When I was in fifth grade, my class at Miller Elementary became pen-pals with a class of fifth-graders in Minnesota (or possibly Wisconsin). From what I remember, we mostly told them what the weather was like in Georgia, and they told us what the weather was like in Minnesota (Wisconsin?). That might sound like innocuous stuff, but the Northerners thought we were pulling their legs with our stories of February afternoons with temperatures in the mid-sixties, and we were pretty sure they were exaggerating with their stories of snowdrifts and frozen lakes, probably in an effort to give us the impression that they lived in a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Also, they claimed to live near the Mississippi River. While none of us claimed to be Geography Bee champions, we at least had sense enough to know that Minnesota (or Wisconsin) was a long way from Mississippi.

In short, what was supposed be an exercise in penmanship and inter-regional good will dissolved in mutual suspicion and recrimination.

Nevertheless, I learned some valuable lessons. For one, it turns out that the Mississippi River actually does form part of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. For another, that part of the world actually is as cold and snowy as our correspondents had claimed. But even more importantly, I learned that a hand-written letter has the power (in theory, at least) to connect people across the miles and open up exotic, far-away lands, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

I immediately regretted the fact that my pen-pal-ship had ended. I never had another pen pal. I take that back: In what must be counted a major exception, I wooed my wife largely by way of the US Postal Service.

My podcast guest this week is Reagan Dregge. She’s had the same pen-pal since she was eleven. I don’t know how old Reagan is, but she’s the mother of school-age children, so it’s been a while that she’s been writing this same person.

One thing Reagan and I discussed toward the end of our recorded conversation is the fact that letter-writing is an excellent way to prime the writing pump because the fears associated with other kinds of  writing don’t apply in the same way. When you sit down to write a friendly letter, you are very unlikely to fail, my opening anecdote notwithstanding. As far as your correspondent is concerned, the overwhelmingly important thing is the fact that you wrote at all. He or she probably isn’t going to criticize your sentence structure or the organization of your ideas or even your spelling. Your correspondent is just glad you wrote.

The holidays are a great time to sit down with pen and paper and write some letters to friends and family. Put them in envelopes. Put stamps on them. Send them off. Then hope. You will have distilled the act of writing down to one of its most elemental forms.

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