letters I wrote in response to them. My collection, as it stands now, is like a puzzle with missing pieces. If I could have back the letters I sent, I’d wallpaper the rooms of my house with my correspondence and go over it like a detective, or maybe like the serial killer the detective was trying to catch. I’m positive I’d figure out something useful this way, even if it wasn’t interesting to anyone else. But then I think, why wouldn’t it be interesting to another person? I’d love to read letters that weren’t written to me. You can find people selling old correspondence on etsy and ebay—stuff from the 40s or 60s, often, to a person who was away fighting in a war—and I have read some of these with real interest. It’s fascinating to see the way regular people, who don’t consider themselves writers, express themselves in writing. It would be even better to read both sides of the correspondence, though. If these were published in a book, even though they weren’t written by famous people, I would totally read them.

I’ve lost some pen-pals over the years, and I think of a couple of these people often. When a more conventional friendship peters out, you’re usually aware that you could get in touch with the person if you really needed or wanted to. But these losses are different than that because I don’t know where the people are, and I can’t know whether my last attempts to reach them have gotten through. It’s a bit like saying a prayer in that way. 

One such person was a pal from far away whose legal, full name I’m unsure of because I met her through her zines, which she published under a pseudonym. She was smart and funny and wrote with real tenderness and honesty; even her shorter notes to me were characterized by an unusual immediacy of presense. This friend went through something tragic and stopped writing to me a few letters after she told me about it, and I’ve worried about her. I wonder—after I post this essay on the internet, which is kind of like writing a letter to the universe, will she see it and recognize herself? Is she okay? It’s possible, probable, that her life changed direction after she went through her big loss, and that she simply no longer has the need of pen-pals in her life. Wherever she is I hope she’s well and happy, and even if writing letters doesn’t mean as much to her as it once did, I certainly would love to hear from her again someday.