Friday, December 9, 2011

Write soon

I'm really not in the mood for blogging today. It took the usual three million hours to get Luka off to daycare, and that's without me attending to the bench full of dishes, the two bags of rubbish on the balcony that need taking to the basement, the bed sheets that need changing, the bath that Luka hasn't had for two weeks, the floor that needs sweeping, and the nappies that need buying.

So here I am, finally, set up at 1000 Pound Bend (free wifi, power-points, good tunes, fuck-off strong coffee, no air con), and all I want to do is write letters.

I got my first penpal when I was 13. 'Got' sounds silly. What is the word for how one acquires penpals? 'Met'? 'Read'? Anyway. She's from Finland (though she now lives in Austria), and 18 years later we're still writing.

I've currently got about 20 penpals (I think - sometimes I lose count), though the count peaked in around 1995 when I had 43. There wasn't much to do in Warrnambool as a teenager. I wrote a lot of letters.

Before you ask, my penpals and I correspond on paper, with pens that we hold in our hands, then we put the paper in an envelope and put a stamp on it and put it in a post-box. No, really. Most of them are on Facebook too, but we mainly use it to tell each other when we've posted a letter.

Having a stationery fetish contributes greatly to my enthusiasm for letter-writing (and judging by some of the letters I receive, the same goes for a lot of my fellow penpals). I have a filing cabinet full of letters and a chest of drawers full of writing paper, stickers, cards and envelopes.

There's also a certain joy to be taken in phrases that don't quite bridge the translation gap (I'm pretty sure I have been responsible for numerous ones myself when I try to write in French).

Introductory letters are always a strange beast. Some penpals introduce themselves: “Dear Australian friend, I am your corresponding,” while others prefer to jump straight to the facts: “Dear Friend, I’m 155cm tall and I’m normal." Some first letters are affectionate: “Hi from a big kiss”, some are more formal: “Due to some unavoidable circumstance I could not reply to your letter which you posted December 12.”

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?

It's not.

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.

1 comment:

Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) said...


I see me, up in the corner.

And yes, I've always enjoyed writing to you. And receiving your letters. And fondly remember avoiding high school homework until I'd replied to you.