New Yorker journalist Rachel Syme speaks about Penpalooza, a letter-writing exchange she launched “to combat isolation” during the pandemic
Leave it to a writer to bring over 9,000 willing strangers together worldwide in the hope of forging long-distance, letter-based connections. New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, whose writing topics include “clothes and people and people in clothes”, established Penpalooza in the spring of 2020 as a way to turn pandemic ennui and dread into something creative.
While some people consider letter writing to be slow and old-fashioned way of communicating, others beg to differ – something evidenced in the response to this project. Indeed, the excitement behind the Penpalooza hashtag on Twitter and Instagram is palpable, feeling both contagious and genuine, with proof in the aesthetics invested into the letters: decorated stationery, delicate calligraphy, colourful collages, vintage paper and rubber stamps, as well as tactile wax seals. “But you don’t need all of that,” assures Syme. “If your first letter happens on the back of a receipt, that’s fine.”
We caught up with Syme from her home in Brooklyn to find out more about this artform revival and how Penpalooza came to life.
Sabrina Cooper: Before starting Penpalooza, were you writing to anyone via snail mail?
Rachel Syme: I had pen pals in my youth that I’d met at various summer camps, and I had a pen pal from the third grade from a project where we had pen pals from other countries. That gave me the bug.
A grandmother on my father’s side had a typewriter. I used to love to play on it, and I’d write letters that way. It got into my bones that [Penpalooza] would be a fun thing to do. Throughout my adulthood, I’ve had various epistolary relationships, but none that were intense. I like writing physical notes to people, especially thank you notes, happy birthday and holiday things. I’ve always been a big mail person. I’ve always had a stationary and a letter-writing section of my office.
SC: What was it about writing on a typewriter around the onset of the pandemic that inspired you to start Penpalooza?
RS: I got two typewriters at the beginning of the pandemic. One of them was a manual that I didn’t like using because it was pernickety – the ribbon kept getting tangled. Then I bought this electric typewriter, and it’s my favourite thing I’ve probably ever purchased. It’s hulkingly large and beige. It looks like something Dolly Parton would use in Nine to Five.
I wanted a typewriter forever because I had missed the one from my grandmother’s house. I wanted a fun thing to play around on that wasn’t connected to the internet, and the only thing I could potentially write on it were letters or notes to myself. One of the first letters I sent was to my dad: he’s in New Mexico and I’m in New York. It was early in the pandemic. I was looking for something to do, and send my love back home.
Then I went onto Instagram and I made this story that said, ‘Does anyone want to write letters?’ and got 20 people who wanted to do it. I’m still writing to several people from that first call. I saw an appetite there. This is a thing and I need to figure out if this would be something more people would be involved in because it was so joyful for me especially because I live in New York City and since the pandemic, I haven’t left this whole time. It was scary at the beginning and isolating. I’m so used to going out and doing things in the city and that was no longer possible. I had all this pent-up anxiety and creative energy. It reopened up this portal to my middle school youth where I was into all the attendant paper crafts that go into writing like embossing and stamping and metallic pens and all these things that make me feel like I’m 13.
“Before Penpalooza, my mail was mostly bills, junk mail and solicitations, and now my mailbox is the most fun place in my life” – Rachel Syme
SC: Why do you feel people get excited about writing to strangers in what’s considered perhaps an “old-fashioned” form of correspondence?
RS: It’s a novelty because we don’t do it often. Letters are a slow form of expression when you never know when it’s going to arrive at its destination. The people receiving it don’t know when it’s coming. There’s something about it being disconnected from this immediacy of online that feels enchanting to people. It’s a creative outlet. A lot of people miss that: writing by hand or typing or putting things together, sliding paper into an envelope, licking a stamp, writing out the address legibly. Also, mail is thrilling to receive. Every day is like a little Christmas. Before Penpalooza, my mail was mostly bills, junk mail and solicitations, and now my mailbox is the most fun place in my life.
SC: What role do you feel fancy paper and the right accessories play in pen pal communication?
RS: I don’t think you need fancy paper to be an amazing pen pal. Some of my favourite pen pals write on plain white notebook paper, but what they’ve written is so magical that they’re my favourite letters to receive. For personal motivation, it could be useful. If you’re having trouble getting started, a little old-fashioned stationery can help. It can amp up a sense of your letter as an objet, a fantastical thing flying through the post. I think fancy stationery is the second form of expression, a second of type of gift you’re giving the person who gets the letter.
SC: Could you describe your writing implement(s) of choice and why?
RS: I’m constantly buying hotel vintage stationary on eBay. I like this paper from the Pepin Press, which are these beautifully ornate stationery sets. I also have my own personalised stationery that I use from a company called Papier, and I have a lot of museum store art postcards. I still type, but I also write a lot: I have a couple of fountain pens I like. I do calligraphy now on my envelopes. I took a calligraphy course this summer.
SC: How do you think that you were able to connect over 9,000 people around the world, tapping into something that has set off a fervour?
RS: It was a lot of people looking for an outlet in the pandemic, a way to communicate, to be less lonely, to have mail. I think it was something that needed to happen and I was glad to be the person to shepherd it together. I have a following online, so I was able to tweet about it. Then the word of mouth was amazing. It went beyond me quickly: a bunch of the participants told their friends and they told their friends. It’s had authentic growth.
There’s been no marketing. I don’t pay myself anything to do this. It’s all fully grassroots. I have four of five people I consider my core group of actual pen friends that I’ve made throughout this thing. They are relationships that will continue hopefully throughout my life. That’s the ultimate goal: to connect. Connection is always something people want to sign up for.
SC: What has this entire experience meant to you? And what do you hope becomes of Penpalooza?
RS: The appetite has been great, and I don’t see it ending. A lot of people have said this has cracked open something for them that they want to keep going for the rest of their lives. Julia Child and her pen pal, Avis DeVoto, wrote to each other for ten years before they met and then continued to be pen pals for the rest of their lives. Something about that is so touching to me. I hope people have that kind of experience.
What it’s meant to me is that this last year has been hard, unexpected, unnerving and anxiety-producing and this one little project has renewed my belief in people in such an extreme way because people have been so giving, wonderful and excited and into it. They send a letter to a stranger without knowing anything and it’s an act of hope and belief. It’s made me optimistic about people in a time when many people have been down on people. I hope it goes on for a long time.
Learn more about Penpalooza, or sign up yourself, on the official website.