There are often important facts about Australia to be cleared up: “Are koalas very dangerous? Do they kill people?” Once, I sent my penpal from Japan some Vegemite, and her next letter came back, “I’m sorry. Vegemite is rot. Because it is summer in Japan, winter in Australia. It is rot.” When I assured her that Vegemite was supposed to be black and somewhat pungent, she wasn’t convinced: “Is that Vegemite really not rot? But it was very bitter, and very smell.”
They tell me about their family, their brothers, sisters and pets:
“Do you have any pets? I have a sister called Anja.”
“My mother is a housewife, my father is a business.”
And of course they tell me about themselves:
“I like sunburnt on the beach.”
“I dream become top model. I laugh."
My penpal from Bangladesh took the prize for best double entendre sentence with: “My mother is interested to intercourse with your papa and mama.” My mama and papa were flattered but said they weren't really into that sort of thing.
These women and I have exchanged our handwritten lives, in some cases for more than half our existence. We've gone through high school, uni, jobs, boyfriends, husbands, break-ups, breakdowns, and children together. We've dropped off the radar for a few months or years and then picked up our correspondence again. We've discovered, as adults, that we've gone through the same things in our pasts and never knew (the amount of eating disorders I've discovered we have in common since I 'came out' has been truly surprising).
Writing to these women is probably the most important form of writing in my life. Letter-writing for me is a treat, and discovering a new be-stickered envelope in my mail-box at the end of my work-day can wipe out all the frustrations of dragging an incessantly babbling toddler home from daycare when all I want is a glass of wine and some peace.
So why am I blogging and writing fiction today, when I want to be letter-writing? I think it's because I privilege writing according to how hard I find it. Letter-writing is easy and pleasurable (not to mention pretty), so it mustn't be of as much value as poetry, which is harder but short enough that I don't have a massive crisis of confidence before I've finished a draft. But poetry mustn't have as much value as fiction-writing, which I find harder and more nerve-wracking. And novel writing? Well, let's just say I've spent most of my life trying very hard not to write a novel.
This hierarchy of value is a crock. It's pure writing-snobbery on my part.
How is it a less valuable form of writing to share these women's lives, my life? How is it a less valuable form of writing to create something that is for one person only, something that is always right the first time, something that will never see the rounds of multiple editors, re-drafts and self-doubts?
In my handbag at the moment is a letter from a woman in Sri Lanka that ends so sweetly: “Have nice days and dreams, write soon.”
If you'll excuse me, I'm going to write a letter.