Pen Pals 101: How To Find And Keep A Pen Pal To Practise Your Language Skills

Pen-palling is ‘an endurance sport’ ... The Dublin-based prolific letter writer Liz Maguire. Photograph: Rafal Kostrzewa
Pen-palling is ‘an endurance sport’ ... The Dublin-based prolific letter writer Liz Maguire. Photograph: Rafal Kostrzewa
In the pandemic, many have rediscovered the sheer pleasure of writing to lớn strangers, with new schemes spreading hope và connection around the world

A few months ago, when the rules had been sufficiently relaxed lớn allow friends to sit together outside, Liz Maguire had coffee with a woman she had never met. The pair had already been communicating for months, & quickly fell into easy conversation. Later on, this woman tweeted about their meeting, lớn which another woman replied: “You met Liz Maguire? As in the Liz Maguire?”.

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The Liz Maguire is a 27-year-old American expat living in Dublin. Though undoubtedly a celebrity in her chosen field, she is not a professional, but that is simply because she is not paid to bởi what she loves, which is to lớn write letters lớn strangers.

At last count, Maguire had 88 pen pals on the go, scattered throughout Europe, Canada, the US and Singapore. She keeps track of their correspondence using a binder system sorted by month. She also collects historical letters, which she keeps in folders. Speaking khổng lồ me over Zoom, she leans forward lớn reveal a tall white shelving unit groaning under their combined weight. If that wasn’t enough, in January she started sending birthday cards lớn strangers, too. By mid-February, she had already sent 60. “People have messaged me to lớn say that my birthday card was only the second acknowledgement of the day they had.”

Pen-palling is “an endurance sport”, says Maguire, who on the morning we speak has sent seven handwritten letters. “Evenings và weekends are my busiest time. Then, if I apply myself, my hand can get about five or six four-pagers out. So that’s 25 pages a day. That’s a lot – especially as our generation aren’t usually able to write lượt thích this.” As a millennial also weaned on word processors, I nod along.

To write in that quantity, you need the right pen, Maguire explains. She prefers rollerballs (cheap, less smudging), which bear the names of various corporate venues possibly related khổng lồ her marketing day job. “To me, the physical act of writing a letter is a creative space away from work,” says Maguire. It is also a necessary one, given how hard it is to meet new people right now. “It is strange, how you learn to lớn communicate almost entirely through phone or email, how deeply impersonal that is.”

Like many pen-pallers, she won’t divulge much about her correspondents (this seems to be a code of honour among everyone I speak to), but “connection” is at the heart of what she does. Maguire and her pen pals chia sẻ stories, thoughts, books, Post-it notes, stickers and poetry. It’s upbeat stuff; the virut knits them together, yet is rarely mentioned.


Letters offer a reprieve from the sameyness of lockdown. Photograph: MassanPH/Getty ImagesThe pandemic has been good for pen pals. Before 2020, written correspondence was as good as dead; what the telephone had weakened, the internet finished off. Yet a year on, the very thing that promised to lớn broaden our world và nourish connection has left us feeling more isolated. My own feelings towards my phone have changed radically. WhatsApp is good for gossip, FaceTime for countering family alienation và Skype for when all else fails. E-mail is invaluable but there is something about the immediacy that crushes any thoughtfulness or intimacy. Phone calls are wonderful, but once you hang up, that’s it, you cannot hold them in your hands or go over them again.

Letter-writing feels lượt thích a solution, though with little to vì during lockdowns, there may have seemed little khổng lồ write about. But letters are good for us – humans thrive on activity & connectivity, and feel thwarted in the absence of those things. Letters offer a reprieve from the sameyness of lockdown, which made us simultaneously time rich và connection poor.

During the pandemic, letters have become more than simply a means of connection; they are first-person accounts of history as it unfolds, says David Russell, an English literature professor at the University of Oxford. “Letter-writing puts you into a speculative mode. You don’t have immediate access to the other person’s situation, & that produces great pieces of writing, which is why some of the best essays in literature start as letters.” Without facial expressions, intonation và gesticulation, the medium becomes the message. “Emails are immediate và instrumental. They have the strange effect of flattening the information they carry,” he says.

For my generation, writing to pen pals was part of growing up. I was ghosted by my first & only correspondent, possibly because I sent him a card covered with lipstick kisses. I was eight. But I still remember the visceral thrill of receiving a letter about what he’d seen on He-Man or Live và Kicking. After that, I mostly wrote to lớn my family. Separated for several reasons (including divorce), my mother & I would write each other long letters. An artist, she would paint watercolour ducks on hers, và I would cry reading them, usually smudging the ducks. Later, I wrote to boyfriends intermittently, but I hadn’t written a proper letter until last August when my mother died during the first wave of the pandemic.

From the paper, khổng lồ the stains & the handwriting, it is impossible khổng lồ send an impersonal letterShe didn’t die of Covid, but we have since learned that the virus complicated things. Mourning has been transformed by the pandemic, we all know that, but it still horrifies me to think of her death as a 2020 plot twist, a data point. All the things that make death vaguely manageable were out of reach – the external help, the care, a bearable funeral where people didn’t have to wear masks và which wasn’t indecently stripped back. She got sick when I was in labour & died 14 months later. Time prepares you for death, but it does not soften the loss. I have learned that it gets harder as time goes on, and that isolation has a way of sharpening the pain. Put simply, stuck at home, there is no new way to lớn express or explore it.

On the days I feel sad, I have no one to talk to lớn except my partner. Grief is not something you proffer in a text. I tried posting something on Instagram, but as a medium for loss on that scale, I found it almost insulting. As one cousin said in his letter to me, khổng lồ write on paper felt correct, & true. From the paper, to the stains và the handwriting, it is impossible khổng lồ send an impersonal letter.

My own letters started as thank yous in the weeks after the funeral. I would reply khổng lồ texts late at night so as khổng lồ prevent a back và forth, but on paper, words coiled out of me. Thank yous for the flowers. For the frozen meals. For the cards. For being part of my mother’s life, or even mine. Then I started sending cards lớn people I didn’t know. Not strangers, but cousins, my mother’s childhood friends that I had only just heard about.

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In the 1970s, my mother spent several months in Assam meeting our Indian family and while she was there, wrote a series of letters lớn her mother. These letters became a sort of journal, và in her dying months, she typed them up. After she died, I sent them to lớn her family. Letters within letters. While others stockpiled rice, I stockpiled artists’ notecards (my favourites are by Mary Fedden, Barbara Rae & Norman Ackroyd). Writing was a way of converting my sadness into gratitude, of connecting with her lost life.

For Najmeh Modarres, 37, letter-writing was an act of memorialisation prompted by an earlier health crisis. In 2015, she was working as a global health researcher based in Sierra Leone. She had been due khổng lồ return to lớn the UK in the spring when news that Ebola, the virus that had gripped the west coast of Africa, was spiking again. Some foreign workers got out but, eager lớn help, Modarres found work as an Ebola research manager. Sierra Leone had been the hardest-hit country, và had already implemented several lockdowns. Her friends & family thought she was crazy. “No one would dare come to lớn west Africa at that point,” she says. Soon enough, the capital Freetown found itself in enforced isolation, its once-bustling streets now those of a ghost town. Afraid, isolated and disconnected from her family, Modarres began writing khổng lồ strangers.


Some of the postcard paintings made by Najmeh Modarres of old board houses in Freetown, Sierra Leone.In between lockdowns, she had been making paintings of the city’s board houses, or “den ol bode house”, in the local Krio language. These wooden dwellings were being replaced by large concrete developments, and Modarres wanted khổng lồ document them before they disappeared. Cloistered in her rooms, she posted her pictures khổng lồ Instagram & a Sierra Leone Facebook group, asking if anyone wanted khổng lồ receive one & perhaps, she added tentatively, become a pen pal. In the end, she sent out around 60 paintings.

“Due to lớn inconsistent internet, lack of electricity, and the need for a bit of mindfulness, it just made sense lớn sit và write or draw away on a piece of paper,” she says. The press was reporting one thing, but she wanted lớn show “this beautiful, interesting, overlooked city to the world”. Replies came piecemeal, mainly from people who knew the country, or had visited. One was an architecture student in Cambridge; another an anthropology professor from Soas University of London, whose research she admired. One, a volunteer with the Peace Corps whose handwritten letters from the 1970s she had found on Flickr, she tracked down herself, never expecting a response. Then, several months later, she heard back. Delighted, the pair struck up a correspondence.

For Modarres, sending lockdown postcards became a tonic, a reprieve from the consuming anxiety of Ebola. She also liked to imagine the 15-day voyage each postcard took, the plane journeys, how many hands each one had passed through.

The tác giả Iris Murdoch wrote in one of her many letters that they "should aspire to lớn the condition of talk. Say the first thing that comes into your head"There is some confusion over the origins of the phrase “pen pal”, but the Student Letter Exchange, launched in 1936 by a teacher in the US keen khổng lồ broaden the global và cultural horizons of his students, probably cemented the concept. In 1964 Parker Pen launched a scheme using computers khổng lồ pair international pen pals at the thủ đô new york World Fair, promoting it with a crew of hostesses dubbed “Penettes”. Since then, pen-pal schemes have been mix up at prisons, care homes and among cancer sufferers, primarily to lớn tackle loneliness.

“It’s not easy finding people,” says prolific pen-paller Maguire. “I tried lớn solicit some on social media ages ago but there is a hesitancy, naturally, to lớn give out your details on the internet.” Many of her pen pals came through a new online scheme called Penpalooza, phối up by the writer Rachel Syme last March (Maguire now helps her with the admin). By January, the number of users had grown to 10,000. “This situation is global, it’s real, it’s scary,” says Maguire. “People are home alone, it’s all so isolating, so the idea that I can reach out lớn someone is appealing.” The author Iris Murdoch wrote in one of her many letters that they “should aspire to lớn the condition of talk. Say the first thing that comes into your head.” Jill, 56, from Hertford, has never met her pen pal Sarah, but their correspondence follows a similar mantra. “I know so little about Sarah, about who is around her, so we stick to what we bởi vì know or whatever comes into my head,” she says.


Jill from Hertford, who corresponds with Sarah, who she has never met. Photograph: HandoutIntroduced by a friend who runs a charity called From Me to lớn You that pairs pen pals with cancer sufferers, all Jill knows is that Sarah lives alone, by the sea, and has an aggressive form of cancer. “We don’t go deep with illness. When something is so completely defining you don’t want to go on about it,” she says. Instead, their letters take a gentler shape. “I work on a care farm so I’m fortunate to lớn have a catalogue of stories from that. Farms lend themselves to lighter moments so I’ll usually say, ‘Today I planted a row of carrots,’ or ‘My mèo threw up on my bed.’” Sometimes, Jill sends photo collages, face masks or lip balm. They giới thiệu an exercise book, which they take turns to write in, posting the book back và forth rather than writing paper.

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Jill writes because she believes family tư vấn was key lớn her survival after having cancer five years ago. “I simply cannot imagine going through treatment alone, so if I can let someone know that they still matter, even if it’s a faceless somebody, that is the catalyst.” Letters feel appropriate, less intrusive than a text. “It’s very easy lớn WhatsApp without thinking, without feeling. But to lớn have something to lớn hold, to look at – it’s very important when you’re alone.” Jill plans lớn meet up with Sarah when she’s allowed. “I recently sent a photo of an empty bench and said, ‘One day we’ll be drinking tea here, laughing about all this, you’ll see.”

Modarres started writing again last March. “I felt more disconnected than ever from family và friends, but perhaps my time in Sierra Leone prepared me for the current pandemic,” she says. Now living in Edinburgh, where she has been home-schooling two small children, she tends khổng lồ send her letters to family và friends.

For Maguire, though, nothing quite compares to lớn exchanging letters with someone you’ve never met. “There’s something incredibly vindicating about a complete và total stranger telling you: ‘Hey, it’s OK. It’s all going lớn be OK.’ In the act of telling one another that, I believe that we tell ourselves that as well.”