I got my first pen pal probably when I was around 8 or 9, and have been writing letters intermittently ever since then.
Over the last few years, though, I’ve become much more interested in letter writing and the art of letter writing, and the whole idea of corresponding with people on a slower and richer level. I have been fortunate enough to develop a few really great relationships over paper and pen, and I’ve also been extremely fortunate enough to be in a business where people tend to enjoy writing a letter or two, so I enjoy the occasional letter from a customer.
Every once in a while I get asked about how I organize my correspondence, and I finally have an answer. I can say this with some confidence, because this system has worked well enough for me that I haven’t had any need to tweak or change anything for at least the last six months. That’s really saying a lot, because I’ve tried a few letter writing ledger systems, some more complicated than others, and this is the one that’s been far and away the best for me.
My original “system” is where I would pile up all of my letters that I hadn’t responded to yet in one “area” which generally meant somewhere on my desk or in a drawer or on the window sill, and then as I responded to them, I would tuck them away into my box. However, the problem with this system is that I am prone to a bit of disorganization, and if one letter slipped into a drawer and I forgot about it, then I would just forget to write back to them.
I tried a few systems where I would write the date I had received something, and then I would have all these columns for name, date, type of correspondence (postcard, letter, card), and a check mark for when I had written back. This was complicated because I don’t always need to write back, and there are sometimes extenuating circumstances that I needed to make note of.
This new system is the one that’s working for me now:
I have a table with Received and Sent in two columns.
I log all incoming mail (date + name), plus a few notes, on the left. When I’ve responded, I record it on the right, with the date and a few notes about what I wrote.
I can glance and see which letters are the oldest and are still outstanding. I generally try to respond oldest to newest, although I will sometimes skip around if I know I only have a short amount of time, or if there’s something pressing. You know how that goes, pressing issues that need to be sent through the postal system 😉
I like to keep the Received column on the left, and fill in the Sent when I respond.
I found that when I did it the other way, with the Sent column on the left, I was just making a note of what I sent out, and then eventually recording the response, but that didn’t tell me which letters I still owed responses to. Once I’ve sent out my responding letter and I fill in the Sent column; when I get a response, it gets marked down in the Received column on a new line.
I also write quick and basic notes about the content of both the letter sent and the letter received. This is an arduous task, though it’s generally only 10-15 words. There have been many times to count when I’ve sealed up a letter and then thought to myself, how can I not remember what I just wrote about five seconds ago?
However, I’ve found it worth it to when I look back to see what I’ve already mentioned to this pen pal or that one, and also to remind myself about what else they’ve been sharing with me and that I might like to ask about. If I send a little enclosure, like a few Midori paper clips or stamps, I try to note that as well, so I don’t keep sending the same thing.
I also log when I send out a thank you note or a letter, just so I know that I’ve sent it out – if I get a response, then that will go into a new Received column, and I will then write back.
When people send me something that I don’t necessarily need to respond to, for example a postcard, I still log it, but I draw a line through the sent column to indicate to me visually that I don’t need to write back.
I use a B6 notebook, and in particular this Life Vermilion one with graph ruling, because it’s not so small as to be difficult to write details in, but it’s not so large that it becomes cumbersome or takes up a lot of space, especially since this one little notebook will last you a fairly long time, even if you’re a prolific letter writer.
I know a few folks that actually scan and keep all of their letters organized digitally, which sounds amazing! Especially when you have a few new pen pals at once, and you can’t remember what exactly to said to which new pen pal. We’re actually hoping to get a scanner soon to re-scan our ink swabs for the website (a long, long overdue project which I think may be starting to bubble up any day now), so who knows.
But this low-tech system is okay for now, especially since it means I can bring everything to a cafe or to the park, in good weather, and not have to worry about remembering to type something in later.
Our Letter Writing Club is coming up this Sunday, and as usual, I’m excited for a few hours of sitting down with some nice stationery and fellow letter-writers and getting some dreamy lines onto the page.
On a complete change of subject and mood, I found out recently that my favourite cafe from my university days is closing down – the Sleepless Goat in Kingston, Ontario. I went to Queen’s University, and after I moved out of first-year residence, I lived on Princess, halfway between the Goat and campus.
Jon and I met at school in our fourth year, and I introduced Jon to the Sleepless Goat after we started dating – it’s safe to say that we drank our fair share of coffee there. But before I met Jon, I used to come here all the time by myself – it was the first time in my life that I regularly went out to a cafe by myself, without friends or family, which is kind of a strange and nostalgic thought to have.
I know I’m still pretty young, but it was before the days when you go to a cafe and every table has a screen or two. I had a laptop for school, but I never brought it out to a cafe (it was a beast, that good ol’ Dell), so it was me and some books and a coffee and toast and eggs, and it seemed like it was the same for everyone there, at the time.
Coincidentally, Jon and I have been thinking about planning a weekend trip to Kingston in the spring, once the weather warms up a bit. Visiting the Sleepless Goat would have been pretty high up on the list, and I tried to convince Jon we should bump up our trip to go before they close down (i.e. this weekend), but Jon gave me his classic Jon look, so….
While it’s sad we won’t be able to visit it one more time, it’s really just heartbreaking to see a business that you know and love close down. I literally haven’t been there for years, but it’s one of those places with interesting food and good music and mis-matched chairs that just can’t be replicated.
Maybe it’s nostalgia for my university days, or nostalgia for the days when I had time to go out and sit in a cafe by myself, or nostalgia for the idea of an era without that all that all pervasive technology, an era that is pretty much completely gone. Maybe it’s also that I like to think that independent businesses and cafes and shops are doing okay, but I guess you never really know.