Hannah Brencher is a writer, national speaker, founder of The World Needs More Love Letters, and spokesperson for the United States Postal Service. She took the TED stage at the age of 24. Brencher has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Chicago Tribune and dozens of other publications. In three years, her global community has grown to more than 20,000 individuals across six continents, fifty-three countries and all fifty states. For more information on her movement, visit MoreLoveLetters.com
TCJWW: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your organization.
Brencher: I’m Hannah I am 26 years old. I am a Connecticut native but I live in Atlanta, Georgia. The backstory sort of goes that I was living in New York City my first year after college. I went to Assumption College in Massachusetts and I was working for Human Rights NGO at the United Nations. I was their New York representative. It was a year of volunteer service so you agree to make no money for the whole entire year and you live off of $25 a week which is incredibly hard in New York City. I felt like I knew what I was walking into especially coming right out of college, coming right out of a very privileged liberal arts college, a very privileged background and then living in the Bronx, an immigration center and having to face national and global poverty head-on. Very quickly I realized it wasn’t going to be an easy year. I don’t know why I thought it might be and I struggled with a lot of sadness that eventually led to being diagnosed with depression. I have always been a feeler, naturally, so I feel everything see everything and I people watch everywhere especially in the trains in NYC and you aren’t supposed to people watch but I people watched. I found myself just starting to write letters. I was dealing with serious writers block when it came to content for my blog but these letters came to me quickly. I would pick people out of the crowd and would start writing letters. People always ask me what did the first letters say and it was a combination of what I was going through without having to sign my name to it but it was a lot of the words that I wish I could have given myself at that time so I got a brilliant idea to start leaving them in the city. I would pick random places like Barnes and Noble and tuck them in my favorite books just anywhere I think someone would find them. It was just a thing I did for myself and I told my best friend about it and nothing really shifted or changed until I blogged about it several weeks later and at the end of the blog I put, if you need a love letter for whatever reason I will write to you. Never did I think that question would change my life in so many ways. I watched how my inbox just flood with so many stories of people all over the world and it was at that moment that a veil was pulled and you can’t just sit there and think you are alone in what you are going through because everyone has proven that you are very much not alone. It was kind of a question of what do I do now. My mom said you can photocopy letters and mail them to everyone and I thought if I was going to do this I was going to do it right. I started taking printer paper and I started writing letters to people. That carried me through October of that year to August of 2011. Hundreds of letters to strangers was the crossroads to me asking if I was going to keep doing this by myself, am I going to kill it completely or am I going to let this be about other people and that is how More Love Letters was born.
TCJWW: In your book, If you find this letter, you mentioned how lonely it was to be in New York and how no one seemed to interact with one another. What made the moment in which you decided to write your first letter on the subway stand out the most?
Brencher: I think it was because the subway was a very eerie experience since day one. For other people it is like my head is down I am in my kindle, but for me I am watching every person that goes by. Like I said before, I am a feeler. I feel things intensely and I grabbed tightly onto people and didn’t know how to let go of. I have always been that way. I remember a few years even before I had moved to NYC, my boyfriend at the time and I went to NYC. It was Christmas time. I knew I wanted to move to New York but I wasn’t very vocal about it because it is that sky high dream that everyone has. You move to New York with a purpose and I didn’t have a purpose at that time. I remember seeing this woman in the avenue all dressed up and looked like she served so much purpose. I was holding his hand and I looked away for a second and I looked back she was crossing the street and then she was gone. I wanted to say this to him but I knew he wouldn’t understand so I kept it to myself but I felt that that was the most beautiful thing about this city is that people are here and gone in an instant and you will never see them again. I think that it was one of those things that I had never been exposed to so many strangers so this woman on the train stuck out to me and I was staring at her not knowing what to do. That is how the first letter came into existence. I remember thinking I will put it at her feet or find a way to give it to her because I was not brave enough to talk to her. Even that thought process was very unnatural to me because I was not the kind of person to go and approach strangers. She got off the train before I finished the letter and that is when I realized I had this letter here and I just started picking more people out.
TCJWW: If you find this letter, touches on letter writing which is seen as a dead art. Do you feel more people will be inclined to writing letters?
Brencher: I think that we have become nostalgic for it. It wakes me up inside when people have read the book and have started to write letters to people. To know that it was one of those things that when we started More Love letters I had wrote that I would write to anyone who was requesting a love letter. The ones that really stuck out to me were when someone requested a love letter for someone, like if their mom is going through something or brother is going through this. I always wanted to start the organization with the intention to make people wonder you are thinking of someone you want to nominate for a love letter bundle or for someone to receive a letter. To have that question in your mind of why haven’t I shown up for that person already? Why haven’t I written to them already? There are many people in our lives that are broken hearted that need us to show up and letter writing is the way to do it so I think that for me it is not this focus on stationary and stamps but more of wanting to have letter writing to come back in the sense that it shows people that we thought of them. We took time out for them and we stepped outside of gadgets to sit down and write to them. To hold it up and get their address. It is a process. You are giving someone something they can hold forever. People keep those letters. I know I have had multiple conversations with people about if there was a fire, they would want to save a box of letters. I have all the letters I have ever been given. There is something about the tangibility of it that I think you can never replace.
TCJWW: What was the most challenging part of writing If you find this letter?
Brencher: I think the most challenging part is the story especially when you are writing a memoir. The point is to bring people from point A to point B through transformation and there were many times throughout that journey where you think to yourself that is where I could have been a nobler character or that is where I could have done it differently. I had to choose to look at things in my life differently to triumph or else it would have been like got sad, got sad, got a little hopeful, got sad. Depression is a real thing but I didn’t to focus so much on depression but depression was everywhere all the time. There was so many times where I could have thought more outside of myself but I didn’t. It was really hard to go back to your story and give yourself grace in a sense. Give yourself the ability to look at it in various ways and decide when your life changed. It is very challenging because you never look at your life and say when did I change? We don’t ask those questions on a daily basis so to have to write a memoir at the age of 26 where you feel like you don’t know anything at all is very challenging.
TCJWW: In your book, you mentioned Matt from Ohio who became part of your history without knowing him. Have you been able to get in touch with him?
Brencher: No. I always hope and hold out for the day that he is going to email me again. All I have is his name and where he is from and the moment embedded in my brain of when I read his email and I was haunted by his words. It is interesting though but that is how I am and what was really interesting last night I started a new project, if you find this email….for anyone that needs to let go of something. It has been wild to go through these stories. Last night this girl sent me an email, the subject line was a letter to my very much alive mother about how she is grieving the loss of her mother though her mother is alive. Her mother has been taken away by addiction. I am reading this and thinking about my brother who is mentioned in my book. He has been an addict for years and I was literally in tears because she is doing so well and giving it so much justice and it is one of those moments that you wish the site wasn’t anonymous so I could know who this person was and I finished it and I cried a little bit. When I got to the end of the email she said who she was. She said that she read my book and about Matt from Ohio and how you said that you still wonder where he is so I left my email so you know where and who I am. I was like this is crazy. There is something so special and sweet about the fact that I don’t know who Matt from Ohio is. He may read the book or he may not read the book and it reminds me of how small we are. We do small things and we never know when it could trigger something and change everything. It is the same as the woman in the red hat. I don’t know where she is and I never saw her again but she sparked a movement. People in NYC that I saw for 5 seconds sparked a movement. It gives me hope and it makes me more intentional of where I go and who I talk to and how I interact. I hope he comes back. I don’t know what he is like. I don’t know anything about him. That email was the reason why I had to write a book because this will haunt me forever. He said that one line, please keep doing what you are doing because everyone is so afraid of what will happen when the screen shuts off. He summed everything up in a nutshell. We are so afraid of that. I remember telling everyone about that email and that is just how I am. Someone comes into my life for five minutes and shifted my entire history and I think I have always looked at life that way but I think if more people looked at life that way people would be more grateful.
TCJWW: Social media interaction has embarked into this amazing fast form of communicating yet it is a frustrating phenomenon since people no longer take the time to really sit and talk to someone. What advice do you have for younger generations who seem to always find themselves behind a screen?
Brencher: I love social media so much and I know More Love Letters exists because of social media but it is a scary thing to me that we are always on our phones. I am guilty of it too we check it for our calendar. I just wish there were more times were we just saw one another. That we had coffee and put the phone away. That we invited each other over for wine and the phone wasn’t anywhere in sight. I feel like we are entering this culture documenting everything we do. We do things just to document it. My advice would be just ask people how they are doing and really listen and don’t have your phone out while it is going on. I guess my other advice too that I am also learning for myself is that if something comes into your mind and you meet a person and you want to do something for someone just do it. Do not let the idea go to the background. Take it off the screen. I just came across a single mom in one of my college groups and I was thinking that she has it so hard. I have never had to endure that so I want to buy her a manicure and pedicure. I am going to go buy it this afternoon because I don’t want the idea to float into the background. I want to challenge people to build a good social media brand do a lot of things people will not know about and you will find fulfillment in them. The other thing I challenge people with is whenever I am posting something I ask myself, is this giving to people or taking away from people. This has really convicted me in the way I look at social media. If this is just white noise to just tell people I am here and you are not then what is the point?
TCJWW: In your book you reference several quotes. What is your favorite quote?
Brencher: In all times!!! There are so many good quotes out there. I feel like I am a cheater in this sense because I am going to use the quote from Beloved that I put in this book. You are your best thing. I love that. I love that so much and how much it has rocked my world. How quickly we forget that and how quickly we don’t see that and how different life would be if we were to remember that. I want people to know that and feel that and believe that on a daily basis. You are your best thing. You have a reason to believe in yourself and it breaks my heart more than anything is that we walk through life distant and estrange from ourselves thinking we are not good enough. What would it look like if we partnered with ourselves? I am a pretty ok person and I am trying. How that would change everything we did. I have a million and one quotes that I really love but this one was the first one that came to mind.
TCJWW: Your work with More Love Letters has flourished. You have been featured on various global media outlets. Where do you see yourself next?
Brencher: I am trying to figure that out right now. It was my dream to write a book and I invested my whole entire life to More Love Letters it is almost like your dream comes true and now you have to come up with a new dream it is weird. I think for More Love Letters the goal is to let it evolve to what the community needs it to be. I very much walked into this knowing that it was not something I was going to grip too tightly, it was not something for me to dictate. This thing needs to become whatever it needs to be to people. We are continuing to let More Love Letters grow up. She is still a baby. I guess for me personally I want to continue to steer that ship and invest my heart into projects that help the world. I have been getting more questions of what is my cause or my passion. We as human beings want to be everything. I was challenged the other day to take all my work and break it down to one word and that was really hard but I realized that it is heartbreak. That is what I care about. The brokenhearted. I want to continue down that path and be able to spurt communities for the brokenhearted and that is through writing, creating, and speaking. People would say heartbreak is a very first world problem but we do not focus on it a lot. We focus on specific things like eating disorders and cutting but for me it is broken hearts. Anything that makes you less whole at the end of the day. I am just going to invest in that. It is an underrated area but we will see what we can do in the business of broken hearts. I am starting my second book. I am in this weird spot now where I am working on the proposal and everyday God is like it is not about that so I feel like I am really living a lot of the material so the tentative name of the book is Mapless. We walk into adulthood and we think there is a map, manuals, rule books but that does not exist. Where do we go from there? I am learning a lot about myself through all of this. I think a lot of women experience it. I grew up thinking I could be all these things, just be perfect. In order to get to that life like what would it mean to break something off of us that has been dictating us for years? I don’t want to stand on a stage and talk about how you’re good enough, you are worthy and not believe it for myself at the end of the day. I am not going to be a faker. What will it look like to break perfection out of my life? I am literally doing this without a map because no one can teach you how to do that.