How I Landed (and Kept!) a Pen Pal…and You Can Too!

There's no joy quite like running expectantly to the mailbox and finding a hand-adressed letter within. It stands apart from the rest of the stack--bills, catalogs, pennysavers, mostly--because it's obvious that someone put time and love into its mailing. And the best part is that it's for you.

I've had varying degrees of success starting and keeping pen pals over the years. In my childhood, I eagerly filled out the standardized forms in the back of my Teen Beat magazines for a cross-country pen pal, inclusive of my photo and a nominal fee. In high school, I tried reaching out with paper-and-pen to distant family members, people who didn't really know me and were too busy to care. And in college, I was too busy stalking old friends on the newly created Facebook to actually write them a letter to ask how their lives turned out. 

But now? Now I have a real pen pal. 

I recently moved far away from family and friends and all those other people one cares about. The move was symbolic of a desire for change in lifestyle…and that included connecting with people in more authentic ways. So before I left, I approached one of my girlfriends one night over drinks with my proposition: "Will you be my pen pal? And don't say 'yes' unless you're going to really do it. Because I want this to be special, and that's why I chose you." The rest is history.

So I present you now my 5 foolproof rules for landing a pen pal and keeping her (or him):

1. Choose your pen pal carefully. Pick someone you genuinely care about, someone you don't often see, and someone who is as excited as you are at the prospect of having a pen pal. You want to look forward to both writing and receiving letters, so choose someone in whom you are genuinely interested. And it's so important you choose someone with whom you can be honest. Choose a "safe" person.

2. Unfriend, unfollow, block this person on all social media. This is the hardest rule because online relationships are all-encompassing with their instant photos, updates, and statuses, but this is the most important rule. If you have an online relationship with your pen pal, writing letters back and forth will just seem silly. But if you wait to learn about your pen pal's life through her or his letters  (rather than her or his online persona), you'll find a deeper connection. It's crazy that to "connect" we must first "disconnect."

3. Buy beautiful stationary. The paper you write on doesn't have to be expensive, but it should be interesting! I get a thrill in finding cheap vintage postcards at flea markets or old antiquated photos at yard sales. You can usually buy items like this for less than a dollar, and it makes for fun sharing. Stay away from bulk boxes of generic cards. Your pen pal will thank you for the variety, and hopefully she'll return with a diverse collection herself.

4. Don't make small talk. You have a very limited amount of space in each card, so don't waste a word! Instead, write what's on your mind, what's weighing on your heart, what you need advice on. Leave the pleasantries for online, and save the raw emotion for your pen pal. Let's face it, when a relationship includes honesty and vulnerability, we are strengthened and bonded in authentic ways. So be brave and bare your soul. (And on the receiving end, be respectful with your pen pal's privacy, too. After all, she--or he--is writing this letter to you, not your spouse and not your circle of friends.)

5. Write back! Don't get complacent. I suggest writing a letter a week. And if time gets away from your pen pal (or life gets in the way, as it does), just pick it back up on your end. No pressure. No guilt. Just love in words.