Some people have boyfriend lists. I keep track of pen pals.
I got my first at the age of nine. Young as I am, e-mail barely existed back then, so I launched into a steady diet of pencil, paper and hand-cramps. On the credit side, though, I had a new friend. It was good.
Years passed, and instead of moving on to new hobbies, I acquired more pen pals, both foreign—“a girl, from a different state, who likes horses”—and familiar—“You’re moving?!? I’ll write you every day!!!”
There was Rachel, who introduced me to The Scarlet Pimpernel, Madison, who sent me an Eiffel Tower from Paris, Kelly, who co-wrote the novel we began at age twelve, and Brittney, best friend forever. There was Alicia, who came to visit once, and Hope, who wrote me just last week.
I’ve had one eye on the mailbox for thirteen years, but the labor has not been in vain. My writing skills evolved constantly as I juggled three or four conversations a month, long, juicy dialogues full of health and weather and piffle.
“Nothing,” says Jean Webster, in her novel, Daddy-Long Legs, “so fosters facility in literary expression as letter writing.”
Edith Schaeffer agrees. “It is not a waste to write beautiful prose or poetry for one person’s eyes alone!” She continues, in The Hidden Art of Homemaking, “The person who is feeling frustrated because he cannot have a writing career, yet is not writing a profusion of letters, is really putting his personality in [a] restrictive cast….”
Many authors have found this to be true. L.M. Montgomery, famed author of Anne of Green Gables, carried on a forty-year correspondence with Ephraim Weber, a man she never met, but whose friendship became an intellectual mainstay during her literary development.
C.S. Lewis also kept up a prolific correspondence, with friends and admirers alike. Volumes of his letters have been published, including Letters to Children, which contains this very important piece of advice: “If you are only interested in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about.”
Authors who burrow into their stories, shooting brief e-mails to critique partners when they want to detail (or bemoan) progress—these authors will eventually find it difficult to share the full wonder of joy and pain they see in the world around them, because they will not be in the habit of sharing.
True, thoughtful letter-writing inevitably improves prose. And occasionally, it pays off in more tangible forms. Once upon a time, a middle-aged woman sent an illustrated letter to the five-year-old son of a former governess, in which she told the story of a naughty little rabbit. That woman was Beatrix Potter, and that story became The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
“This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to Me,” scribbled Emily Dickinson, in 1862. For eighty-three years, those words remained private, heard only by a minuscule circle of friends. Today, they’re heard by millions.
Speak to one person … then another … and another ….
Someday, you will speak to the World.