The fine art of corresponding finds new fans

Eighteen months ago, Darlene Anderson had a problem. She was a big fan of the television show ``Star Trek,'' but lived in Anchorage, Alaska - far away from the nearest Star Trek convention and the opportunity to meet other ``trekkies.'' So she decided to put an ad in The Letter Exchange (LEX), a magazine for letter writers. Within a month, 12 letters arrived from people eager to talk about Star Trek.

Nadine Smith, a student at the University of California, Davis, had a different kind of problem. Her ad read: ``Please help my insatiable quest for new music. Send a tape to me and receive one in return. Adventurous Ears.'' Combined with other ads she has responded to in the past, she now has nine friends with whom she regularly trades tapes.

Dot Malloy from Washington, D.C., was looking for moral support. Her plea: ``Anyone with a good system for controlling clutter?''

With 4000 subscribers, LEX connects readers with interests in such diverse topics as literature, careers, technology, hobbies, games, and sports. People often get over 50 replies from one ad. ``But the average is 21,'' says Steve Sikora, LEX's founder.

``There are thousands of people with stories to tell, and no one to tell them to,'' Mr. Sikora says. ``You don't have that opportunity with television, radio, or even reading.'' Letter writing is one of the only activities that gives the participant the satisfaction of a response.

Elisabeth Hudson would agree with that. She discovered LEX three years ago and has more than 50 pen pals.

``Sometimes it takes me over three hours to open my mail,'' she says. Ms. Hudson, from Charlotte, N.C., wanted to become a writer after retirement, but found that she didn't have the discipline to write every day. LEX gave her that opportunity.

Sikora, at the time a carpenter and doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, founded LEX as a result of the difficulty he encountered while trying to write his thesis.

``I wanted to be a writer,'' he said, ``but I found out that I was a responder. I needed another person to respond to in order to write.''

He started the magazine in 1982 and it now appears three times a year. Each issue is full of interesting ads from people beckoning others to write to them. Their names are never printed. Instead, each person is assigned a number. Letters are sent to LEX headquartes in Albany, Calif., and Sikora's mother forwards them to their proper destination.

People usually exchange names and addresses after their first letters, then correspond directly. Some people, like Nadine Smith, prefer the cloak of anonymity. Ms. Smith often uses names from a popular British television show, ``Dr. Who.'' She does this for two reasons. For one thing, she doesn't want her sex to influence the type of music a person will send her. Plus, it adds mystery and imagination to the letter writing process.

Sometimes, people even meet their pen pals. Sikora warns people against this, but doesn't try to stop it. He makes it very clear that the magazine's goal is not personal encounters, but the meeting of minds through correspondence.

Out of her 30 plus pen pals, Janice Utley, a church secretary also from Charlotte, has met three. She ``felt that we really get along better on paper.''

For the person bored with one-to-one correspondance, LEX offers ``pramels.''

A pramel is a homemade magazine, or a group writing effort - the equivalent of a party-line for letter writers. About six people assemble a mini-magazine on one or more subjects. Like a game, each takes a turn writing, then sends the manuscript on to another who adds more until everyone in the group has written. Subjects vary from humor to poetry to politics. Sometimes stories are written, with each writer adding a chapter. When the pramel comes back to the original writer, he tears out his last entry so the manuscript doesn't get too costly to mail, and the cycle continues.

Whatever the type of letter, many find this activity addicting. ``It's like chocolate,'' says one correspondent, ``once you get a taste of its pleasures, you can't really put it down.''

For more information, write to: The Letter Exchange, PO Box 6218, Albany, CA 94706.

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