A Friendship in Letters

Photograph by Lindsay Crandall

Lindsay and Michelle, two pen pals who had never previously met each other, got together recently to discuss how writing has shaped their relationship. The following is an interview with them about their experience. 

Tell us a little about yourselves and how you came to be pen pals. 

Lindsay Crandall: Since I was little I’ve always loved writing. When I heard about the Letter Writers Alliance and how they match you with a pen pal, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I was drawn to the intimacy and connection of letter writing, especially after my husband and I had just moved our family across the country. I was suddenly a stay-at-home mom with a two-year-old, and I was having a terrible time adjusting. I threw myself into social media, trying to find the deep connection I was hungry for, only to end up giving it all up and getting off the computer. So I wrote in to LWA and got my two pen pals, but little did I know what I was getting myself into. One of the pen pals I was given fizzled out right away, but Michelle and I instantly connected. We have been writing now for more than two years.

Michelle Hansen: I had an aunt who never forgot to send me a birthday card. Each year on my birthday, I would have an envelope placed at my assigned seat at the dinner table, and I have never forgotten the thrill of mail. Growing up, mail seemed like an elusive adult privilege. 

I remember being about nine when I learned about correspondence and pen pals. I was visiting my paternal grandmother and woke early with her after a sleepover. For the first time, I was introduced to her early morning routine, the one she usually carried out in the dark and quiet, warmed by a mug of strong black coffee. She took out a spiral-bound notebook and began to write a paragraph or two, which she confided to me was a daily letter to an old friend. The letter would accumulate over the course of the week to be mailed on Friday. Her friend did the same. That my grandmother chronicled her life each day for a friend was amazing. I loved that she wrote in small chunks that over a week began to take the shape of a letter. It seemed like something anyone could do. It was such a revelation to me! 

I really wanted a pen pal of my own, though I didn’t begin writing until high school when a Japanese exchange student from my school went back home and we began to correspond. Unfortunately, she wasn’t as interested in letter writing as I was, so eventually that relationship fizzled out. After college, one of my college friends professed to be a letter writer, so we began what grew to be my longest epistolary relationship to date. Ultimately, when my family relocated to Pittsburgh, I had a new city to explore and didn’t know anyone. Of course, I was a bit lonely. I found the Letter Writers Alliance online and joined, figuring I would never have a better time to start a pen pal relationship. I was absolutely delighted to find such a great friend so serendipitously. 

What drew you to letter writing? What is it like for you when you sit down to write a letter?

LC: Writing to Michelle taught me a lot about letter writing in general. I thought our letters would be a lot of questions and answers that crossed each other in transit. But most of my letters are just snippets of daily goings-on. Like a lot of things I do now, when I sit down to write, it’s usually with little children running around. I used to imagine that it would be more of a quiet, contemplative ritual — and sometimes it is — but more often, I sit down when I have a free minute and do my best to write something coherent and interesting. It’s really about taking time to connect, not about writing the perfect letter.

MH: Letters are so romantic, no? There is no better way to really know a person than receive a letter from them. Letter writing is so tactile and can really be elevated to an art. Of course, I don’t think of most of my letters as art, but choosing paper, the weight and texture, whether or not the paper will have any ornamentation, and how it will be folded is just the beginning. Then one can consider the pen — how the pen affects penmanship, the ink color, the weight of the pen, and how the ink is absorbed into the paper — and the envelope (I often make my own). Sometimes I even think about the stamp and how it complements the letter. All this and I haven’t even written a word! 

I write in many different ways. Sometimes it is a simple note, dashed on a Post-it with a ballpoint pen, just to share a thought or let the recipient know that I am thinking of her. Sometimes I have the peace and quiet of an early morning, and a thought to expand upon. Often, I am prompted to write because of the sheer thrill of opening a missive from another. The thrill of familiar handwriting on an envelope mixed among the sale flyers and bills is like the sun shining through the clouds. I think of writing often, and it is not unusual for me to be doing something average and everyday and see something that reminds me of someone, which will compel me to compose a letter to that person in my head. Sometimes these thoughts make their way to paper, and sometimes not, but I think imagining what I might say makes the actual composition of letters easier.

What types of things do you write about? Do you find it difficult to be honest and transparent with someone youve never met before? 

LC: I tend to be pretty transparent. When something is on my mind, I write about it. That’s led to a lot of letters that I’m sure read more like a free-writing exercise or journal entry. In the two years we’ve written each other, I’ve gone through a lot — I was pregnant with my second child, my husband and I bought our first house, I endured the shattering of several significant relationships, and I tried to navigate the slippery terrain of returning to my hometown after living far away for several years. 

Writing a letter to a stranger is all about trust. To offer your thoughts and opinions, some of which you might never say out loud, is truly relationship building. But there’s also something refreshing about writing to someone who is not fully aware of your daily life, your flaws, the way you look, or how cute your children are. They get a totally different picture of things, which makes the whole thing special. Our relationship took awhile to gain traction, and it was about a year before Michelle and I got to the meat and potatoes of things. Now I feel comfortable writing to her about just about anything, including some things I might never say out loud to people in my daily life. Michelle has definitely become one of my closest and dearest friends.

MH: Starting an epistolary relationship is a lot like a regular one. Getting someone up to speed on who you are in letters can be a challenge. I find it was easiest for me to start where I am today, and let the relationship evolve from there. I don’t let the process of writing get in the way of sending a letter. I write about whatever catches my attention. It might be food, weather, a favorite quote, an activity I am doing, or my family situation. I try to write responses to the letters I receive, thus we do carry on a sort of conversation in letters. 

Being honest and transparent . . . that requires some thought. I am not sure if I am ever really honest in a letter. I can honestly say I want to be, but I think people who have a personal relationship with me know when I am not really being honest with myself. In letters, I can be more deliberate with my wording and I probably am better and tempering my opinions by using carefully selected vocabulary so as to convey my ideas without being offensive. Because of this, I probably am more honest in letters, as sometimes in person I might be more likely to stay quiet and not share at all. Writing letters has probably strengthened my relationship with myself as well, for in writing I am forced to think about things more deeply so I can convey them to someone else. 

How has your relationship developed through writing?

LC: It’s strange that though we were just randomly matched up by the Letter Writers Alliance, we have a lot in common. Actually, Michelle has written to me quite a few times that I remind her of herself a few years ago. It took a while to uncover our similarities, both in life experience — family relationships, mothering, moving far away — and our interests — knitting, books, culture, faith — but those common threads have helped to keep us writing.

I also feel grateful to know that she’s out there in a place separate from my everyday life. Our letter writing has become sort of a safe harbor for me as I’ve experienced some of the worst trials in my life. It’s good to be able to write about some tender and trying things and send them off into the air for a few days, knowing they’ll be safely received by a friend. That gives me a lot of comfort.

MH: When we began writing, we often started with the day-to-day stuff, and the letters could stand alone. As we have grown to share deeper thoughts and larger ideas, the conversation carries through several letters, which is very mentally and emotionally stimulating. I love Lindsay, in part because she reminds me of me so much when my children were young and my life felt so very busy. Perhaps I didn’t appreciate my own children so much when they were young, but reading about her family immediately makes me think of myself in her shoes. I appreciate my children and my husband more. Lindsay often takes an idea I have and expands it, challenging my thinking and offering support at the same time. We sometimes send small gifts to each other, and one of my very favorite things is when we send tea bags. It’s fun to imagine Lindsay having her tea at the same moment I am having mine, sharing our friendship through space and time with the warmth of a mug of tea. We share our humor, our highs and lows, and all the while she has no idea about any of my annoying habits (ha!). Most especially, as a mom, my identity is often “someone’s mom” or “someone’s wife.” With Lindsay, I am just me, probably more me than I am with anyone else. She doesn’t know my husband or my children, and it is refreshing to have a relationship with someone who cares primarily about me.

Do you have other pen pals? How do you balance writing to several people at once?

LC: I have a few people I write to sporadically. I wish I was better at juggling several pen pals at once, but letter writing is, unfortunately, very time consuming. Michelle and I write each other at least once a week (sometimes several times a week!), so our conversation is ongoing. I can keep it all straight without having to refer back to her letters or wondering what has or hasn’t been written. A lot of times what I write is a way for me to process what’s going on in my life, so our constant conversation keeps me from having to explain much or give back story. We just keep picking up where we are and moving forward. The other people I write to are more likely to get a note saying I was thinking of them than a letter that becomes a conversation, and that’s okay, too. I love getting mail!

Michelle and I also only communicate with each other through letters. Until now, we’ve never talked to each other and we have only e-mailed in order to establish a time and place to meet. The other people I correspond with are also friends online (several of whom I met online and have never met), so they are part of the ongoing conversation of Facebook or Instagram postings that Michelle doesn’t see. If I want to “post” to Michelle, I literally have to write a letter and send it to her. And that works really well for us!

MH: I write letters to many people, because I know that a letter in the mail can cheer someone immensely. Most people don’t make it a priority to write back. I correspond regularly with one friend, though more infrequently with a few others. I have three pen pals including Lindsay, women I know exclusively through letters. Balancing them is usually about priorities. I like to write and receive letters, so it is a priority over other activities like watching TV. 

Like all friendships, each pen pal relationship is different. Some are more superficial than others, but just as delightful and necessary to me. I expect to get a letter every so often, and the friendships that have culminated from the letters are a bonus. I’m not sure how many people would sign up to be pen pals if they had to promise to be “besties” with someone they’ve never met. 

What is it like to finally meet? 

LC: Meeting Michelle was a little overwhelming. We’ve known each other for two and a half years, but sitting down to talk over lunch, I felt like I had so much I wanted to say. We know each other well through our letter writing, but some things are simply easier to explain in person, voice to voice. We spent about five hours together in a pub in Erie, Pennsylvania, about halfway between her home and mine. The time flew by! But it was wonderful. 

When I returned home that evening (after a long almost-three hour drive), I sunk down into the couch and felt deeply satisfied. It feels good to have a three-dimensional person in my head now when I write. I can recall her voice and her gestures, and those things help fill her out for me. It’s hard to explain, I guess, to feel so connected to someone and then meet that person in real life. All the pieces of your relationship are there, but now they fit together in a whole new way.

MH: I have to say, I am wondering how our correspondence will change because of our meeting. It hadn't really occurred to me before, but there is a sort of mystical quality to writing to someone you haven't met. When writing, there is time to compose an answer, crafting sentences carefully, thoughtfully, using just the right vocabulary to really express a thought or idea. This is lost in face-to-face interactions, at least for me, because I often don't take the time to think carefully before I speak. I wonder how I am different when translated from the page to a three-dimensional person, and I hope I wasn’t too disappointing! 

It's a real wonder to think that someone would make such an effort to have lunch with me, and I suppose it speaks to the strength of our heartfelt honest letters. I am happy to have Lindsay fleshed out in my mind. Our lives are at different stages: her children are young and she is the center of their days, where mine are teens and wish me invisible. In "real life" it might be hard for us to carve out time to be together because our schedules are different. In letters, I can give Lindsay a few minutes of my time, which may be at 6:00 a.m. or 1:00 p.m., and she can do the same amid the craziness of her day. While our topics may change, I feel strongly that we can continue to grow in letters, and I am really humbled to know that I am important enough for such a great effort and expense on her part to meet!

Photograph by Lindsay Crandall

Lindsay Crandall works as a freelance writer and editor, but her passion is for photography, particularly 35mm film and Polaroid (see her work here). She lives in upstate New York with her husband and two kids.

Michelle Hansen loves fibers of all kinds. She works and teaches knitting at a yarn store in Pittsburgh, where she lives with her husband and two teenage daughters.

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