On Sunday I attended my first Women of Letters event in Melbourne. For the uninitiated, Women of Letters is a unique literary celebration of Australian women writers and writing. Take five female writers, musicians, politicians or comedians and hand them a topic to write a letter to – for example To my first boss, To my nemesis, To the photo I wish had never been taken. The women read their letters out live on stage to an audience of about 300 people – not an activity for the faint hearted.
While I’d heard much about this experience I didn’t know what to expect. I was moved by turn to laughter, introspection and tears by the five responses to ‘A letter to something I lost.’ It also got me thinking about my long lasting relationship with letter writing.
When I was thirteen my family moved from country Benalla to Geelong, which back then seemed like moving from a dusty paddock to a thriving metropolis (laughable now, I know, but I had little to work with by way of comparisons). I deeply resented being uprooted from my country home and spent hours of my early teenage years writing long missives to my friends. The content varied from humorous (Mr McGregor said ‘erection’ by mistake today) to deeply reflective (have you got your period yet?) and I looked forward to their replies with an enthusiasm that bordered on evangelism.
At sixteen I was invited to the debutante of a friend in Warrnambool and met a boy I decided to make my boyfriend. Again, from my lofty second storey bedroom in Geelong I wrote him long letters in an effort to keep our love alive. Exchanging letters with lovers was a habit I was to continue for many years, right into my thirties.
When I come to think of it, letter writing was not so much a habit than a passionate hobby. I am far more articulate on the page than I am in real life and writing letters to lovers and friends was a bit like therapy – it allowed me to express what I was otherwise too embarrassed or tongue tied to say. It also usually entitled me to a letter in return and there is nothing – nothing I say – more exciting that finding a fat envelope in the letterbox containing a hand written letter.
I kept many of the letters I received, even the teenage ones, in a plastic envelope, which I carted around with me until I could think of no good reason to hold onto them and I tossed them out. I still however, kept a handful of letters from former lovers too precious to me to dump. Occasionally, in a fit of nostalgia and red wine, I will pull them out and read them over with tears in my eyes.
With the advent of faster, cheaper email, it’s sad that letter writing has become something of a lost pastime. In fact, with Facebook and Twitter, even email is losing its value as a form of communication. People prefer to opt for the short, light and pithy message over the longer, more descriptive and exploratory craft of letter writing.
I think it’s a shame. Love letters, even ordinary newsy letters between lovers, have a warmth and immediacy to them that is beyond electronic communication. Hand written words seem somehow more intimate, closer to the one who penned them. I remember running my palm over the pages of the letters from my lovers as though I were reaching out to touch them. I was aware the ink forming the words had poured from a pen my lover held with his hand. That ink somehow brought his physical presence nearer to me. His words came from his heart and he could be certain I wouldn’t share them with anyone.
The idea of exchanging letters with a lover is endlessly romantic and I’m regretful it has become a thing of the past.
Have you ever exchanged letters with a lover?
Women of Letters event is co-curated by Marieke Hardy and Micheala McGuire. Women of Letters: Reviving the lost art of correspondence and other related books are available through Penguin Books Australia.