real Pen Pals – Michelle & Kristen
'For me, it’s about sharing thoughts and feelings in a safe place where you know that you have that person’s undivided attention. I love the excitement, surprise and delight of receiving the next instalment!'
Welcome to our newest feature on the journal - real Pen Pals.
I want to get to know the stories and anecdotes behind our Letter Writing Society's relationships with writing and having a pen pal - what made them sign up and take that leap of faith to start writing to a total stranger, what they enjoy about letter writing as opposed to more modern communications, and most importantly, championing the friendships that have emerged from this lovely pastime.
We're starting off this feature in honour of World Friendship Day, with Michelle and Kristen. Pen pals from across the pond for over three decades, their letter writing journey started at a young age and they've since become lifelong friends.
How did the idea of a pen pal first come to you? Was it something your school encouraged or was it through another means?
M - Kristen and I started writing to each other during my sixth form years as our school was due to exchange with another in the U.S. The schools thought it’d be a good idea for us to write to each other first before they visited to ease us into the process. Initially I was paired with a girl from Wisconsin, but at the last minute she dropped out and I was re-paired with Kristen instead. I was so nervous about her coming over, but we started writing to each other from there and slowly got to know one another.
K - Growing up, I never quite fit in with my peers so I took to writing to pen pals from all around the world. I am still in touch with one person from the Czech Republic all these years later!
Were you always interested in the written word, or have you developed an interest since you became a pen pal?
M - Yes, always. I was an avid reader as a child and used to take out every book my parents, sisters and my own library card would allow every few weeks. I’d come home with armfuls of books! I’ve now even had two essays published. Letter writing works best for me though as I like to have an audience to interact with.
K – Yes - I loved writing to my pen pals all over the USA with the same interests as me.
How long have you and your pen pal been writing to each other?
Both - 31 years! As far as we know we’re the only pair still in contact from school.
Can you recall the contents of your first letters? Was it difficult to know what to write initially?
M - I believe it was an introductory one so we kept to the basics - what our families were like and that we were looking forward to meeting one another. I think I still have all of our letters!
K – I was young and socially awkward! The first letters gave me the opportunity to learn about a new culture and how teens lived outside of the USA which was fascinating.
How regularly do you write now?
M - It depends, we both have really busy lives with children, work and family. But it’s rare we ever go longer than a month without writing to each other.
K – We also enjoy the annual Christmas greetings that come in the mail!
What is it about letter writing that you prefer to more modern methods of communication? Do you share anything different by letter to what you would by text, phone or even in person?
M - We talk pretty much the same as we do in person as when we’re writing. It’s a lot more satisfying to be able to write rather than instant message.
K - We both experienced some trauma around the same time so it was especially wonderful to have this connection with one another.
Have you ever met in person or do you stick solely to snail mail for your communication?
M - Oh yes, we’ve met many times - although not as much as I would like! Kristen has been to England a few times before she had children, and I’ve been to Connecticut on several trips. We talk like we’ve never been apart. We both wish we could meet more often – it’s my longest standing friendship.
K – After we survived the experience of the exchange, we became lifelong friends. I’ve been back to England to visit and she has visited me many times in the here. My kids have even tried out an English accent! Now when I talk about Michelle, they really can make the connection to her. She has sent them many amazing gifts over the years.
How did the past year or so affect your letter writing? Did you write more regularly during the lockdown or was it harder to stay in touch?
M - We definitely found it more difficult. Kristen is a teacher so she was continuing to work, and had her children and husband at home. I changed jobs and relocated to Oxfordshire, so we both found it hard to find the time to ourselves to write – but when we did, we had a lot to say!
K - We write as often as we can given the crazy schedules we keep as mothers!
Describe your writing set up to us – are you sat at your desk with a glass of wine, or do you prefer a cosy sofa and nice cup of tea?
Both - I don’t think either of us has that luxury! Usually, it’s a few minutes whilst the children are playing or just after their bedtime.
What is it that you enjoy most about letter writing, and would you encourage others to try it?
M - For me it’s as close as I can get to being there with Kristen in person. It’s about sharing thoughts and feelings in a safe place where you know that you have that person’s undivided attention. I often think that my words come directly from my heart as I never really think about what I’m writing, and I don’t edit it afterwards, so it feels completely natural. I love the excitement, surprise and delight of receiving the next instalment! I think it’s easier to talk candidly and confide in someone when they’re not there in front of you, and you get to know a person intimately. I would definitely recommend it; you never know how it’s going to change your life.
K – My pen friends at each point in my life have been very important to me. They helped me navigate growing up and made me feel connected to the world. I had friends even if they weren’t right next to me. With Michelle, I believe our families will be intertwined for many years to come.
Lastly, what are your writing essentials or go-to’s in terms of stationery?
M - I absolutely love stationery! I have all different sorts of paper. My favourite tool is a glass ink pen – it’s beautiful, and unlike some fountain pens doesn’t complain that I’m left-handed!
K – So much stationery! We so enjoy receiving Michelle’s mail - I marvel at her talents and crafting abilities!
Thank you both so much for taking part!
N.B. It's worth nothing that Michelle really is an excellent crafter. You'll find her works on miniatures and doll house model creations here - it's well worth checking out.