If you passed Hannah Brencher on the street, you might assume she’s merely one of those lovely young girls with the kind of tousled hair and effortless Isabel Marant-y style you see in the pages of a Free People catalogue. You’d have no way of knowing that past the ingénue exterior is the ingenuity behind the global phenomenon, The World Needs More Love Letters. Just 25 years old, Hannah runs a global love letter writing organization that harnesses the power behind social media to write and mail love letters to individuals all over the world. (I’m talking all 50 states and across 6 continents.)
About 4 years ago, Hannah began leaving anonymous love letters all over New York City as a way to try to fight off big city loneliness and depression. Soon she found herself writing — and mailing — over 400 love letters to strangers in need around the world. Before long, others had joined her in her work, and the story of her The World Needs More Love Letters project could be found in the Wall Street Journal, Oprah, Glamour, and the Chicago Tribune. Soon Hannah’s labor—and letters—of love were everywhere, from the White House to AOL to TED. (Even yours truly was lucky enough to be on a panel with Hannah and hear her beautiful message firsthand.)
Recently, Hannah’s been holed up feverishly working on her new memoir, “If You Find This Letter,” which you can get your hands on come March 2015. But she was nice enough to take some time out of her busy schedule to sit down with us to talk love, letter writing and starting a grassroots campaign turned global phenomenon:
I know you began leaving anonymous love letters all over New York City as a way to try to fight off big city loneliness and depression. Can you tell us a little more about what was going on, and what sparked the idea to write your first love letter, and then your second and third?
Plain and simple, I felt small and inadequate. That was the biggest of feelings I was fighting up against. I moved to New York City thinking I was going to make an impact and a difference I slowly but surely felt like I was proven wrong. The city is so big. And it can feel so empty. And there was this voice rattling inside of my head: You are incapable. You are never going to matter. Give up.
Writing letters was the only way to extinguish those feelings for a little while. I would see people on the train who looked like what I figured I probably looked like during that time– sad, lonely, tired. And I liked to imagine what it would feel like to get one of these letters and read it and suck in the truth that we rarely tell ourselves. I guess you could say that was my biggest fear then– and still my biggest fear now– that we will believe the lies we tell ourselves and they will become so big that we let them swallow us and make us too afraid to move.
What do love letters mean to the people who receive them? What are some of the responses you’ve received that keep you at it?
Love letters mean different things to different people. To some, it’s hope. To others, it’s a push to keep going. For some, those letters are so valuable that they become an intricate part of daily life. Some people will pull them out and read them on a daily basis. I wrote a love letter to my friend Ronny at the start of this movement, right when MLL was starting to get bigger, and it was right after one our good friends died. He told me (in a letter he wrote back to me) that he was reading my letter every single day. There were some days when he was reading that letter just to make it through the day.
I am consistently amazed by how words written on a piece of paper can change someone’s life for good.
How did you recruit others to join in? How did the whole thing snowball so quickly? What did you do to market or publicize what you were doing?
For the first year, I wrote love letters alone. I thought the idea could not possibly make a difference. I was so wrong. When I started More Love Letters in 2011, I quickly saw a rapid-fire response. People were hungry to make an impact. People wanted to make a difference. I am proud to say that we didn’t market it or publicize it through any sorts of press pushes—we let the whole thing be organic and watched it spiral. I was pretty certain, from day one, that I wanted to see what could happen when love drives a movement. Not motive. Not money. Not a goal we needed to meet. Just love—pure, basic, bare-boned love.
What can people do who want to be part of your mission and message of love?
All the ways to get involved are sitting—ready and waiting—on MoreLoveLetters.com. People have the opportunity to submit letters to a current bundle being collected for someone in need or start leaving love letters around their community as I did back in New York City.
What makes a good love letter? What elements should be included? (Besides love, of course)
I think the best letters are the ones where someone can be honest on the page. It’s not even about encouragement, sometimes it’s just about opening up to someone and being honest. I don’t think we need all the right answers nearly as much as we just need someone to come alongside us and tell us we are not alone—that we have never been alone for a single second of this.
Tell us about your book and your plans for the future!
Well, my book comes out on March 10, 2015. I am so excited to finally get the whole story into people’s hands. I also have a kit coming out in December that is fun, funky and gives people the chance to write love letters to people in their lives with scripted prompts.
My future plans are wide open. I will continue speaking across the country but, more than anything, I am just open to whatever could happen next. So many great things came into my life because I could have never planned what happened and I don’t want to get so planned that I resist that happening all over again. So I guess you could say I am open. I am open and ready.
When was the last time you put pen to paper to let someone know he or she mattered? Email, text messaging and instant communication are incredible tools, but lack the personal touch of a handwritten letter. If you’re inspired by Hannah’s love-letter writing campaign, get involved: Dust off your best stationery, pull out a pen, and let some special someone(s) know how you feel. I bet it’ll make their day (and it won’t do yours any harm, either).