Dear Penpalooza Members,
Well, 2021 has begun. And most of us, many of us, are still indoors, most of the time. In New York City, it is twenty-two degrees outside, but feels like eight. It started snowing and it will not stop for two days. What I am trying to say is that it is as good a week as any to stay in and write a letter -- not like the virus is leaving us much choice. When I said that #Penpalooza would continue to stay open and active as long as the pandemic did, I meant it -- I just never imagined that it would still be churning into this year. In ways, I am so heartened that this service burns on, and that so many of you have been so enthusiastic about it; it has sparked countless acts of creativity and kindness, most of which I never hear about because they are shared between two people privately with the lick of a stamp. I do wish that the mailbox wasn’t such a total lifeline eleven months into this mess. But here we are, at the crisp edge of a new year, staring into the mailbox, hoping it will bear fruit. I hope yours is a cornucopia.
A few 2021 housekeeping notes: going forward, this newsletter will hit your inboxes once monthly (and all apologies for sending this one at the very end of this month!). In the meantime, if you want a new match, check out the replies to this tweet to find over 100 people looking for new pen pals (the best way to get in touch is reply to their tweets or send a DM). You can also always email us asking for a new match.
Also, this newsletter, being a sort of magpie magazine of my own lockdown-broken brain creation, doesn’t really have a regular format or even a regular send date (lol), but, starting this month, I’ll always include a section towards the end called THE SHOPPIES which includes some frivolous things to put in your online shopping carts to support your letter-writing addiction. So if you are just here for the hot tips, skip everything and go straight to that section :)
This issue also marks the debut of a new section called ASK PENPALOOZA where we answer all your crackling questions, like “where can I buy good envelopes?” or “how much does it cost to send a postcard to France?” or “what kind of onion skin paper do you recommend?” or “what do I say in a letter to a total stranger?” No question is too silly or too indulgent. If you have a question to submit for the next issue, please do send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Ask Penpalooza.”
Lastly: thank you SO much to everyone who contributed to the holiday Penpalooza-Pays-It-Forward fundraiser for Black + Pink and Girls Write Now. All told, we raised just over $800 to donate to each cause (!!!!), which is completely lovely, and will help pay for stamps and writing supplies. I mailed out all the matchbookmarks to those who donated over $25 and sent a receipt, but if for some reason you did this and didn’t receive yours, email us at email@example.com. The USPS is still getting its groove back after the December from hell.
OK! Onto it.
THIS MONTH’S #PENPALOOZA PLAYLIST: WRITING LETTERS FROM SUMMER CAMP
True story: Almost every reporter writing about #Penpalooza has asked me whether I think that the surge of letter writing in lockdown is a sign that we are regressing en masse -- that somehow this hobby is a return to the sun-dappled, creampuff days of our youth when the most pressing concern was finding the perfect Lisa Frank sticker. For the most part, I think this question is very silly -- if not subtly dismissive. Throughout history, nearly all of the most celebrated letter writers were, in fact, of legal drinking age. One need only look at how many websites titrate out Ernest Hemingway’s entire collected correspondence for clicks to see our continued obsession with the correspondences of fully grown men who banged out judgmental missives on battered Coronas. This sudden need to associate the resurgence of letter writing with adults cosplaying as moony teenagers is perhaps just an easy assumption; if email exists, and it is right there, then how could taking up the analog practice of hurling paper back and forth be anything but a frilly, nostalgic yearning for the past? I would argue, however, that the new zeal for letters is not so much a longing for the retrograde, but a rediscovery of a sophisticated and secret world that was always available to us. Email renders words and emotions flat, without color or context. Letters allow words to creep across your mind like a stock ticker, they demand slow and careful reading, they let you hold in your hands something that physically passed through the hands of another. They let you take a moment out of your life to think before you speak. They encourage sustained connections, over long distances and periods of time. They promote active, tangible investment in the life of another. This, to me, does not feel like a regression.
Maybe there is something schmaltzy and romantic about this whole thing. And I get the comparison; teens spend a lot of time in their bedrooms. Right now, we all are doing much of the same. But I would not really compare my current practice of writing letters to being thirteen again; back then, I made envelopes by ripping pages out of old YM magazines and folding them in thirds. I had one regular pen pal that I met at a summer drama camp (I know, shocking), and I would be truly horrified to re-read the letters we sent back and forth for an entire year. I am sure they were full of confessing our unrequited crushes and wondering if we would ever be cool and complaining about the ways we felt our loving parents were deeply cramping our style. My letters probably looked like script notes for PEN15. I found an old diary from the same time a few years ago, and it was almost too cringe-worthy to read. I wrote about a boy I had a crush on with the codename “Adonis II” (with absolutely no mention whatsoever of there ever being an Adonis I). What I am trying to say is that I have since found new material.
That said, I don’t want to kill the part of letter writing that first blooms when you are young, that first magical day when something arrives in the post that is just for you and you alone. Letter writing -- at least in the age of the Internet -- has a kind of daffy optimism to it. It’s writing you do just for the exhilarating experience of doing it. If you wanted to just talk to people, there are phones. If you wanted to just make requests and convey information, there is email. Letters are the last remaining life rafts of the way you thought grownups might write when you were in middle school -- passionately, long-sustained, with great purpose and intimacy.
So I made a playlist for that part of you: the part that is still writing letters home from camp, that realizes that writing letters in the age of abundant technology, is, as it turns out, a form of camp. There are big Lilith Fair vibes here. A real diary-that-locks energy. A real trip to the mall where you spend all of your allowance on a hemp necklace at Spencer’s Gifts kind of mood. Give into it. We will be back to adult programming next month.
ONE GOOD LETTER (a sporadic feature about letters from the archive)
Speaking of summer -- a time and a season that seems so far removed from my frosted windowpanes that it feels like a mirage -- I have been thinking a lot lately about Zelda Fitzgerald. Let me explain: I have a game I play where I try to slot writers into seasons. Every writer has a season they write best about, or that their writing seems to exist in, spiritually. Edith Wharton, for example, is the rare winter writer, as she writes about fur muffs and working fireplaces and people so wealthy that they will never know what it is like to have frostbite. She writes in perpetual December, insomuch as so much of her work is an opulent drawing room with a roaring hearth where the drama burns on despite whatever blizzard may be happening outside. Her characters are as disconnected from the rest of New York City as hibernating bears. And yet they still believe the world begins and ends at their cave.
I’ve been thinking about Zelda because I am longing for heat that doesn’t come in the form of jittery radiator steam, and because “The Great Gatsby” entered the public domain this year and so we are about to be subjected to a barrage of Fitzgeraldiana for the next few years (likely through the book’s 100th’ anniversary in 2025, and certainly through the many lazy “are we in the NEW ROARING TWENTIES????” pieces that will emerge if we can ever go to parties again). I know that in all of this Zelda will be scooped up again like a piece of pyrite glinting in a river, and people will again take up her cause, arguing that Scott stole her diaries and he used them without her consent and that her madness was really a tragic cocktail of heartbreak and jealousy and thwarted ambition. I won’t litigate all that here. Like I said, countless essayists are about to do it! But what I do know is that we have a brilliant archive of Zelda’s writing without having to read between the lines of someone else’s novelization of her life, and it comes in the form of her letters. And her letters feel to me like they were always written in summertime.
In a letter to Scott from an Ashland sanitarium in late July of 1939 (just six months before he died), she wrote that “Summer billows over the sky and the lakes; every green square swoons to the sway of a white swirling dress and Time itself is become a transient.” In 1937, writing from another hospital, she daydreams about a place where “apple orchards slumber down the hill-sides and twist imperviously about the stem of Time -- and every now + then a train shivers in the distance and the distance is again glamorous + desirable.”
To my mind, Zelda Fitzgerald is one of the best letter writers to have ever taken up the practice, despite there being relatively few of her missives to go on (compared to say, Elizabeth Bishop, whose collected letters weighs in at over 1000 pages). But she is just so alive on the page when she writes to someone else directly. She always wanted to be a ballerina, but letters are where she really got to dance. Her sentences twirl and dip, they do pirouettes. Her words are like feral children running through cold sprinklers on the hottest day of the year. Her words clink against each other like ice cubes in a pitcher of fresh lemonade. And then they melt, and she melts down, and she manages to chronicle her own transformation into a puddle like a journalist on a war assignment. Anyways, I really recommend buying Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda and reading it in the bathtub.
Here’s one of my favorite of her letters. For when you need to think about warmer days.
and now…THE SHOPPIES
Why don’t you…
….go back to the classiques and buy some creamy cardstock from the Crane store? I like the peacock feather cards as they connote a certain sense of grandeur but these fountain pen cards with matching envelopes will give your correspondence a decidedly midcentury feel. Why not send a heavy, substantial note that also says “my aesthetic sort of stopped evolving in 1955?”
…experiment with embossing? First things first, watch a tutorial. Then you will need the following to get started: an embossing gun. A VersaMark pad. Embossing powder. And then a rubber stamp that you love…and speaking of which...why don’t you…
...get really into rubber stamps this year? You can order via catalog (yes, via catalog! The dream of the 1940s is alive at Casey’s!) from Casey Rubber Stamps, one of the last independent stamping stores left in Manhattan.
...lastly...why don’t you buy one of Imogen Duthie’s beautiful, hand-printed, limited edition Penpalooza posters from Spain? You can frame it and hang it over your letter-writing desk! I spoke to Imogen, and she had this to say about the work: “I signed up for Penpalooza in September and have since become a bit of an addict (I would say I have more than 15 pen pals now). I do screen printing on Tuesday mornings, in a studio 10 minutes away from me. It struck me one day that prints were perfect for sending to all my lovely pen pals, so I got to work. I made about 6 square-shaped designs, all the same size and put them on a screen, so I could mix and match them, and play with direction and colours. They included a ‘Penpalooza 2020’ design – I didn’t really think about it too much at the time, but I think I was subconsciously trying to rebrand 2020 so I could remember the lovely things that have come out of it. It encouraged me to reopen my Etsy shop and to start new art projects too.”
BUT WAIT…THERE’S MORE…
Tara F. asks “Where do I buy nice envelopes on the larger side without cards - I want to do some block printing on them!”
Glad you asked, Tara. Envelopes are my true passion. They are like pajamas for your writing. They are the warm jacuzzi your letter slips into after a long day. My favorite source for letter pajamas is JAM Paper, perhaps the only paper store to specialize in outerwear for your prose. I like the vellum ones as they feel like silk, but for block printing, you’ll like the heavier Strathmores. Also, if you feel like getting truly whimsical, there are pearlized “stardream metallic” envelopes that give your letters the appearance of a mirrored coke table in the 1980s, or a lamé gown, take your pick.
Claire M. asks “I'd love to hear more about the best pens that are not fountain pens - for those of us whose letters look like blood baths after encounters with the deadly weapon that is a fountain pen. I'd also love to know how people seal their envelopes - sealing, stickers, sticky ribbon etc. I'm not a sticker fan, but I would like to make the outside look as cool as the inside. Seals also unfortunately fall off, so I'm sealing the letter rather than the envelope. Would love to hear more!”
Well, now!!! There is going to be an entire future issue devoted to pens, so I’ll put a pin in my full rhapsody, BUT I would be remiss if I did not immediately mention the Paper Mate Ink Joy, a pinnacle of pennovation that makes writing feel like slicing through hot cake. As for sealing an envelope — the secret is to really close that sucker tight with permanent craft tape (an item I went from not knowing about in 2019 to now being so zealous about that I order in bulk) so that you don’t have to worry about the seal popping open on the journey. If you are not really a sticker person but you don’t want your seals to fall off, how about springing for some wax seals that are stickers? Pre-gummed wax seals are a secret weapon to take your letters from blah to baroque in mere seconds (and there’s no melting or mess!). You’ll be looking like Lady Whistledown in no time.
Have a question for Ask Penpalooza? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Ok, that’s it for the January issue (sent out in the nick of time). Look for discussion threads coming soon! Next month’s newsletter is all about writing instruments: typewriters and fountain pens, to be exact. I’m talking to experts and cobbling together a little guide for you all about buying both as a beginner. Then in March, we will talk to a few of the most ornate envelope makers in the program about getting started with mail art and calligraphy. Lots to come! Thank you for being part of this project. It’s amazing to me that you all keep sending letters. But you do. And they are arriving.