We’re nearly three weeks after the end of the writing frenzy that is International Correspondence Writing Month (INCOWRIMO). INCOWRIMO is where participants write once a day for the 28, or this year 29, days of February. It could be a letter. It could be a postcard. It just happens everyday.
I was having a conversation with an online pen friend sometime in February about writing letters. This friend was having a bit of trouble writing letters to near strangers. It felt somewhat uncomfortable. I encouraged her and gave a few insights that have helped me over the last few years as correspondence has become a regular part of my week. I felt that I should share that with you.
I remember first writing to someone when I was in kindergarten. She was my best friend, who had moved away because her father was transferred. In the early 90’s, before Facebook or Facetime, my parents suggested I write to her. I admit I didn’t fully understand nor appreciate correspondence at the time. I would write to her; she would write to me. It was a way for both of us to ease the pain of separation. About a year later, the letters stopped as we had moved on into our lives in grammar school. The depth of writing of a five year old was surface level, as I couldn’t communicate much of anything well and could hardly maintain sentence structure, which I’m sure was helped by my mom. Nonetheless, there was a tenderness there between 2 genuine friends.
I wrote letters here and there throughout grammar school, high school, and college, but most were formal or classroom related. I wasn’t really interested in corresponding with people, being content with AIM. As I got into reading blogs later in college, early in graduate school, I came across a fascinating blog called Letters of Note. Shawn Usher, the brains behind the blog, would find fascinating correspondence and some history about the chosen letter, then would post pictures of the letters along with his short introduction. They were always fascinating reads. Sometimes they were responses to fan mail from a celebrity, other times they were letters home from war, and still other times they were normal correspondence between friends. Each letter opened a new gateway to looking at history.
This concept inspired a graduate school paper for Reformation/Post-Reformation History. I was intrigued with the relationship between St. Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus. They had met as young men, both intellectuals, one the son of prominent lawyer in London, the other an illegitimate son of a Dutch cleric. More became Chancellor of England before being beheaded for disagreeing with his ruler. Sharing his time between France and Belgium, Erasmus became one of the most prominent Scripture scholars of the century and Martin Luther’s most effective interlocutor. Their friendship was maintained for thirty years primarily through letters. This correspondence was the main content of my research for the paper. I became fascinated with their conversations and how much was revealed through these letters. I poured through well over 100 correspondences and ate up every word. It was through this research I became aware of collections of letters by other of my favorite people in history. I was always on the lookout for epistolary collections when I browsed the shelves of used book stores. I got to see a side of my favorite authors that cannot be seen in a biography. I now have letters from Tolkien to Mark Twain to Mother Teresa. I found their writing styles and the content of their letters an ever deeper experience of human relationships.
A few years later I found the joy of fountain pens and the community around them on Instagram. Three weeks after my first pen pic on Insta one of my new pen friends commented on a pic of my currently inked pens, “u should send a letter my way! :)” I must admit I was taken aback. I barely knew this guy other than his taste in pens (Sailor) and his calligraphic skills. I was going to write a letter to someone with whom I had no rapport or intimate knowledge? I knew how emotionally invested a personal letter could be, and I didn’t know if I was ready to engage someone on that level when I knew him only virtually. My heart was reticent. My head, however, recalled the countless letters I had read by various people, some of which had a lower emotional investment than my own Instagram posts. I also recalled the great joy I had when I received a letter from my friend. I was much more invested in my mom’s opening the mailbox because there might be a letter in there, a continuation of the story and conversation.So I listened to my head, not my heart and wrote this random guy a letter. I received one back a few weeks later, and realized quickly how much I enjoy this form of communication. I picked up two more correspondents here, another there. I would keep in touch with the beneficiaries of my giveaways. Before I knew it, there was always a letter sitting at my desk waiting for response.
Then, last year I participated in INCOWRIMO, 28 days, 28 letters (and thankfully no zombies). It was at that point, 84 weeks after starting this journey, that I really fell in love with writing letters. I probably wrote letters to 15 new people in that one month, starting 15 new relationships. As an extroverted introvert, that was both exciting and tiring. I loved it, but it was also overwhelming like the first bite of the finest steak you’ve ever eaten. I was stunned into inactivity. Sharing myself in such a way wore me out. I don’t think I wrote another letter till April. Once I did, I knew I had to make correspondence a regular part of my life. It proved a good balance to the instant communication of social media. I now write at least one letter a week. I don’t feel the overwhelming need to respond to a new letter immediately. I wait until I've responded to the ones already sitting, patiently anticipating a response.
You might have heard about INCOWRIMO, but were afraid, like me, to take up pen and paper, envelope and stamp to write a letter. That’s understandable. Try it anyway. I have been opened up to a whole new world of experience getting to know people from Australia to Canada to California and beyond (haven’t gotten a letter to the space station yet). I’ve ‘met’ people of vastly different beliefs than me and had civil conversations about those differences along with what we have in common. I’ve made new friends in places I may never go, but hope to.
If you are wondering, “I don’t know if I could do this,” either because of the fast pace of your 21st Century life or because you don’t want to write to someone whom you can’t yet trust. I encourage you take up and read. Find a collection of letters from your favorite dead author (usually live ones won’t give over their letter for publication). If you don’t have a favorite dead author (email me, I’d love to introduce you to a few), do not fear. Sean Usher, of Letters of Note, has published a book version of his blog, a compilation of unique and powerful and easily accessible to every reader. Pick it up. Read. Learn, there are few greater joys than to know someone took the time to hand write you a letter.