Women of Letters: Take risks, scare yourself stupid and have a shitload of fun

Between Us, curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire.
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Co-curators: Michaela McGuire and Marieke Hardy. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Between Us, curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire.

Co-curators: Michaela McGuire and Marieke Hardy. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Between Us, curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire.

Co-curators: Michaela McGuire and Marieke Hardy. Photo: Kate Geraghty

“By the time I get to you,” Stella Young wrote in a letter to her 80-year-old self, “I’ll have written things that change the way people think about disability. I’ll have been part of a strong, beautiful proud movement of disabled people in Australia.”

The fourth Women of Letters collection, Between Us, opens with this contribution, which has since taken on a meaning that Young, and the books curators, could never have foreseen. Just a couple of weeks after its publication in December, the comedian, commentator and disability activist died at age 32.

“I suppose I can’t really write this letter to you without talking about the assumption, the expectation, that people like us die young,” Young had written. With her typical wit and verve, she wrote that her aged self would “almost certainly have a hover-chair by now”.

“I will do everything I can to meet you, eighty-year-old Stell.”

Michaela McGuire, co-founder and curator of Women of Letters with Marieke Hardy, says while the publicity surrounding Young’s letter has brought people to Women of Letters who might not have been aware of it before, the pair are also dealing with the death of a close friend.

“For someone as stubborn as Stella, I think it’s actually quite fitting that she has written her own eulogy and that her word would be the last word on the subject,” says McGuire. “I think she would have been quite happy about that. Obviously it’s hard, especially this early on, not to feel just very saddened that she was taken from us so soon.”

McGuire and Hardy had come across Young after she had urged them to move their Women of Letters monthly readings to a wheelchair-accessible venue, which they moved to in 2013, Melbourne’s Regal Ballroom. “That was specifically because Stella had been so wonderful about it, not bossing us around but being quite firm in telling us we could lead by example,” says McGuire.

The two curators have led by example in many ways with Women of Letters. It began in Melbourne in 2010, with author McGuire, and Hardy, a writer, broadcaster and panellist on the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, seeking a way to spotlight women writers and raise money for Edgar’s Mission animal sanctuary in Victoria. Participants write and read out a letter on a theme set by McGuire and Hardy and on the understanding that readings will not be recorded, although with the writer’s permission, some letters are published in the collections.

Women of Letters has become an ever-growing success story, with a tour last year to Britain, Ireland and the US, including a sold-out New York show that has led to a new monthly event in the city. Most importantly, it continues to attract high-profile names – women and men – from the worlds of literature, entertainment and the arts to take part. It is difficult to imagine, under the relentless scrutiny of social media, that these famous names might feel safe enough to disclose personal, painful and private stories and thoughts, but this is what Women of Letters has achieved. More than a tip of the hat to the lost art of letter writing, it’s a mixture of the confessional, a session on the psychiatrist’s couch, a diary entry, a chat with a close friend.

It’s where people such as The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie actor Edie Falco read a letter A Letter to the Last Time I Ever Drank. It’s where Tim Flannery read a letter he’d wished he’d sent two years earlier to his father, who died soon after the emotional reading at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in October.

Readings are powerful because of the intimacy and trust struck up between writer and audience, with a privileged few sharing this moment of catharsis.

“The C word is a good one,” says Hardy. “We never set out when we started the shows to be emotionally manipulative or say this is going to be a great event where we make our audience or readers cry, it’s going to be a tearjerker. But about four shows in, we realised that people were being very emotionally honest in a way that we hadn’t expected.”

Hardy says they have examined this outcome a lot and says it’s partly due to the intimate act of letter writing and the no-recording policy which creates this “weird safe space” for writers.

What emerges is something of great value not only to the audience and readers, but to the writers themselves. Says McGuire, “[It gives writers] the chance to get something off their chest that maybe they didn’t know was that important to talk about, but once they have, they realise it was important to unpack something that’s happened to them or how they feel about something.”

Between Us includes a letter by the author Cate Kennedy who appeared at a reading just days after her mother’s funeral. She wrote about clearing her mother’s house out, in another letter themed around writing to the 80-year-old self, and told Hardy and McGuire she absolutely needed to do this.

“She’d just packed up her mother’s house,” Hardy says. “She said ‘I’ve been surrounded by stuff, stuff that my mother left behind, all the good china that was never used. All I want to leave behind is stories, so when I die, I want to die with a cup of tea in my hand and none of this. I don’t want my children to be packing up all these things when we should have been using the china and making it dirty.”

“It was so raw and beautiful. It’s an amazing piece of writing. She’s a great writer, but being in the room while she was delivering it was incredibly powerful.”

In the letter, Kennedy writes: “Have you done the things that give stuff its life, so that any descendants you may have inherit a treasure-house of stories rather than objects?… Please say yes…”

Between Us stretches beyond the heavy emotions of death and grieving across a wide range of topics. Actor Rhys Muldoon swaps jovial love letters with Kram, the singer of 1990s rockers Spiderbait. Actors Claudia Karvan and Jeremy Lindsay Taylor write about relationship counselling as their characters Judy and Martin from Puberty Blues. Jane Caro writes about ageing and life now that her children have fled the roost.

Contributors here and overseas have come about through personal connections, leveraging off the rocketing profile of the project, and good old-fashioned hassling. “We’ve really disgraced ourselves begging everywhere around the world,” says Hardy. Their current wishlist includes Julia Gillard, Cate Blanchett and Maggie Beer.

“We’re the most annoying people in the Australian literary scene,” says Hardy, admitting they’re probably on “some sort of shitlist” with Blanchett’s publicists. “But until she takes up a restraining order on us, we’re trying for Blanchett.”

One imagines it’s only a matter of time until Blanchett can find space in her schedule to take part, joining a long line of people creating incredibly powerful readings in conversely ephemeral settings, leaving permanent records of secrets, wisdom gained and personal pledges.

“On my path to reach you,” wrote Young to her 80-year-old self, “I promise to grab every opportunity with both hands, to say yes as often as I can, to take risks, to scare myself stupid, and to have a shitload of fun.

“See you in our hover-chair, lady.”

Between Us: Words of Wit and Wisdom from Women of Letters is published by Viking, $29.99. 

And another thing

The first international edition, Airmail: Women of Letters, featuring Lionel Shriver, Moby, Tim Minchin, Martha Wainwright, Monica McInerney and more, will be published in April.

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