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Pen Pals: The Lost Art Of Letter Writing

After a decade as a journalist, Jennifer Branton is on the path to finding a balance between career and writing.

A Friend From A Far

In grade school, my first experience with pen pals was a class exchange in which we were to correspond with another class in some Midwestern state. I remember our teacher explaining the exercise, to write about ourselves, our likes and dislikes. To tell about our school and our class. Maybe something personal about how many siblings we have, or if we have a pet. The letters would be mailed off to the other school in question and distributed and the other class would have to write us something back.

The most simple of letter writing- just a lesson in communication and grammar, I guess.

Already a wordsmith from the amount of books that I had read, I took my one sided page of grade school- wide ruled paper and filled every line with as much content as I could get in. I told about my favorite classes, my teacher. My friends. I mentioned that I had a golden retriever.

Our letters were sent off, I guess to be distributed at random to the other students. As I recall the letter I got back was extremely dull, the student only writing about three lines about how they were a boy, they were at whatever the name of the school was we had written to, and that he didn't have a dog.

I was jealous of my friend Kristi, who had gotten a full page letter from a girl that was named Donja and was already writing in cursive. We squinted at her page and tried to read every word.

Donja should have been the one to respond to me letter as she chronicled her entire day up to the point where she was writing the letter. Kristi didn't even care so much about getting a reply, but she did write another letter.

I didn't bother to respond to the boy that I had gotten the letter from, as it wasn't required to do so.

For about three years, I got to see Kristi's letters to Donja, who had now exchanged home addresses and pictures.

I lived vicariously through my friend's pen pal, on the search for my own.


The Metal Edge

As Kristi was still writing Donja by the time we were approaching middle school, I had never forgotten her sharing of the newest pictures that she had been sent and the tales of growing up in another state. It seemed no matter where you lived, the issues involving school and growing up were all the same.

So I started looking in the back of magazines that I subscribed to as I noticed that some had submission forms for pen pal exchanges. The idea now is of course ridiculous to trust that a magazine would swap addresses with two strangers and hope that one wasn't a serial killer and show up and murder the other. Heck, even email and message boards online were becoming just as dangerous as the internet matured, but back then I thought nothing about signing up for a pen pal exchange on a form in Metal Edge Magazine, a music publication that featured hard rock and eighties heavy metal acts.

Back in those days, I was still convinced that I would be the music journalist that I eventually became for a short period of time but it was all short lived when I started to see what the seedy underbelly of the business was really like and made little to no money doing so.

The form asked how many pen pals I would like to have, I thought as many as I could respond to and I think I had written in up to four correspondents.

Within weeks, I have my first two letters arrive and I was elated to take a pen to paper and learn about my new friends that had been selected on the interests that I had listed on the form.

Jason Newsted Hair

Looking back, the magazine didn't really do a responsible job of matching pen pals. I couldn't blame them, someone probably took all the people that responded and just drew names and doled out information.

One letter I received was from a college age man that had sent me a photo of himself clad in a leather jacket that looked proper place on a CD booklet, a hoop earning in his left earlobe, and long feathered hair seen on the best bands of the eighties and nineties metal scene.

I think his name was Mike, come to think of it and I couldn't read most of his scribble. It was basically a list of bands that he liked and songs that were some of his favorites. He had nothing in common with a kid my age so I didn't really talk about myself. Just did the same listing some music videos I had enjoyed and bands I would like to see one day. I told him that his ratted hair made him look like Jason Newsted from Metallica, and that got back the last letter that I got from, I think his name was Mike.

He just said thank you for the compliment and asked if I had ever gone to any concerts yet.

I am pretty sure I replied but never got a letter back.

I was a middle school baby with nothing to talk to a college kid about. I don't know why we were matched up at all actually but I learned something from that brief interlude about how to sell yourself to other people in writing and make it believable. I had said that I was going to be a journalist, that I was going to interview all the bands that I had listed and that one day, Maybe his name was Mike would see my content.

I did interview some of those bands, and plenty more that I met later. I had some great experiences in the music world, and maybe the Guy Who Might Have Been Named Mike, may have read some of the content I sold online or had written for local music rags, if he even remembered the middle school brat that had once complimented his hair.

My second pen pal was a much better match.


Gas, Food, And Lodging

Anna was a little younger than me.

I don't remember much about her background, but she was from Maine. She liked some of the same music, but as I recall, not enough to explain why she had written for a pen pal in a hard rock and metal music themed magazine. Anna listened to more pop music than anything and the few pictures that I had of her that I taped into my journal with her letters, she always seemed to be wearing something very feminine and pink; contrasting with my own photos where I was hard to pick out as a girl until the later years where Doc Marten boots and baby doll dresses were my thing with very heavy eye makeup in some sort of homage to rockers like Courtney Love of Hole and Shirley Manson of Garbage.

Anna had a boyfriend, even though she was younger than me and I was intrigued as he was in a high school band. They went on to play at the VFW Hall, as some of the friends I had that played music in high school had done.

From the letters, Anna claimed they were very much in love and planning to move away together when she was graduating high school which sounded like a million years away. The boyfriend's band was called Gas, Food, and Lodging- which they thought sounded great on a VFW marquee, but in retrospect of seeing bands with names like Midget Wrestling, or Barenaked Ladies having more of a marquee draw, I guess Gas, Food, and Lodging was banking on someone thinking the VFW hall was a rest stop and would pop in only to find a high school band with their biggest fan wearing all pink singing along to every word.

I don't remember what I told Anna about myself.

We didn't write for very long, as along came the internet and having message board friends and people to instant message had more of a draw than waiting for a letter that may never come in the mail but something about the handwritten note had a very nostalgic feel to me even to this day.


Fonts VS Scribbles

I understand for the convince and the speed that communication now travels that the typed word has become the best way. I try to picture what it would be like several hundred years ago to have penned this story by hand, sent it to an editor to be proofed, type-set, printed, and distributed.

The world moves so fast now.

Most people that journal don't even do that by hand anymore as there is no need with the sheer amount of blogging pages.

Still I miss the days of seeing actual penmanship set to paper, thoughts excitedly being smeared in erratic ink marks. Cross-outs, and misspellings when the idea formed too quickly for the writers mind to properly plan out the sentence.

I miss going to the mailbox and getting more than store flyers and coupons.

The highlight of my week was a handwritten invitation to my nephew's high school graduation party.

I think it is easy to forget how people communicated before there was the instant methods of computers. As I do love my modern devices, I wouldn't mind going back to a simple notebook to take down some of my thoughts for future content, or ideas that need jotting.

I really want for someone to send me an actual letter.

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