Growing up I had pen pals in Coral Gables, Florida, Washington, D.C., Peoria, Illinois, and in Boston. They were all kids that were either family friends from whom we’d moved away, or friends from vacations, or friends from summer jobs on Martha’s Vineyard. I wrote to my pen pals faithfully. I wrote to them with fervor. If they failed to respond in a timely manner, I sometimes wrote them another letter to nudge them along. The gift in this was that I logged on thousands of hours of writing time and was able to utilize that practice as a songwriter and as a writer.
Nowadays I work with high school students coaching them along with their college entrance essays. Not many (okay, not any) of them know how to write a scene, how to “show” instead of “tell.” Few know how to describe setting or write authentic sounding dialogue. Not many of them are comfortable telling a story about themselves that is not in some way a cliché or something they’ve been led to believe a college entrance admissions officer would like to hear. Many kids today have been so busy wracking up 4.0 grade-point-averages and sky high test scores -- all while training to be masterful athletes, philanthropists, and artists. It makes my head reel. In high school I worked at an ice cream parlor and sang in the choir every day in school, and I recall being disappointed that I had to go to college at the University of Wisconsin in my hometown of Madison. But I digress.
What if we created some sort of Pen Pal Project, a program in the schools, with a large sponsor like, say, Target, and urged our grade school kids to take on a pen pal? Their pen pal could be an older relative – I wrote regularly to my spinster Aunt Alice -- or a cousin in another town, or someone in another school out-of-state whose school was also involved in the Pen Pal Project. Sure, they now have email and facebook, but no one really stretches out and tells stories from every day life in via email.
There are a few waning life skills and one national treasure that could be saved through this proposed project; the craft of personal expository writing, the lost art of handwriting, and the U.S. postal service. Just a thought.