the frankie guide to having a pen pal
Put pen to paper and embrace good old-fashioned snail mail.
Here’s the thing: no matter how many beepy, flashy, in-your-face notifications pop up on your phone or computer screen, nothing will give you a heady rush quite like stumbling on some snail mail in your letterbox. Someone took the time to send you a LETTER! They stepped away from their digital bubble for long enough to connect with you via old-school ink on paper! How delightful. Now, imagine that joy repeated on a regular basis, and you get to give it to someone else, as well. That’s what it’s like to have a pen pal – aka a letter-writing chum from across the world.
BUT WHY DO I WANT A PEN PAL? Did you read the part about the dopamine blast? That’s one good reason. Here are some others: it’s a chance to form a connection with someone you wouldn’t otherwise encounter; you’ll learn all kinds of cool things about life in another city or country; and you might wind up with a couch to sleep on if you decide to travel their way some day. One of the best parts, though, is the physicality of the process: it gets you offline, being creative and putting that pen licence to good use. And somehow, it feels less scary to be open and vulnerable in a hand-written letter – it’s a bit like writing in a diary, except the diary responds to you with its own news and profound feelings.
OK, SO WHO DO I WRITE TO? Pen pals come in many different forms, from people you know who live far away to complete strangers (who might just become new chums). Use letters to keep in touch with someone you’ve met while travelling, or contact someone you dig online and ask if they’d be open to exchanging fun packages. There are dedicated sites to help you find a pen pal, too, like PenPal World, Geek Girl Pen Pals, Postcrossing and the Worldwide Snail Mail Pen Pals Facebook group. (You might just want to chat online for a bit first to make sure you feel comfortable swapping real-deal letters.) For more specific types of pen friends, try organisations like YourSide, Home Instead or Write a Prisoner – they’ll link you with isolated oldies and inmates looking for connection.
WHAT DO I SAY? It might feel a little awkward at first writing to someone you’ve never met, but that’s part of the fun: you get to start from scratch and show this person who you are. Give them the basic rundown, but don’t feel like you have to stick to dry facts. There’s plenty of time to check those boxes – instead, think about what makes you you. What are you totally, completely obsessed with? What keeps you up at night? How do you like to spend your weekends? Be honest and warm and your new pen friend will be planning their return letter before they’ve even read to the end.
And remember: learning how different people live is always intriguing. What might seem boring to you could be positively exotic to someone halfway around the globe. Consider sharing your cultural traditions, local lingo, favourite TV shows, or even photos of the place where you sit down to write – then they’ll have something to imagine next time they receive your correspondence.
But most importantly, don’t forget to ask your paper-bound buddy a whole bunch of questions. That’s how conversations work, after all, and having a pen pal is basically like a conversation with extra-long pauses. Choose a prompt from the list to the right if you’re stuck, or just take a moment to ponder what you’d most like to know. You may even stumble across unexpected common ground, giving you plenty of future letter-writing ammo.
SO, IS IT LITERALLY JUST WRITING A LETTER? Well, no, not necessarily. You could just grab some nice notepaper and scrawl out your message (we happen to have some right over the page), but having a pen pal is a fun opportunity to get creative, if you’re that way inclined. Jazz up the paper and envelope with stickers, washi tape, colourful pens or a few abstract doodles. You might even like to raid your nearest stationery store for cute paper clips, doilies, stamps and post-it notes.
Inserting bonus treasures is rather lovely, as well. Basically, if it’s fairly flat and fits in an envelope, you’re good to go. Press some flowers, create your own comic, tear a thought-provoking article from a magazine. You could even collect things from around your town, like travel tickets, postcards, or a map with your favourite hotspots circled. Is your pen pal a big reader? Why not pop in a cute bookmark? Do they love to cook? Share your favourite recipe. Teabags, Polaroids, temporary tattoos, crosswords, gift cards: when it comes to special treats for your pen pal, there are no rules.
ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD KNOW? Having a pen pal is supposed to be fun, so try not to put too much pressure on the process. You don’t have to be super-creative or deep if you don’t want – just go with what feels natural to you! Your letter-friend may not get back to you straight way, but that’s OK: maybe they’re taking their time to get your mail just right, or maybe they’re just busy with other things (aka life). Instead of stressing, focus on how cool it is that you have this special bond with another human, whether they live overseas or down the street.
A FEW FUN THOUGHT-STARTERS
Which film could you watch over and over without getting sick of it?
What’s an unusual thing about you that nobody knows?
Do you collect anything, like stamps, enamel pins or bunny-themed bits?
Draw five things you can see from where you’re writing.
Describe a defining moment in your life.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Create a fill-the-gap questionnaire.
Is there something that’s grinding your gears at the moment?
Share the weirdest fact you know.
Draw a zine that shows a day in your life.
Write the first line of a story or poem and get your pen pal to continue it.
For more ideas, check out our handy conversation cards in frankie 96. (You'll also find a big bunch of tear-out notepaper and pretty DIY envelopes while you're there.)
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