real Pen Pals – Alison & Jemma
'I think letter writing is a great way to distil your train of thoughts and calm all the words and ideas filling your head into a meaningful bunch of sentences that hopefully convey the humour, sadness or whatever it is you are trying to get across to someone else.'
Welcome to our next instalment of 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 continuing this feature with Alison and Jemma. Two busy working women, they somehow manage to squeeze in some time in their days to sit down and put pen to paper.
How did the idea of a pen pal first come to you? Was it something your school encouraged or was it through another means?
A – I’ve always loved reading published diaries and letter collections, which is where my interest in letter writing started. I often turn back to favourite books for inspiration as it’s harder than you might think to compose a good letter! Equally, I’ve always loved writing letters and have done so since childhood. I’ll sometimes post letters to my partner whom I live with, usually because I want him to receive a card that I think he’ll like, but also to write about things that are not immediately pressing but that I don’t want to forget to tell him.
J - I had a pen pal when I was in primary school. I met a girl in a playpark and we got on so well that we exchanged addresses and became pen pals! She was from another part of the UK so we kept in contact for a couple of years after that. I think my mother would have been the one to initiate this idea.
Were you always interested in the written word, or have you developed an interest since you became a pen pal?
A - I have always been interested since day one, I love reading and get through a lot of books, probably buying more than I can realistically get through!
J – I’ve always loved writing and would love to do more creative writing as I enjoy it so much. There’s something so special about writing a letter to someone, and I feel really strongly about it even more so today, when it feels as though it is dying out.
How long have you and your pen pal been writing to each other?
A - About a year and half, although I can’t believe the time has gone so fast!
J - We started writing in January 2020. I remember this because I wanted it to be part of my new year's resolution, which was to try something new every month!
Can you recall the contents of your first letters? Was it difficult to know what to write initially?
A - I definitely thought it would be harder than it was. Fortunately, Jemma is very good at asking questions and structuring her letters so she is very easy to respond to and correspond with.
J - I cannot recall the contents of our first letters, but I know they were nice because you ask a lot of questions and get to know the other person. We found out that we had a lot of things in common which was great! I started off the first letter by trying to introduce myself generally and ask some questions to find out more about my pen pal.
How regularly do you write now?
A - With each responding to the last letter we probably receive something every couple of months.
J - We usually write a letter to each other every 2-3 months. I am awful at responding to people at the best of times! I like to really sit down and not rush the letter.
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?
A - I think writing a letter feels more personal, so I share more than I would in an email or text. It feels like you have far more space to be open, so I think my writing is more descriptive and includes more of my thoughts and opinions. Part of letter writing is far more creative than typing out an email. I tend to pick up vintage stationery to use, not always to the best effect(!), as I think I previously wrote to Jemma on vintage blue airmail paper once that was so thin and wispy, I wasn’t sure it would make the postage!
J - I definitely think there are differences between the act of writing a letter and an email. Not only is the physical appearance of the letter more personal, as you can see the persons handwriting etc, but it also slows you down. You can type an email so quickly and it's often a lot more factual. A letter makes you delve a little deeper and share more of your personality and spirit.
Do you have any nice little anecdotes or stories you can share with us about your letters to one another?
A - I think we both sent letters that arrived with the recipient on their birthday the first year we were writing to each other. We didn’t know each other’s birthday dates, so this was completely by chance!
J - I can't think of anything specific, but it's been lovely to get to know Alison more over the past year and a bit. We always find that we have more and more in common each time. We have mutual interests in yoga, cooking/baking and all things stationery!
Have you ever met in person or do you stick solely to snail mail for your communication?
A - We haven’t met in person, but that would definitely be fun, especially as I think we both set store in enjoying good coffee in great cafes.
J - We haven't met in person – yet!
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?
A - I think Jemma and I have kept up our letter writing well. It’s been so nice to receive letters from her when I’ve been really busy, and I can use them as a great excuse to sit in the garden and get away from the laptop for a bit!
J - I wouldn't say that it did either. I am probably worse at replying than Alison - even during lockdown! I was surprised as I thought that the idea of having all this extra time would mean I would get better at replying!
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?
A - I am open to all snack and drink options! The only consistency I probably have is a vintage writing desk/box given to me by my grandma, one of those ones with lots of secret cupboards and fake drawers, which I really love.
J - I usually like to write at my desk. Or on the sofa. I prefer to be alone with no distractions when I am writing a letter. This is probably why it takes me a while to respond at times as this sort of occasion doesn't happen very often! I started my own business during lockdown which has kept me very busy and I was still working full-time from home too.
What is it that you enjoy most about letter writing, and would you encourage others to try it?
A - I think letter writing operates on the opposite end of the spectrum to the other ways I find myself commonly communicating - by liking a post, or giving a photo a thumbs-up, or writing a swift and to-the-point work email. I really look forward to reading what Jemma wants to tell me about, hearing about what is important to her, what she has found difficult since we last wrote. I think letter writing is a great way to distil your train of thoughts and calm all the words and ideas filling your head into a meaningful bunch of sentences that hopefully convey the humour, or sadness or whatever it is you are trying to get across to someone else. Sometimes it still comes out a mess, which is when a short re-draft is necessary, but to be able to articulate your thoughts and engage meaningfully and thoughtfully in a conversation is surely a good thing to recommend.
J - I love putting pen to paper, so I would encourage people to try it because it can be very therapeutic. I like that it enabled me to get to know someone I might not have met in my life otherwise and bridge a connection with her. It can be a bit daunting at first, but there is really nothing to lose!
Lastly, what are your writing essentials or go-to’s in terms of stationery?
A - I don’t feel it would be a proper letter if I hadn’t written it on my desk… my handwriting is a big thing, so it requires the right pen. I like using Kaweco inks, and am using a smoky grey and dark green a lot at the moment. I learnt that vintage airmail paper is not so great (!) so a good weight of writing paper, oh, and if there was the possibility of a lined envelope, possibly one with a fantastically colourful design for the inside of the envelope, that would also make it onto the list too.
J - I use letter writing set I bought a while back which was beautiful, and then I bought a personalised letter writing set. I love using my Kaweco fountain pen too.
Thank you both so much for taking part!
P.S. If you'd like to hear more about Jemma's new business, you can find her delicious creations @blundellbakes on Instagram