I wrote this for the Cultural Commentary section in the Spring Issue 2018 of The Sigh Press Literary Journal. In this issue, you’ll also find poetry from award-winning poet Alicia Ostriker, fiction from Poppy McLean and artwork by Anne Connell.
I used to have a pen-pal when I was in secondary school, some 20 years ago. She lived in Wales and we wrote without ever meeting.
There were pen-pal companies that set you up with a pen-pal overseas. And there were ways to write to people through magazines and schools. The written word—written word—was encouraged as a means to make friends. Of course, there wasn’t Internet then.
Penmanship was important, when writing a letter, you had to slow down to make your writing legible (or at least I did), which meant your thoughts were deliberated over, weighed, more concise, so as to avoid an ugly correction. With the touch of paper beneath your pen, thoughts became more personal; the scratch of a nib on paper made it seem that you were really writing to and for one person and one person alone—not the many potential eyes of the World Wide Web—and so, despite the deliberation, there was less self-censorship of ideas and thoughts.
Throw away comments, ill-thought-out diatribes, and messages written in anger, are all too easy in emails and in many of the newer forms of communication. And ironically, even though they are instantaneous, they lack immediacy. It feels as if there is so much cyberspace between you and the other person that the words become sterile and lose the sincerity of the emotions that they are trying to express—or worse, take on another meaning altogether, misunderstood, and often regretted.
Perhaps it is all this new technology, new ways of communicating, that makes me want to go back to a time when there were fewer modes and more actual communication.
A pen, a pad (what’s nicer than new stationery?), an envelope, and a stamp. Handwritten words. The excitement of opening a thick envelope. I found some crisp blue writing paper in a drawer the other day and decided to take up the habit again. Write a letter to someone in Ireland and then wait, be patient (Posta Italiane certainly won’t help speed things up). Haven’t told my friend my plan yet, it will be a surprise. Will she be my pen-pal? I hope so.
Text © M.E. Walsh & Artwork © Anne Connell