Innocence, Passion

and Penpals

My 6th-grade class was assigned a project combining current events, penmanship, and an introduction to service. We read and discussed an article from My Weekly Reader about the Viet Nam war and those serving in it. 

Between our age and the serious nature of the topic, the discussion was not as rich as it might have been. However, I remember having a vague understanding of how scary it must have been to fight in a war on the other side of the planet.

After the discussion, we each wrote a letter to a soldier serving in the military. This new pen pal was to receive a letter wishing them well and a safe return. I struggled with what to say, and my penmanship got in the way when I tried to write. With the teacher's encouragement, I finished my letter, which was promptly mailed. It seemed like weeks passed, but the class finally received the service members' replies. Those letters thanked us for our efforts and for taking the time to write to them. The project ended with our teacher reminding us of how we had been of service. She emphasized that taking the 10 minutes to send a kind note provided someone far away with a little bit of home and maybe even some comfort.

A Way of Giving Back

While searching for quirky and interesting events to add to the Amelia Indie Authors' newsletter, I discovered that June 1st is National Pen Pal Day. That simple fact got me thinking about that long-ago class project and how it impacted my life. In addition to the concept of pen pals, it taught me a lesson about current events and how little effort it can take to be of service to others. Originally, penpals were people who regularly wrote to each other by mail. And, in case you were wondering, pen pals are not just a memory from the past  -- they are alive and well and sometimes stepping into the internet age.  

Multiple sites are dedicated to pairing people worldwide, while others focus on someone closer to home. If you want to use your skill as a writer to be of service, there are ways to get involved. There are sites where you can provide companionship to an older adult by writing a letter. The organization will screen the letter for appropriateness, security, and safety and then pass it on to the older adult. 

And There Was Passion

And there was passion

Pen pals are also not a modern invention. We have access to penpals throughout history, including letters from Catherine the Great and Voltaire to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

These works combine the eloquence of the prose with the very intimate thoughts shared by two human beings. One of my favorites was the intelligent, erotic correspondence between Anais Nin and Henry Miller, A Literate Passion.

Did someone say epistolary?

Pen pals also appear in literature in the form of epistolary novels written as a series of documents. This unique writing style is seen in the Griffin and Sabine trilogy by Nick Bantock. These books are visually appealing and are written in the form of correspondence between two strangers who seem to be soulmates. The correspondence ranges from love letters stuffed in envelopes to images of postcards.

If you have never read an epistolary novel, I highly encourage you to pick one up. The books are interactive and provide the reader with various documents to review. You might find a diary entry, a medical report, or tickets to a concert attended by the main character. Getting to know the characters this way provides a different connection than the familiar first- or third-person narrated story.

Like Pieces of a Puzzle

The exciting thing about the epistolary novel is that you are given pieces of a puzzle. The author asks you to put this unique puzzle together with the elements of information that you're given. Letters between two characters can reveal the intimacy of their relationship, whether it's love or hate. Reading through police or coroner's reports can show the brutality of a crime or pique your interest in the serial killer. A great example of this is Bram Stoker's Dracula, where the author utilized newspaper articles, letters, and doctor's notes to bring his story to life.

But looking at concert tickets?  Why should you care? Was it their first date and the stubs were saved as a living memory? Or are they just taking up space? As a reader of this genre, you will know if the correspondence the author presents is relevant. Ask yourself a few questions. Does this make sense? Is logical in the novel's framework? Does it add value to the story? 

Fiction or Nonfiction?

Even though I think of epistolary works as fiction, many examples of nonfiction masterworks exist. In nonfiction epistolary works, we tend to see letters to another individual, the exchange of letters, or the story in the form of a diary.

An example of nonfiction epistolary is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The author writes a letter to his teenage son regarding his perceptions, feelings, and the current reality of being black in the United States.

A personal favorite nonfiction work is the coffee table book Lennon Legend: An Illustrated Life of John Lennon by James Henke. I received this interactive biography about the musician's life as a holiday gift, and his story is told through ticket stubs, hand-rendered drawings, letters, music playlists, and interviews.

Another fabulous example of the epistolary style is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Her diary allows her to share her inner thoughts with intimacy, courage, and grace. The Color Purple by Alice Walker is written in the form of letters to God and documents the main character's struggle with abuse and her eventual triumph.

In our fiction category, we see many epistolary novels. Written in diary form,  The Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho might be of interest. The story takes place in Singapore, where a successful, thirty-something-year-old female is the last in her family to be still single.  Another is The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, where we see a freshman who befriends two other teens. His diary covers suicide, molestation, mental illness, and trauma topics. Another novel told in logs and reports is The Martian by Andy Weir. This book finds Mark, the astronaut, stranded on Mars without any hope of rescue.

Pick one up. I have a feeling you won't be disappointed in this style.