Pen Pals and the Lost Art of Handwriting
At the start of 2007, on my last night in Sydney, I went to a club and met a guy whom I danced with for a couple of hours. Before we parted ways we exchanged emails with the promise to stay in touch and the standard off-hand invitations of a place to stay if we were ever in the same part of the world again.
That year we stayed in touch via email and by the summer of 2008, I had taken him up on a place to stay and went to visit him in Italy. Based on our meeting in a nightclub and the fact that we’d probably only spoken on the phone twice, sent a handful of emails and had a few conversations on MSN messenger, my mother thought I was crazy. I thought it would be an exciting adventure.
I suppose we were both right.
I stayed with him for ten days and had the most amazing time, meeting members of his family and visiting some of the iconic Italian locations such as Verona and Venice. Initially, there had been the potential for something romantic to develop but by the end of that trip, we had solidified our friendship and he would go on to become one of the most important people in my life. My most valued confidant.
During that trip I had mentioned how I loved the romance of handwritten letters and how impersonal an email seemed. Before I left Italy he gave me a hand written letter and so my pen pal was born.
We stopped communicating via the Internet unless absolutely necessary (e.g. checking current postal addresses or confirming flight details) and I visited him in Italy a couple more times. We are Facebook friends, but we only message to say “Happy Birthday” and I don’t look at his posts or photos.
In communicating predominantly by handwritten letters, I feel like he knows me better than people who have known me all my life or whom I see on a regular basis. There is something about writing with a pen and paper that makes me more honest. When I write to him, it’s kind of like writing in diary. I tell him not only what I’ve been doing but also what I’m hoping for and what I’m afraid of. I tell him things that I would never confess to some of my friends face to face. I find safety in our technological distance.
If I look at texts or Facebook messages with other friends, they tend to be rather shallow communications, not because they are not important to me but because it can be difficult to get deep and meaningful on the go so the messages end up short and sweet. The ability to constantly be in touch with people forces contact merely for the sake of it and often negates anything beyond very functional questions and answers. Some conversations go back months or years but it will be rare to find parts where I am actually saying something.
In replying to my pen pal, I am forced to take the time to actually slow down and take stock of what’s going on my life. If I’m going to go to the effort of picking up a pen and paper and post it to him, I want it to be something worthwhile. This decrease in pace also increases my self-awareness, helps me to appreciate what I have, re-evaluate what I want and consider the choices I am making.
Sending letters to him is definitely beneficial to me, but I also love to receive them from him. This is not only because he sometimes sends little gifts or photos and often uses unconventional writing materials such as brown paper bags, but also because I like to have a hard copy of what is going on in his life. He is one of the most motivated dreamers I’ve ever met and reading about his accomplishments and aspirations inspires me. He makes me want to be better because like so many of my closest friends, he’s one of my biggest fans and his support makes me want to prove him right. To prove that his belief in me is warranted.
It’s been about four years now since we’ve seen each other in person, but we’ve continued to stay in touch and have been there through various changes in jobs, homes, colleges and all those other things that happen when you are chasing your dreams.
I think the letters used to be two or three months apart, but lately, it’s been more like six months. The older we get and the more our lives develop, I imagine it will become increasingly difficult to stay in touch this way. I hope we will write to each other forever, but it seems unlikely. Maybe there’s an expiry date on pen pals?
Having just completed my most recent letter, I’m suddenly aware of just how appalling my handwriting is. I’ve never had the prettiest handwriting, but in school it used to be fairly neat and it was at the very least, legible. My letters can often be rather long, so if I do it in one sitting, it is understandable that my handwriting might deteriorate due to tiredness. However, in this recent letter, everything goes to hell just one paragraph in. It took me about four sittings and I found that holding the pen was actually quite awkward. And don’t get me started on the spelling mistakes!
In the ever-changing world of technology, I fear this is the beginning of the end. Soon my fingers will lose all dexterity and the only thing they will be able to do is tap a screen. The spellcheck and predictive text will turn my brain to mush and eventually speaking without a word prompter will become a challenge.
Okay, maybe I’m getting carried away, but as I type these words on my laptop, I’m genuinely concerned. Children are required to use computers more and more in school and for homework and I get the impression that eventually, not being able to write well with a pen and paper won’t matter. And what a shame that would be.
I’ve been writing letters to my friend for more than six years now and it’s one of my favourite things to do. I thoroughly recommend you get one. Also, in terms of preserving my ability to still use a pen, I’m very glad the letter writing continues because the only other things I consistently write using a pen and paper are my ‘To Do’ lists.
Do any of you still have a pen pal? Can it last forever? And when will handwriting become obsolete?
After getting her Bachelors in Social Anthropology, Hannah took the next obvious step and left the UK to pursue a career as a dancer. She enjoys her gypsy lifestyle and travelling to new places. She is addicted to watching TV and reading romance novels which she hopes to one day write herself. You can read more from Hannah on her blog.
Featured Image via Shutterstock.