Faraway Friends With Pens: A Look At Letters And Notes

When I was in high school* we never had a pen pal set up with people in other foreign-language countries. I thought those things only happened in books and American Pie (or what was that movie about the German exchange student?). What we did do, however, was write each other little notes. And thinking about it now, those little notes were the most amazing things.

Anytime there was some sort of holiday (Halloween, “Valentine’s Day,” school dance), there was a table set up in the main hallway where if you gave 50¢ or $1 to some sort of cause (I really can’t think of any), you would also get to write a note to somebody and then someone else would deliver it to them during class. Kind of like Mean Girls! Because I’ve kept every scrap of paper ever given to me in my entire life, I have an entire box full of these notes. None of them make any sense, really, one of them says “bobbing.” Also you guys I can’t believe I just opened this box.

But on ordinary days, we used to pass each other notes for free. These were sometimes folded in the most complex and (and creative, looking back) ways, which made it more fun to open. I remember the girl who helped me realize that I was bisexual and I used to pass each other secret notes in between classes, sticking them in each other’s lockers. They said pretty much anything; what had happened in first period, what we dreamt about last night, what we were doing that exact moment before writing. It didn’t really matter. What mattered was that we were thinking about each other when we weren’t together.

We did it with friends too. It’s just what we did when we were bored in class. We doodled, scribbled a note, folded it up and stuck it in somebody’s locker. Sometimes we wrote notes at night and delivered them in the morning. There were whole conversations happening on paper that weren’t even being spoken aloud.

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As we grew older and got cell phones, the notes became less and less. It was all about texting during class, and, well, it was lame to buy Halloween-o-Grams. Our dollars were better spent on food instead of paper, unless it was rolling paper. This is kind of what our lives are now, aren’t they? I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, because I don’t think it is, I’m just saying that this is where we are. For long-distance friends and lovers, emailing is fast, free, and you can access it on your phone which makes it instant (I mean this in a different way than “fast”).

I was in a long-distance relationship once, and our primary contact was email. Both of us having intelligent phones, we could email each other as if it were text messaging. This is really special you guys! I don’t want you to think that because this is a post about writing on paper that email is like super non-personal and formal and without emotions. I think that you, Autostraddlers, know what email means more than a lot of people out there!

But some of the most special, exciting parts about being in a long-distance relationship, besides actually getting to be in the same city, is getting stuff in the mail. Thinking now, what I learned most from my high school pen pals and from being in a long-distance relationship, is that communication is special. Writing words on paper is a lot different from typing an email. Both are wonderful, but now, because of how fast emailing is, we understand what getting real letters in the mail means. A hand written letter means that someone took the time to sit down and find a pen, and write the words and then fold it into an envelope and go to the post office and buy a stamp and send it away, maybe never to see it again. It’s a labour of love. You can’t have 15 tabs open at the same time. And it’s like you put a little bit of your heart into it too, you know? Instead of just the same font and the automatic signature at the bottom. It’s scary because there’s only one copy and you can’t ever have the exact same copy. And you send it away, you just give it away, and hope that someone else delivers.

*In Quebec, Canada, high school includes middle school, ie, ages 13-17.

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HOW TO DO A REALLY COOL PAPER FOLD

Now I’m going to show you how to fold a note like I used to in high school (“middle school”) which I think will be really really special for putting notes in pigeonholes at the next A-Camp.

Just remember that it’s symmetrical, so when I said “fold X”, I also mean fold the other side as well.

1. Fold paper in half vertically.

2. Do it again.

3. Imagine that there is a square at the end of your paper. Fold the square diagonally.

4. Okay, now it’s starting to get a bit tricky…to describe. Imagine again that there is a square after the square you just made. that’s a terrible description, so I made you a diagram so you can see inside my brain.

Fold along the imaginary diagonal line.

5.  Fold directly upwards along the horizontal “center” line. I only folded one side here.

6. Now I’m sure you can start to see where to this fold is going… Take the end that is sticking out and fold it over onto the center. Fold the other half of the paper over so it covers the part you just put in the center (following?). You should then be able to stick the last end inside and everything should stay in place.

I found this a bit hard to describe so I’m really sorry if these are the worst descriptions/pictures ever. But I’m not sorry about the product placement.

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Next: Tales of a serial pen pal and instructions for a tiny letter

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Emily Choo started as an intern with Autostraddle when she was 18 years old. She's now 10 years older and lives in Toronto with her partner and cat. The defining moment of her career was when Riese said this about her: " I think Emily Choo is a very bright, 'poetically inclined' girl who pays attention to everything and knows almost everything (the point of stuff, how to read, how beautiful things feel, how scary things feel, etc.) but doesn't believe/accept/realize yet that she knows almost everything." She still doesn't believe she knows anything, so, thank you, Riese, for that.

Emily has written 114 articles for us.

92 Comments

  1. this is neat. I ‘m always very excited when I get a letter or card from a friend/family. unfortunately for my friends/family I rarely send letters. But every time I see a terrible/awesome card I will send it to my best friend with just the date&place of discovery on it.
    also I just recently found out that you can send chocolate bars just by scribbling the address & sticking the right stamp on it!

  2. I did it, I did it! I made the “really cool paper fold.” Though it seems kind of easy, these sorts of things are usually hard for me. So, thank you for teaching me how to do something nifty. I’ll be sending a few of these in an envelope to my pen pal friend in the Navy.

  3. I love this because A) my 2 best friends moved all the way across the country last year and nothing makes me smile like opening a card with pressed flowers inside all the way from Cali….and B) (is hilarious) I totes remember folding up little notes like that all day everyday back in middle/highschool because that was pretty much my entire relationship with my first “girlfriend.” I really wish I still had those because I’m sure they’d be good for a laugh. Guess who’s sending out some notes today ;)

  4. I remember the girl I had a crush on in middle school taught me how to fold paper into a square like this. We used to write notes, mostly because I was usually too shy to talk to anyone.
    Also did anyone else just pass whole notebooks back and forth? A lot of kids at my school did this, and according to one of my teachers this was a new/weird thing.

  5. I’ve just spent three weeks driving through the US and I have been sending a postcard from every stop (I’ve lost count) to one of my besties back home (in Australia). Postcards are so cool! They force you to condense your experiences into just a few sentences – I have a feeling I’ve not said too much about the actual cities I’ve landed in, these postcards are more a historical record of my emotional journey into maturity (ha!).
    letters are supercool.

  6. I love sending and receiving letters. My best friend and I have always lived about an hour’s drive from each other and when we were young, emailing wasn’t an option, and phones seemed like adult things? So we wrote tons and tons of letters. This continued long after we had emails and cell phones, and we save all of them. They’re wonderful to reread, especially together. Also relevant is my long distance relationship right now. It’s transcontinental, so it’s stupidly expensive to send things all the time, but when we do it’s one of my favorite things.

  7. The coexistence of letters and email/texting/phone calls can poke weird holes in the fabric of spacetime, though. Example: My best friend called a few months back to say that her boyfriend had been cheating on her and she’d broken up with him; we spent a good hour on the phone dissecting the situation and talking about how much of an ass he is and how he’s too god for her &etc. After the phone call, I went to the union to grab dinner and check my mail, only to find a letter from her, sent a few days earlier, talking about how much she loved him and how happy she was. Seriously, the saddest.

  8. My ex and I, before we were dating, but while we were weird and full of feelings that babygays who have hooked up have, sent a decent amount of letters to each other while she was in Spain for a year.

    I haven’t talked to her in like a year and a half, but I still have the letters. Because seriously, who can get rid of sweet handwritten letters in multicolored marker about things like sipping lattes in an outdoor cafe before teaching an English lesson?

  9. I had a pen pal in middle school, we met at outdoor camp in 5th grade and wrote letters back and forth for several years. I still remember her name and when I had friended her back when I was still on facebook.

  10. One of my friends introduced me to a website called postcrossing a year ago and before I became too lazy to continue hunting down international stamps I acquired postcards from like half the countries in Europe.

    Sending postcards with strangers is weird because it’s really hard to say anything about your life in like two sentences.

  11. Luv it! Letters, notes, postcards, and holiday cards are the best. I had a penpal like in 3rd or 4th grade & I think she was in Jr. high. I’m not sure what my school was going with this. No surprise to me that the penpal exchange program didn’t last very long.

    Also, during my H.S years what brought passing notes to a minimum was the pager. 07734!

  12. I am a letter/card/note sending fool. I love sending things by post. My best friend and I send cards to each other randomly and my step-grandma and I will write cards/letters too. I love making care packages for friends, especially when they work at summer camp. It just feels so special to get something in the mail that isn’t a bill or junk and I like giving that feeling to other people.

  13. “I’ve kept every scrap of paper ever given to me in my entire life.” Uh, yeah, unfortunately I have too. I’m actually afraid to reopen some of them because they are folded in such crazy ways that I fear I won’t be able to replicate the design.

    For non-hording purposes, I’ve tried getting rid of some of them, but it is just not possible regardless of how embarrassed I am of some of the things I used to say (in the back-and-forth style letters/journals).

    Also, I want a specially-folded letter from Emily Choo/Emmie-Lee/Chamoo.

    • I keep trying to post this comment and it keeps telling me I’ve already posted it but I see no evidence for this claim. anyways I want you to know that I have your notes glued in my notebook! which I almost lost in china and was on the point of a nervous breakdown because THE MEMORIES but then I found it. please come to the next a-camp so I can put things in your pigeonhole! …that sounds kinda dirty.

  14. My girlfriend is actually the little sister of one of my dearest friends/former pen-pals (we’ve since grown into drinking companions/spare-key house-sitters/brunch buddies). We met on a message board when we were 14 thanks to THE MAGIC OF THE INTERNET, and we started writing long, SUPER-IMPORTANT letters to each other (including such priceless gems as “My little sister is really into Abercrombie right now…ugh, so annoying!”). She moved out to California after college and proceeded to watch a whole lot of Pushing Daisies on my couch. When her sister followed her a year or so later, I thought she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen and immediately started day-dreaming about ways I could trick her into wanting to kiss me. BASICALLY LETTERS CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE.

  15. I once had a Moroccan pen pal who’d write me long, beautiful, 8+ page letters encompassing every detail of his life. It was fascinating. Then one day he sent me a dramatic “breakup” letter saying he didn’t want to write anymore because my address had changed too much (this was true — a lot of his letters got lost) and also because my letters to him would regularly get stolen by his neighbors (apparently getting post from the U.S. was considered really cool on his block). We finally settled on just emailing and everything got boring, fast. Letters are just so special.

    tl; dr – Maybe my pen pal wouldn’t have broken up with me if I’d known how to fold my letters as awesomely as Emily and Laura.

  16. In some of my relation/friendships letters have continued a conversation that feels like a special secret, because no one else knows and the topics don’t necessarily get talked about out loud. Letters make me feel so loved, especially ones with drawings on them.

  17. I used to do this with a friend who was in another class! we folded them cutely and everything. And for some reason the letters were always 2 pages long, even tho we saw each other every day!

  18. Dear Aunt K.

    I hope you are well, so today I was on this website, they were talking about writing letters, which of course led me to think of you. I think I was seven when I first wrote to you, I had never met you. I still hadn’t when you died more than 5 years ago. But I had sent you hundreds of letters, it became almost a journal of all my life events. I only remember ever getting one or two replies but no matter it was still worth it.

    Yours Sincerely
    Turtle

  19. ah yes, notes. im a little older and so in middle school and a big part of high school my friends and i wrote notes. i still have all of them and they are amazing. then i just kind of stopped. and then i joined the Navy and letters were all i had to tie me to the outside world for 2 months.(i know that doesnt seem like a long time, but it was). just words on paper, but so much more. it was amazing how much they could split me wide open and also help me deal with what i was going through. i love me some words on paper.

  20. I feel like autostraddle is the only place I can safely admit being this emotionally bat shite:
    This post. Might’ve made me cry.
    Like. Yeah.

    It’s just that, I miss this so much! I miss passing notes to my friends. Life is so much more complicated than that, when we passed notes over, with scribbles and noughts and crosses and pictures and ramblings, just to make you feel a little liberated from class.

    And penpals. My God, the penpal thing. I had my best friend, and we would write to each other always. I still read them back, and now we’re so far away and seperate and we text sometimes, and it isn’t the same. And my friend in Wales, we would write but she was dyslexic and we struggled, but she would draw instead. I don’t even know where she is now. And the first girl crush I ever had, and when I read the letters back, I think she liked me too.

    I want a penpal. When did penpal stop being a thing? I loved it so much! SOMEONE WRITE ME A FREAKIN LETTER RIGHT NOW, SO CAN READ IT AND PROCCESS AND CONSIDER AND RESPOND ACCORDINGLY. OK?!

      • I know, it felt like every kind of exciting!
        It was against the rules so you had to be stealthy, you got to keep the conversations you had with your friends and save them, and it didn’t feel like you were in school…I dunno. I just miss dotting my ‘i’s with hearts.

  21. I had this situation where my favorite person and I figured out it was okay to be kind of into each other a month before she graduated college and moved eight hours away(She thought I was off limits cuz I was straight, I thought she was off limits cuz she was a girl, but nope, those things weren’t problems! Because gay was a thing I could be.) So we made a Just Friends pact and proceeded to start to write each other weekly five page long facebook messages in which we talked more than we had in 2 years of face-to-face contact. We found we could both say a lot of things in writing that we never would’ve IRL. Words are beautiful things when you have the luxury and time to pick just the right ones for every sentence.

    Also postcards are the best things ever, I collect them like a madwoman. Autostraddle postcard swap society please? :D

  22. This post made me have a lot of feelings.
    I’ve written letters since I was very young, primarily to my friend who moved to another city. Another friend who I had a terrible crush on, I wrote hundreds of letters to and never gave them to her until five years later. Then, in high school, my best friend and I began writing each other emails, then letters full of feelings and fears and dreams, because we found it difficult to talk out loud. I find it funny that we initially started with emails then moved to letters as things became deeper and more personal. We exchanged letters, anywhere from three to eight pages long, every other day (god knows how we ever got any schoolwork done). I fell in love with her (though I didn’t know it at the time), and then she moved to Japan. We began sending daily emails and monthly packages, the latter of which were always full of letters and small presents. I took a lot of her letters and emails and turned them into a short story, trying to express how much I missed her. But it turned out that a lot of people liked it, and it won one of my country’s top short fiction awards.
    She was straight and never felt the same way, but she’s still one of my closest friends. Ever since then, I’ve always written letters too my crushes.
    Here is the short story, if anyone fancies a letter-based story to read (I love these sorts of stories and I also recommend ‘Feeling Sorry for Celia’, ‘The Year of Secret Assignments’, ‘Dear Venny, Dear Saffron’ and ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ that were inspirations for me).
    http://www.bnz.co.nz/static/www/docs/2009-KMA-Skipped-the-Censor-Youth.pdf
    (Feelings post now over). =P

  23. I used to write so many notes in school, we only ever got caught once too; which I guess is good. Being a UKer we didn’t have lockers or anything so easy. Good old fashioned under the table passing for us!

    I’m actually just about to embark on sending something in the post to a friend, so you’ve inspired me to jazz it up a bit.

  24. I write letters to this one friend who is really important in my life but we live 1,000 miles apart. It was more of my idea, but she replies and it’s fun. I send her mix CDs and all sorts of crafts, but that could be because I have wayyyy too much time since classes are out. I always fold my papers all cute and use sharpies and such. I want to get parchment and a feather pen so I can make my letters look old timey and use candle wax like on Harry Potter. lol

  25. Ahhh. Letters! Words on paper! They changed my life, no joke. Many of my relationships (all types—friendships, romantic, familial) have been long-distance in some form or the other, and letter-writing has always played an important role in sustaining and shaping them. My first letters were to my favorite cousin, and we sent countless letters over the Atlantic from the ages of 9 to 14, at which point she discovered boys (more like creepy men, ugh) and I had many confused Feelings and the letters eventually ceased. In college, I would write to my friends when they went abroad or home on breaks.

    But more importantly, that was when I started writing to one of my oldest online friends (AOL teen message boards represent!), who lived across the country, whom I’d never met, but whom I desperately hoped felt the same way about me as I did about her. We met in person a few years later, and soon after put into words what had been long simmering all those years—in a letter, of course. We’ve been together for 2.5 years and now refer to that period as our epistolary courtship :) And although e-mails, phone calls, and texts make up the bulk of our long-distance communication (woo, technology), we still write when we can. Kids, never underestimate the power of the written word, illegible handwriting, and fancy wax seals!

    (Long comment is long. …And if she reads this, she’ll totally know it’s me. <3)

  26. I had a number of penpals as a kid, mostly found through a homeschool magazine that my mom subscribed to. Kids would write a little classifieds-type ad with their name, age, interests, and address. The only one I can really remember right now is Irene, who lived in upstate NY and then moved to the midwest at some point. I don’t think I have any of those letters anymore… not sure what happened to them.

    For the last year or two I was also penpal via email with someone I met through a message board… We came from very different backgrounds and were at very different places in our life, which I appreciated. Unfortunately they stopped writing for unknown reasons, but I keep hoping they’ll pop up again.

    I’d totes love a new penpal, if anyone wants!

    • Hi
      In sum up, I don’t know if this site is true…but i try
      with easier I’d like to have free,true penpals with honest , trustworthy woman for long terms
      I’ll be looking forward to hearing from u soonnest
      with my best regards

  27. I have been wanting a pen pal since…my last one in fifth grade started talking too much about boys and I didn’t have anything to say about them. I love this so much. Would someone like to be this little gay Mexican-Alaskan nomad’s pen pal??

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