By Jacqui BanaszynskiOne of the back-to-school things I looked forward to in grade school was the Weekly Reader, a tab-sized newspaper that was handed out in class. I suppose it carried some features and news stories. But I most loved two things: The catalog of recommended books we could order for not much money and the list of willing pen pals from around the country and around the world.
For a kid in a small Wisconsin farm village, just reading the names and addresses was an adventure. I’d pull the world atlas off the living room shelf, hunt through the pages and study the country where some other girl, in some other school, in some other far place was living some other fifth-grade life. How were her days different than mine? How were they the same?
For three or four years, I became a passionate letter-writer. My self-narrative had me collecting 127 pen pals in that time. But decades later, I doubt that could be true. The cost of foreign stamps, even back then, would have been out of reach. So let’s just say there were a lot of pen pals, and a lot of letters.
I remembered that time this week when I came across a BBC feature about two women — one British, one American — who finally met after 70 years as pen pals. It was a short, sweet story — a nice antidote to things like, say, glowering mug shots of former U.S. presidents. At the bottom of the story were other links to other features about life-long pen pals.
My childhood connections to Germany and the Philippines and Sri Lanka are long gone, save for those fuzzy memories. What I never lost was the practice of writing letters, whether to friends who were off to school or a friend who had sent a gift or someone I knew who had moved into a new home or was grieving a death. Much as I now doubt that inflated number (127? No way!), But I have no doubt that letter-writing, along with constant reading, set the foundation for a career in written journalism.
I’m not one of those people who writes because I love the process or writes to sort out my feelings or writes out of some creative imperative. I write because the job demands it. And the job of writing in journalism is the job of communicating — paying attention to the story around you, then translating and shaping it for someone else’s interest and understanding. I wrote all those pen-pal letters desperate to describe my small world to someone far, far away. I write/edit news stories and nonfiction narratives and essays and emails and my annual Christmas letter striving to do the same thing.
Letters and postcards as teachers
I’m now up on Wisconsin’s Madeline Island, in Lake Superior, where next week I’ll be guiding one of my weeklong writing workshops. I change up the flow and leaning of the workshop each time I do it, trying to match the kind of nonfiction writing the participants are most interested in. But a standard I never change is the writing of a daily postcard, written, addressed and sent to real friends or relatives. The postcards are framed as mini-narratives: perhaps a description of the lake as the weather turns raw, an overheard conversation at the local pub, a sketch of one of the characters who calls this island home. No tolerance for “Having a wonderful time, wish you here.” These postcards are meant to be stories — true, observed and reported stories in short form.
It’s one of the ways I learned to write. It’s become one of the reliable ways I teach. (Although these days, I have to remind people how to address a postcard, and I usually have to provide the stamps.)
Give it a try. If you’re a writing teacher looking for effective, break-through assignments, have your students write postcards or thank-you letters or even love letters. Letters that will be sent, which means the person on the receiving end — the audience, if you will — has to be considered and respected. If you’re a journalist struggling with a story, try writing passages of it in emails to an editor. Relax, be direct, be clear — and tell them what you most want them to know. If you’re an editor trying to help a writer find his/her way through the thicket of a major project, ask them to send you a debrief letter every week, riffing on what they did, saw, heard, wondered. Scour that letter for the little scenes and moments that open the door to narrative magic.
And if you’re just thinking about someone or wondering about something, sit down and write a note. Read it and clean it up a bit. Think of the person on the other end as you edit yourself. Then send it.
You will be practicing a core technique of our craft. And if nothing else, that other person, perhaps in some place far away, will find a gift in their mailbox.