What My Childhood Pen Pals Taught Me

By writing to pen pals as a child, I learned many lessons to apply to the promotional writing I do today


Rebecca Sealfon

2 years ago | 6 min read

My old pen pals’ letters still sit in my childhood home. I wrote to many people, on and off, some for months or years. I wrote so many letters over the course of my childhood, two drawers are filled with them. Many of them are still sorted by person, by time period, by location in the world, and by how I found the pen pal.

Pen Pals Taught Me Responsibility and Follow-Through

My first pen pal, at five years old, was a much older boy I had met on a family vacation to Toronto. He was drawing an Allosaurus at the Royal Ontario Museum, and I marveled at how well. He sent me a picture of his long, long driveway. That only lasted one letter before I lost interest.

Years later, I found more pen pals in children’s magazines and had much better discipline. There was a girl my age who loved horses, took them to shows, and lived on a farm in New Hampshire. Writing to her was a vicarious escape from life in New York City.

And then there was a girl my age from the Basque Country who was politically active in Basque issues. There were many more.

They sent me stickers, stationery, long letters, short letters. It was exciting to wait for whatever was coming in the mail. One early pen pal introduced me to the world of friendship books (FBs).

Friendship books were small booklets stapled together and passed from pen pal to pen pal, where people wrote their names, addresses, and often some information about themselves such as ages and interests. They would also sometimes write how selective they were about answering and how interested they were in new pen pals.

The person who wrote the last entry in the friendship book, customarily, would return the friendship book to whomever it was “for.” Sometimes, people would surprise their pen pals by writing a friendship book for them. If they were lucky, and especially if the friendship book was short, it would come back with a record of whomever it had passed through.

Many of the people whose names were on friendship books had 50, 60, or more pen pals. At one point, I had 20 or 30. They came from many walks of life, all over the United States and the world. I wrote to them more in the summer, when I had more time, but also throughout the year.

I learned how many pen pals I actually wanted, on top of reading, studying, practicing the piano, arts and crafts, and all the other activities I enjoyed or needed to do back then. I learned to be more selective about writing to people I saw on friendship books.

I learned to space out the letters, but not too much. I tried to hit the happy medium between quality and quantity, making a steady effort. I hoped to be there for my pen pals but not impose too much on them.

If I wrote back right away, they might get my response a week after they sent their letter. I learned to plan my correspondence to write back once or twice a month — enough for us to know one another, but also enough time to have things actually happen in our lives to share.

Pen Pals Taught Me How To Introduce Myself To People From Different Backgrounds

Nowadays, I contribute to and run a number of online forums on Quora, Discord, Slack, Facebook, and elsewhere. This helps promote me professionally, and also helps me find collaborators of various types.

Often, I need to write introductory letters and posts, either as emails to individuals or as public posts to groups. It is a very familiar experience for me, having done this for years with my pen pals.

Writing the first letter to a pen pal, in a way, is a marketing message. You are presenting the case that your correspondence is worth their time. I had a standard introductory letter of a few paragraphs describing how I lived in New York City, my interests, and a few other things about myself.

It was intentionally not too long, not too short, and clear to people of many different backgrounds. I would send it when writing to a pen pal for the first time. About half the time, I would get an answer. I considered that good enough since I could find good pen pals without too much trouble.

The personal introductions I write nowadays are very similar in many respects. The length and content are tailored to who would see them and the format of the specific forum. The level of detail is often similar to the letters I wrote to my pen pals.

Most of the time, most people who see them will have differences in their background and body of knowledge, and I need to anticipate this and make my writing accessible to them.

The main difference is that nowadays, I often but not always know more about the person or people I am writing to. In a pen pal ad, I would know only a few basic facts about the other person, if that.

Nowadays, I can often see their professional history on LinkedIn and their interests and writings on other social media. I can write a letter tailored to specific people and make a more precise case that I am relevant to their lives.

Pen Pals Taught Me How To Find the Interesting Parts of Life and Write About Them

Some pen pals advertised that they wrote long letters, boasting about the length. Since long letters took more time, they were a sign of dedication. When pen pals wrote long letters, I wanted to be prepared to write long letters back.

On the other hand, short letters were less demanding and implicitly expected less in response. I wanted to write short letters back to pen pals who wrote me short letters.

This was a skill I learned over time. When things happened to me, I thought about what I wanted to share with each pen pal and how I wanted to distill the various aspects of my life in my letters. I learned how to expand on what had happened to me and how to keep it concise.

Today, some of the online forums I started and maintain have become quite popular. Some have received more than a million views. One, about Israel-Palestine peacebuilding, has now received grants for operating expenses from Sustainable Israeli-Palestinian Projects (SIPP) and the United Religions Initiative (URI), making it the first Space (collaborative blog) on Quora to receive external grant funding for its activities.

By now, the Israel-Palestine forum hosts live speakers that are video-recorded for people who want to watch after. It is part of an inter-religious consortium that includes some of the major interfaith and peacebuilding nonprofits and has graduated from a nonprofit incubator.

Part of its focus is to encourage the telling of personal stories across factional lines on Israel-Palestine. This allows the people who belong to both parties and to other groups which are stakeholders in the region to recognize one another as human beings, instead of seeing the other groups as the faceless hordes often depicted in the media.

On the forum, constant updates about our accomplishments to followers and writers energize the community, allowing us to better build on our successes. However, I need to balance my own voice with others, Israeli-side perspectives with Palestinian-side ones, and personal stories with news and political commentary.

I need to decide how much attention I am giving my sister’s wedding and my own celebrations of various Jewish holidays, relative to breaking news about the Israeli elections and proposals for peace plans. These were skills I learned as a child, from writing to my pen pals.


Created by

Rebecca Sealfon







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