Features, University News

Letters unsigned, but sealed and delivered

As Pen Pals, anonymous students foster new friendships through old-fashioned letter writing

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Some may say the art of a handwritten letter has been lost in a modern age saturated with Snapchats and Emojis. But the Brown Pen Pals are dedicated to keeping this fleeting art of letter writing alive. Through the club, student pairs exchange handwritten letters to form anonymous, yet surprisingly intimate, relationships.

“It’s kind of romantic,” said Wenjie Zheng ’17, current coordinator of the group, adding that one past pen pal pair became a married couple. Though about 75 percent of pen pal pairs choose never to meet in person, the friendships the letters foster are deep and lasting, Zheng said.

“You don’t know their face — it doesn’t mean that you don’t know them,” said Mandana Ali ’16.5,  a current Brown pen pal. Anonymity provides the “opportunity to be 100 percent unfiltered.”

Signed

Meia Geddes ’14 and her friend Nestor Noyola ’14 co-founded the group during the fall of 2012. As coordinators, Geddes and Noyola played matchmakers for pen pal pairs using applicants’ preference forms for semester level, gender, letter topics and, above all, writing frequency. Originally, the coordinators matched pairs randomly, using cut strips of paper with students’ names on them to maintain the physicality of Pen Pals behind the scenes.

As a new coordinator, Zheng plans to require a writing sample from applicants “to ensure they’re dedicated to writing letters.”  Though coordinators can reassign pairs at any time during the semester if a pen pal is unresponsive, a pen pal relationship can last as long as each pair wants, and “people can choose to reveal themselves at any time,” Geddes said.

Once matched, pairs are free to determine the nature of their relationship as pen pals, including letter length, frequency and content. Ali said she exchanges letters of varying lengths once a month with her pen pal. The longest letter was five pages, the shortest was just one page, and the “first letters were both extremely long,” she said.

Another pen pal, who preferred to remain anonymous for the sake of her pen pal relationship, said she exchanges a letter with her pen pal every two to three weeks.  And the pair does not just exchange letters — this writer sent her favorite novella to her pen pal.

Mail Services accommodates the anonymity of Pen Pals within the University: Students exchange box numbers under pseudonyms or simply label the letters “Pen Pals” rather than using names.  Letter sending is free within the University, but external growth adds costs to the group. The group currently reimburses its four pairs of international pen pals, Zheng said.

Sealed

Pen Pals fosters relationships of depth more than breadth. Geddes said the coordinators originally tried to plan events at which pen pal pairs could meet one another, but these events proved unpopular in the group’s formative years. Zheng said he’s toyed around with the idea of hosting events that maintain anonymity, such as  a masquerade.

The medium of the anonymous letter makes the pen pal relationship more personal, Zheng said, adding that “the person’s handwriting looks like the person himself or herself,” he added.  Zheng emphasized the different mode of thought in writing by hand and the self reflection required to describe “who we are” to an anonymous stranger.  He smiled to call it “the adventure of finding your true self.”

The young club is growing fast.  More than 300 students signed up for Pen Pals this year, compared to around 150 last year, according to Zheng. Moving forward, Zheng plans to launch new programs to expand Pen Pals to student-faculty pairs and to work with the Department of Literary Arts in forming handwriting and letter writing workshops.

Delivered

Though Pen Pals formally advertises only at Brown, some Rhode Island School of Design students and Brown alums participate, and “we are still looking for more alums,” Zheng added.

Though the club did not exist during their time at Brown, Jessica Pan ’07 and Rachel Kapelke-Dale ’07 have long used the traditional means of communication. The pair chose to publish their correspondence as a book this past May.­ The nonfiction collection of letters, titled “Graduates in Wonderland,” was the result of a pact made between the two the night before their graduation. They promised each other to write handwritten letters, even when they lived on opposite sides of the globe. The book gained attention from “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. The book’s co-authors and Sherman-Palladino have since discussed potential film and television adaptations.

At a “Graduates in Wonderland” book signing held at the Brown Bookstore, Pan, one of the book’s authors, met Pen Pal founder Geddes and expressed her support for the on-campus group.

I’m yours

The human connection forged in letter writing keeps pen pals writing back.

Pan noted the catharsis and grounding she feels from writing letters.

Letter writers “don’t get bogged down with the details,” she said.

“I found that when you have to relay the situation to someone else who’s not (there), you sort of see everything,” she explained.

Pan also said she cherishes honest, removed feedback from her former pen pal. Kapelke-Dale was the first to notice Pan’s true love for China and for the man who is now her husband, Pan said, adding that Kapelke-Dale identified these feelings in Pan before she realized them herself.

Pan and Kapelke-Dale now live five blocks apart in London, so they spend more time editing each other’s work than writing letters, Pan said. Today the occasional letter sometimes comes with a caveat, “You’re not allowed to publish this.”

Pan described her personal letter writing style to include dialogue, humor, reflection and “a sense of present tense.” But most important, according to Pan, is “total honesty even if it’s completely embarrassing.”

“Be honest and personal and revealing because you’ll get rewarded, and it’s just nice to be known and to feel like you know someone else,” she said.

  • yeah

    This sounds like Omegle with real physical paper.

  • vicious little whack-a-mole

    ive met friends/boyfriends through anonymous comments on their bdh opinions articles… thats kinda similar

    no but this is really cool. i didnt even know it existed when i was there