I sit at my desk in front of a blank sheet of stationery and a brand new pen prepared to write a letter to a woman I have never met. We have at least one one thing in common. We both recently signed-up for a penpal program organized by Jennifer L. Scott, creator of the blog and YouTube channel The Daily Connoisseur. Among other elegant practices for fine living, Scott encourages the lost art of letter writing.
I probably use the post office to correspond with family and friends more than most. Instead of emails, texts, or facebook messages, I prefer sending beautiful greeting cards and thank-you notes through the mail. I enjoy the ritual of carefully addressing an envelope, sticking on a pretty stamp, walking it to the mail box, and popping up that little red flag. However, writing a letter is a little different.
Early in my teaching career, the secondary English curriculum included how to write a friendly letter, but it was eventually squeezed out by more modern forms of communication. The format for a personal letter comes back to me slowly. In my best cursive, I carefully write my name, address, and date in the upper-right corner. I start my letter with a greeting and contemplate what to say in the body of my letter.
I’d like this letter to begin a deep connection not easily found these days. In The Art of the Personal Letter Margaret Shepherd says, “Writing by hand sets the gold standard for making yourself truly present to your reader.” A handwritten letter, she says, “offers unimpeachable evidence that you believe the reader, the message, and the relationship are worth your time and undivided attention.” That’s the feeling I want to convey to my new penpal.
In general, the body of a friendly letter should be personal, positive, and focus on mutual interests. The purpose of the letter should be clear from the start. The point of a personal letter may be friendship, connection, condolence, advice, love, congratulations, thanks, or apology. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The tongue is prone to lose the way. Not so the pen, for in a letter we have things to say, but surely put them better.”
Beyond thinking about what to say in the letter, consideration must be given to letter-writing materials. Both writing and receiving a letter is enhanced when written on quality paper with a matching envelope. Like clothing, stationery can express one’s individual style and is available at all price points. Postage stamps come in many designs and can even be personalized. I’m still on the hunt for the perfect pen that moves smoothly across my paper and does the most for my rusty handwriting.
Messy handwriting shouldn’t be an excuse for not writing letters, but we can try to improve it. Shepherd recommends exercises to refine handwriting including warming-up with circles and coils, individual letters, words, and phrases. To write straighter, she suggests placing a larger sheet of lined paper under stationery to provide guidelines on both sides. Finally, take time to write a rough draft to get mistakes out of your system.
Like anything we want to do well, letter writing takes practice, but don’t insist on perfection. “You don’t have to reach impossible standards of eloquence and beauty,” Shepherd warns. “If your intention is to connect with your reader in the most personal way possible, just the extra effort put into ink on paper will be greeted with appreciation and delight.”
There is nothing wrong with communicating through the telephone, email, texts, and social media, but there is something so elegant and enduring about a handwritten letter. In the foreword of Letters of a Nation Marian Wright Edelman writes, “Let us all then leave behind letters of love and friendship, family and devotion, hope and consolation, so that future generations will know what we valued and believed and achieved.” §
“I truly believe that the penpal is a lost art, and it is such an enriching relationship.”
~Jennifer L. Scott
Featured Art ~ La lettera, Gianni Strino, 1953