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5 Ways to Write a Letter and Reclaim Friendship, Connection & Craft

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

A woman writes at a table while another sews nearby.
Interior With Women Writing and Sewing, 19th Century

Last year I made my way to the post office each month to retrieve a packet of eleven letters from participants in the Dark Goddess Project, a correspondence course/process for integrating difficult life transitions.

Some letters were typed, some written by hand. They contained at various times ribbons, yarn, photos, colored ink, seeds and scraps of cloth. With each page they carried a record of the participant's journey, scribed in character and line. Some held answers to questions posed by the curriculum--also sent through mail, quarterly. Some were poetry. Some a record of the day to day musings that comprise a life. All moved me to laughter, tears and hope: this is how we heal, through the tactile sharing of our hearts in this real, living world.

At the end of the year the participant letters were returned. In their hands, now, the story of a year spent in intention and community. It was such a powerful process to witness, and I am still honored and moved by the growth those letters contained.

The alchemy of letter writing is two fold. First, it is the tangible, the process itself--so different from writing an email which may or may not survive a decade, depending on the whims of technology, and will likely never be seen again. Placing pen to page, or typing for print purposes changes the nature of the communication from the start.

The second transformation of letter writing is the audience. We are writing to someone specific, and choose our words accordingly. That person holds, temporarily, a part of us--cellular, substantial--in a way that is impossible through online communique.

Tactile + Audience = Clarity, Creativity, Connection and Endurance

In this post I have five ways you can reclaim letter writing for yourself and encourage it in others, offered in the hopes of inspiring a return to this olden practice.

All the fabulous photos in this post are from Wikimedia Commons or the Library of Congress and are in the public domain for reuse and sharing.

Handwritten letter in flowing script on parchment.
Letter from Frances Appleton Longfellow to Emmeline Austin Wadsworth, 1841

Correspondence contains our human story--it is, in fact, history, the written. And this record would be pale strands without the pattern of letters to bind it.

While emails and text messaging may have taken the place of letter writing in some modern human landscapes, the record of our experiences can never be fully held in the digital. Reclaiming letter writing is a call to relationship, romance and story. It is a reminder about what lasts beyond us, what makes history, and what will, ultimately, survive.

Reclaiming Way #1: Write A Love Letter

An antique envelope with a stamp and handwriting.
Anonymous Love Letter to Sophronia McNitt, 1863

When my husband and I first began dating our children were on opposing schedules, so we were separated a lot. As a result we spent hours on the phone and wrote each other romantic emails--he was so charming, funny, charismatic and magnetic in his writing, totally irresistible.

Years later while organizing my personal archives (read: storage bins :)) I realized that while I had a stack of sweet letters from my first boyfriend, and some amazing love letters from other beaus, I didn't have that record of my husband. It was in the ethers. I printed out our email exchanges and made a book for him on our anniversary, so we could revisit, on occasion, the written roots of our love. But if I hadn't brought those copies into being, they would exist only in memory, rarely seen, never touched.

Now my husband and I write letters to each other on birthdays and our many celebrations of firsts (first date, first kiss, first making the relationship official) and our marriage. I love to reread these gatherings of intention and appreciation, his handwriting accompanied by small illustrations in the margins of the text.

Writing a love letter transforms an exchange. Whether known or anonymous--like the letter pictured above--telling someone you love them in ink powerfully marks the moment. I cherish letters I received as a college student (including some quite good poetry), even from people I never dated, or for whom the feelings were not reciprocated.

To write a love letter all you need is an object of affection--this need not be romantic love, but romantic love aligns you with the classics of the genre, like the letter below written by King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, promising to marry her.

Handwritten letter from King Henry on Vellum with seal.
Henry VII Letter to Anne Boleyn

Love letters also need not be sent by post!

In my shy youth I would write anonymous love letters and slip them in lockers or pockets, sometimes with a flower or other token. Usually these expressions came to naught, but I learned many years later the joy and mystery of receiving anonymous letters. It is a treasure, a gift, unconcerned with outcome.

Reclaiming Way #2: Write to An Elder

Painting of an elderly woman with a headscarf holding a letter and pearls.
Old Woman With Pearls and Letter by Giovan Battista Langetti 1663

My grandmother Mary is ninety-three years old and lives in an elder care facility. She has a large and active family that visits, calls and corresponds with her daily and she is a masterful letter writer. All of her children, grandchildren (six) and great-grandchildren (eleven) receive handwritten cards on their birthdays, still.

She says that there is an epidemic of loneliness in her community. Most people are not so connected to their families, and with technology moving our focus away from familial connection, our elders are lacking in communication and care.

Learning how to write and receive good letters is elder craft. My grandparents all grew up in a time where letter writing was a necessity--long distance phone calls were too expensive for regular use, traveling overseas or across the country was also prohibitive. All of my grandparents wrote letters to me at one point or another, and they just lived down the road in California.

If you have elder relatives who still are capable, letter writing can be a wonderful way to hone your skills while learning from the experts. Olden practice letters don't need to be complex--my grandparents would usually just share some anecdotes about their experiences, or ask a lot of questions. Letter writing can also be a wonderful way to learn family history, gather stories of ancestors or treasured memories. Even my parents, grandparents to Gen Z, grew up with letter writing and love to receive mail.

If you do not have elder relatives for correspondence, check with the local care homes in your community--many have residents who would love to write with you and the staff can help set you up with your elder recipient.

Or you can connect with the following organizations for help finding an elder correspondent in need:

Love for Our Elders connects elders who would like to receive letters with volunteer writers bringing joy to mailboxes at the first of every month.

Letters Against Isolation started as a COVID project reaching out to elders in care homes and has expanded into a global enterprise connecting lonely seniors with compassionate letter writers.

Reclaiming Way #3: Letter Writing as a Process Record

Drawing of the Southern Cross in a letter written in Italian on parchment.
Andrea Corsali , Southern Cross, Letter to Giuliano de Medici, 1516

The image above depicts the first recording of the Southern Cross stars. It appears in a letter, as do so many great scientific discoveries, creative inspirations, historical accounts and detailed timelines.

In the Dark Goddess Project letter writing became our process record, the inscription offering experiential awareness. In working with students for the better part of the last two decades I've found that we tend to dismiss our accomplishments, relegate the facts of our lives to side notes and misremember our experiences. Crafting a written record of any major life experience--relationships, pregnancy and child birth, coming of age, death of a loved one, professional shifts, the making of a project or creative work--allows us to see our journey, and to share it.

Finding a companion to receive the record of your journey or process can feel challenging, but I've discovered that most people are open to sharing experiences, we have only to ask. Choosing a friend or relative can feel safest, but I had first year college students writing with strangers so they did not have the comfort of the known, or the collusion of censorship. Not only this but there is a degree of formality and professionalism in writing to someone unknown, or not known well, that helps with how we tend and articulate our ideas.

So where to look should we wish to correspond in process? Kindreds on the path are a great place to start. What classes or communities are you currently drawn to? Where in your past did you have a place of interest and intention that sparked your heart? Were there particular people on those paths who you felt friendly with? Be brave, reach out, and see if they would like to participate in a grand experiment.

You can also ask a mentor to engage in correspondence with you. I do this with some of my mentees and love the opportunity to support and nourish their work through this systematic recording of their process.

Reclaiming Way #4: Find a Pen Friend

A woman and man in front of a church, he is in uniform, she is in a wedding dress.
A WWII Soldier Marries His Pen Friend, 1945

I have had several pen pals in my life--people who I didn't know hardly at all, but our friendships and relationships developed exclusively through letters.

When I was sixteen or seventeen my best friend's cousin, Shiloh, who was four years younger than us, began corresponding with me after we met one summer. She always sent the most magical letters, was incredibly intelligent and insightful for someone so young, and I learned a lot from writing with her over my late teens and into college.

Also when I was a teen, at the start of the first Gulf War, I began corresponding with a soldier, Dan, in Iraq. He was kind and funny, shared anecdotes about his family and photos of the work they were doing. I had been firmly against the war and Dan's insights helped me develop a more intricate and compassionate view of our involvement through the eyes of someone who was there.

In my late twenties I wrote with a writer I admired for a couple of years. What began as simple admiration developed into a true mentorship where I gained a tremendous amount of insight into craft, history, story, and grew both personally and intellectually.

Pen friends, pen pals, are a way to weave a wider web in the world around us. Anyone can be a candidate for a pen friend as long as they like to write and receive letters. One of the best and easiest ways to begin a correspondence is to write a letter first. Here are some suggestions for folks to inquire with:

Old friends, roommates or colleagues you meant to stay in touch with.

Former teachers or students who inspired you.

Aunts, uncles, cousins or distant family members you were always curious about.

Artists or writers you like and admire--no guarantees the correspondence will continue but you can always write a letter and see what happens!

Other options for potential pen friends that benefit people in need of connection:

Military correspondence--there are many organizations online that facilitate military letter writing. Soldier's Angels has a Deployed Adoptions Team that sends care packages and letters to deployed service members once a month.

Writing with the Incarcerated--Letter writing can be essential support for people in prison. There are a number of necessary guidelines when writing those in prison. You can learn more, view the guidelines and be paired with a pen pal at the Prisoner Correspondence Project.

You can also check out the many websites devoted to connecting pen pals worldwide--Global Pen friends is one--and sign up to correspond via snail mail.

Reclaiming Way #5: Write to a Child

Illustrated letter with a mouse in bed, Peter Rabbit and a squirrel.
Beatrix Potter Letter, 1892

Beatrix Potter, of Peter Rabbit fame, never had children of her own due to the tragic death of her fiancée. But her creative offerings and shared gifts have inspired children for generations.

The entire repository of her stories rose from letters she wrote to two brothers, Eric and Noel. It was the brothers' mother who encouraged her to seek publication of her tales.

If you have children in your life, I hope you tell them stories and write them letters. And if you don't yet write to them, this is your invitation to begin.

When our children were small they each had a fairy house in the yard where they could leave letters for the fairies. Sometimes the fairies would write them back, or leave gifts. As a blended family it was helpful to have some traditions on the day the children returned home together, and one of those traditions included checking the houses for fairy letters.

My children were fortunate, too, to have grandparents and great-grandparents who sent them mail: postcards and letters, some as simple as "I love you and miss you," mail was a great treat for them. They also had other grown-ups in their lives who would write to them on occasion--neighbors, housemates, friends--and that attitude of connection and enchantment was contagious for both.

If you don't have children in your life you can still bring joy into the life of a child in need with letters.

Letters of Love is an organization that provides cards of hope and encouragement for children struggling with serious or chronic illness.

Braid Mission sends Cards of Hope to children in foster care to celebrate birthdays, and support and encourage both the children and the social workers that are helping them.

I hope these suggestions inspire you to your own reclaiming of letter writing as ancestral craft and olden practice! I am looking forward to exploring more sacred writing traditions--including the art of fountain pens, paper making and typewriters--in future posts.

If you would like to write me a letter, head over to the Contact page for the Olden Practice snail mail address. All letters are read and loved, and any questions or stories you share will be mentioned in future episodes of the Olden Practice podcast.

With blessings to your reclaiming of this olden practice--Lara

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