Wish You Were Here

The art and practice of postcard writing

I love letter-writing. I started writing letters seriously when I moved across the country at age six, leaving my best friend Sarah behind. We became penpals, first writing in all-caps scrawl, and later in cursive (hers beautiful, mine pretty illegible). Since no once could read my cursive, I returned to a much smaller all caps scrawl. Eventually, we switched to email, which just wasn’t the same, but thirty-four years later we’re still friends, connecting mostly these days through text and phone.

Sarah would write me letters on birch bark, on stationary, on lined paper. She told me, and I told her, things we couldn’t tell everyone, the distance between us as private as a whisper.

As a teenager in the ‘90’s, I wrote letters promiscuiously. I wrote to camp friends, old teachers, crushes, cousins, grandparents, a girl I met on the train. Even after college, in the days of email correspondence, my friends and I still wrote each other. One of my enterprising housemates had found several hundred stamped mailers in the dumpster at the Palo Alto Northface store, so we all left college with stacks of stamped envelopes and wrote each other letters on the back of the mailers inside. Dear Northface Customer, each mailer began.

These days, the quiet space letter-writing takes mostly eludes me, but my daughter and I are avid clients of the USPS, mailing art to her cousins, and mailing postcards.

Why postcards are awesome:

A postcard has many advantages: cheap stamps, bright art, and most importantly, finishability. I can write a postcard standing at the kitchen counter, or while my daughter makes her cousin a drawing. And they’re a great medium for her to dictate a message (maybe drawing alongside it). As she learns to write, they will be undaunting-sized spaces for her to send a short phrase, then a sentence, then as her handwriting shrinks, even more. And postcards have so much life in them! They’re real things, not just words. The art, the cardstock, the postmarked stamp, the way the words never quite fit where they’re supposed to and have to turn sideways up the middle of the card. They can be beautiful or funny or kitschy or homemade. I’m waxing poetical. But for their effort and length, they’re just so much more satisfying than, say, a text.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic was how many postcards I wrote and received. I was scraping the bottom of my postcard stash when I got a package in the mail from my family friend Heidi, containing a stack of Boise Peace Quilt Project postcards. Heidi and my mom were both active in this project, and I’d grown up around the making and images of the quilts. (There’s even one with my face on it, along with the faces of a couple dozen other American and Soviet children.) So now I’m back to sending awesome postcards, cards that are both a note to a friend and a reminder of all the incredible people working for a better world.

How to write an awesome postcard:

Find a postcard you like, or make one out of watercolor paper. Do some, but not all of the following:

  • Tell the reader the weird and beautiful details of where you are. (I’m sitting on the lawn next to a pink doll stroller on the 44th day without rain in Seattle.)

  • Tell them something funny or strange or beautiful that happened. (I saw cricket-like bugs as big as my thumb at Mt. Rainier.)

  • Tell them you’re thinking about them. (I was talking to you in my dream last night in a rooftop garden full of sunflowers.)

  • Tell them something you wish or hope or fear. (I hope you get to go kayaking sometime.)

  • Share an opinion. (I love the way mosquito bites feel on my ankles.)

  • Say whatever else comes to your mind. (I’m thinking of maple donuts.)

A postcard is like a little video clip of a moment, a place, a feeling. Don’t worry about getting the whole story or all the context down. Skip all the boring parts! Feel free to jump from thing to thing. Get right to the fresh, weird detail of whatever you want to say.

Friends like postcards. Grandparents like postcards. Writing teachers like postcards. (Hint, hint.)

And of course, postcards are a great travel activity!

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