May 27, 2020

Letter writing is the perfect hobby for COVID-19

Write a letter, make a friend, and feel connected. How an old form of communication is making a comeback during a time of social distancing.

Letter writing is an old form of communication that can be made new again. Photo by sue hughes/Unsplash

Every few weeks I sit down and write to my Grandma Sara. She’s currently quarantined in a nursing home in a small town in Pennsylvania, and at 91-years old, is completely averse to most forms of technology. Letter-writing is the best way to connect with her and let her know I care from a distance. I’ve shared just about everything with her from my struggles with grad school classes to detailing a particularly decadent batch of cookies I baked.

I fell in love with letter writing in elementary school. Our military family moved around so often that writing letters became my favorite way to stay in touch with far-away family and the friends I had left behind. Texting, email, and video calls were foreign concepts to 7-year-old me. Now that I’m quarantined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m hoping to expand my letter-writing practice to connect with family and friends both near and far, and cheer them up during this uncertain time. Maybe you’re thinking of doing the same, so here are some best epistolary practices to keep in mind.

Why you should write letters

I’m not alone in my love of letter writing. From 17-year-old Gracie Stewart, who is reaching out to pen pals all over the world, to Julie Fletcher, 62, and Belinda Spofforth, 68, who cultivated a delightful friendship through decades of correspondence, letter writing is a tradition all ages can enjoy. But this form of communication is even more appropriate for our current moment. While texting, phone calls and video calls are much faster ways to speak with our loved ones, writing a letter is tangible evidence of connection, friendship, and love.

From postcards to long missives, letters add an element of joy to mailboxes that are more often filled with bills, flyers, and notices—the detritus of everyday life. Letters also give the sender a chance for self expression. “A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure. It is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do,” Catherine Field wrote in the New York Times in 2011. “You savor their arrival and later take care to place them in a box for safe keeping.”

How you should write letters

So what do you need to write a letter? You don’t need fancy stationery, a quill, or even calligraphy skills (stamps are essential, however). Staring at a blank piece of paper can seem daunting, and although there aren’t any hard rules to informal letters, there are a few ways to become an expert.

American Stationery recommends writers start with questions to make the letter feel more like a conversation, rather than a monologue. This also will inspire your pen pal to write back.

Most importantly, take your time, write from the heart, and be yourself. Many of us already display an airbrushed version of ourselves on our social media profiles, but letter writing gives an opportunity to reveal the deeper feelings behind life milestones. Your friend knows you got a new job, but she may not know just how nervous you were on that first day.

Brett and Kate Mckay of the Art of Manliness suggest writers should “write in the spirit of cheerfulness,” and to not fill the page with small complaints and troubles. This will ensure you don’t overwhelm your pen pal, especially in the uncertain times of a pandemic.

If you’re concerned about privacy or safety, especially if you’re hoping to write to someone you don’t know personally, consider getting a P.O. Box to receive your letters.

My personal tip: Decorate the envelope. Doodles and stickers are a fun way to seal envelopes and add color to an unexpected mailbox surprise.

Who you should write letters to

Of course you should write to friends and family members. But it’s also a great time to reach out to a stranger and turn them into a friend.

Sites like Pen Pal World and The Worldwide Snail Mail Pen Pals Facebook group let you find potential pen pals across the country and even around the world.

Senior citizens right now are especially isolated due to the risks posed by COVID-19. Many senior communities and assisted living facilities across the country—from Houston to Cleveland—have set up letter writing programs. Write to them, or check with a local senior home or facility in your community to see if they are accepting letters.

People in prisons have also been hit hard by the current pandemic. Programs such as Human Rights Pen Pals and Write a Prisoner allow you to connect with someone incarcerated. If you want to write to someone in prison, but need some guidance, the nonprofit Free Minds Book Club regularly seeks volunteers to write letters to inmates. The organization provides prisoners with an opportunity to express themselves and connect with people through reading and poetry writing. Free Minds Book Club hosts regular letter writing circles. With COVID-19, those circles are currently conducted over video calls.

Above all else, no matter who you’re writing to, the golden rule of letter-writing is to keep your correspondence going. So always write back!

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the Deputy Editor of The Renewal Project.