I remember my first pen pal, her name was Christele and she was a French student in a small school outside of Paris. We were paired up by our respective schools to write to each other – for us to improve our French and for them to improve their English. It has been over 20 years. Not only are we still friends, we still write each other letters. We have never spoken on the phone, seen each other in person or written an email to each other. Our friendship is purely handwritten.
I can remember my trepidation writing my first letter to her. What paper should I use, what color ink, what would I say?! The thoughts overwhelmed me. In the end, I decided on my favorite purple letter sheet with a matching envelope and my favorite fountain pen with dark eggplant ink.
Writing to someone you have never met is daunting. What do you say? How do you start and end the letter, and what do you ask?
First you must decide on the tone. To this day, I tend to write like I speak, so my tone is fairly informal. It works for me, so I stick with that. I write like I am in a personal conversation; I ask questions and then answer them myself. Nothing too personal, but just enough to get to know who I am.
Always start with an introduction – your name, where you’re from, and a little bit about yourself. It is the jumping off point, a place where you can start building your friendship. Then go into sharing with your new friend a few of your hobbies. For example, if you like reading, what are your favorite books and what are you currently reading? What kind of music or movies do you enjoy? Remember to ask questions, too. Even though this is a letter, you are expecting a response – ask your new penpal what their hobbies are, what life is like in their town/city/country.
Consider also including a photo of yourself (if not in the first letter, then the second). It is good to be able to put a face to a name! As my friendship grew with Christele, we exchanged photos of us growing up, so I have a visual record of our friendship! She even sent me a picture of her with her entire extended family! I have sent her pictures of me on my most important days of my life.
My first letter to Christele led to hundreds of letters back and forth. We talked about school, then university, then life as a young adult; we wrote through boyfriends and jobs, moves, hopes and dreams. Now we talk about our children, our careers, our futures. On my fridge I have a picture of her with her beautiful family, because through our letters, through that first written word, we became friends. And it is a friendship that has crossed decades, language and an ocean.
Meet the Writer: Akhila Jagdish is a writer and editor in the process of starting her own editorial services company, The Crafted Word. She loves making lists, collecting journals, reading, drinking wine and cooking.