Men of Letters

Men of LettersI’ve laughed, cried, and generally been in I-wish-I-could-be-that-clever awe at a few Women of Letters events, but timetable clashes have defeated my attempts to catch Men of Letters. Until now (and not without some sneaky reworking of football match times that I organised with the place I play and didn’t tell the boys on my teams—sorry guys, but those late games were a necessity).

Featuring quite possibly the strongest possible Brisbane Men of Letters line-up around—including Stuart Glover, Richard Fidler, John Birmingham, and Scott Spark—today’s event was a must-see.

ABC radio host, former Race Around The World TV host, and Doug Anthony All Star Richard Fidler opened the proceedings with an honest, heartfelt, humour-laden letter to his wife of some 20 years.

Charting their courtship, marriage, and moving-house history, Fidler’s letter was warm, disarming, and deep. It also gave us insight into the dynamics of the couple’s relationship—him the eternal optimist complemented by (and often in competition with) her pessimism. I’m still chuckling about ‘Ha! See!’

The last letter writer and academic Stuart Glover wrote to his mother was one begging to come home from summer camp after he’d accidentally hit another boy in the face with a paddle. The letter he wrote to her for today was of the kind, he said, that he would write but never likely show to her.

Glover was born 10 weeks early in a time when that meant almost certain death; he was supposed to be a Cancer but is a Taurus instead. His letter was written from his infant self, naïve, innocent, beautifully wrought, and breathtaking.

I’ve long known Stuart as a self-deprecating, wickedly funny, and talented writer and his deeply personal letter caught me by surprise (in the way that ‘surprise’ is intended as a compliment). I didn’t know it was possible to have more respect for this man, from whom I’ve been fortunate enough to learn at uni. Today I found new levels of like.

Spiderbait’s drummer Kram was surprisingly wry and funny. He’d composed his letter on his phone and he hadn’t printed it out because he was still changing it up to half an hour before the show. The only reason he wasn’t been changing it during the other readers’ letters, he told us, was because he didn’t want to appear disrespectful.

Kram’s letter was to his ‘woman’ the Neanderthal term he used for his wife. I (and arguably just about everyone else in the room) bristled at its mention, but the term was quickly swept away or even contextualised by his brilliant letter—one that he’d decided would be best kept ‘simple and rambling’.

Addressing his Norwegian wife, who was standing off stage, and with hilarious moments punctuated by the infectious giggles of his son who, like us, was clearly enjoying the show, Kram owned the stage and the microphone in ways only a rock star can. He also posed questions I’m still puzzling over, not least: Why are creative girls’ cars so messy?

Interstate work commitments meant that Lucas Stibbard of Boy Girl Wall genius and fame couldn’t be there to read his letter in person, but Men of Letters played one he’d prepared (recorded) earlier.

After opening with a words-inspired visual of a crunching cricket + ball + lack-of-cup incident, he addressed his letter to the girl who’d provided him with what was technically his second kiss. (He’d missed out on being kissed during the schoolyard catch-and-kiss games, something he put down to the fact that he was a faster runner than the other kids.)

Stibbard had bonded with this girl over vaguely sexual experiences learning CPR on a mannequin, and the kiss she later planted on him set him on a path to his creative career. That’s something I’d like to thank her for—Stibbard is a masterful actor, writer, director, all-round talent whose future works I’m very much looking forward to.

Singer-songwriter and ABC radio producer Scott Spark closed out the proceedings with a letter to his ‘proxy sisters’. Born a boy, he’s known all along that, though they loved him infinitely, his parents had always hoped for a girl.

At one stage his parents considered adopting a girl from Asia, something which didn’t pan out and that Spark, whose partner is writer Benjamin Law, has promised that he’ll rectify if the government ever lets the couple adopt a child.

Spark’s letter was to the sister he’s never had and the ‘proxy’ sisters he’s had all along. These are the women who have offered him love and advice and acceptance and inspiration when he’s most needed it, including in the days and hours before he was to lose his much-loved father.

His letter was beautiful and wrenching and generous and inspiring all at once and I’ll not deny it made me a little teary; it was the perfect way to end an afternoon of letter-reading emotion and humour.

I’m not sure how Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire will top this Men of Letters, but I’m looking forward to seeing how. For now, though, I’m fairly pleased I got to witness this one—it really was something special.

Apply Within: Stories Of Career Sabotage

Apply WithinI finally got around to reading Michaela McGuire’s Apply Within: Stories of Career Sabotage today, in part because it was just returned by a friend, and in part because I was struggling to find the enthusiasm to finish a Book That Should Be Read.

I’m not sure why ‘worthy’ books are often watching-paint-dry dull, and you know I’m struggling to get through one when I scroll aimlessly through my iPhone, repeatedly checking emails and social media news feeds instead of cracking said book open on the train. Were the book Vampire Academy or the like, I’d be ditching the phone and praying for a longer ride.

Not so with this one, I’m afraid. The dry, dull book currently in question is David Borstein’s earnest-sounding, earnest-in-execution How To Change The World. I hand-on-my-heart want to like and finish it, I really, truly do. But I allowed myself a reading reward, having made it approximately half way through.

The reward was Apply Within, a book of short stories of the soul-destroying casual jobs McGuire’s held during her time at uni and beyond. It’s a book I (and indeed any current or former uni student) can relate to well, and that I could have written myself. But that’s what everyone says when a book based on a simple concept and experience we’ve all had comes out, isn’t it?

Apply Within emerged from a blog McGuire originally kicked off on the same theme, and it spans her time working for a federal Liberal MP during what turned out to be the Kevin ’07 juggernaut of a Labor campaign, as well as stints cleaning ash trays at the casino, selling ‘green power’ door to door, arranging a solicitor’s butterfly collection during temp work at a law firm, and booking lap dances during her time at a strip club.

I’m not going to claim Apply Within is a great literary tome, but it’s important to note that nor does it set out to be. Throughout it McGuire succinctly, dryly, captures the mundane, often inane work experiences we’ve all had, from dodgy bosses to overzealous workmates who take their menial jobs far too seriously. Her wry, outsider–insider approach to the tales kind of makes you think it was the this-is-grist-for-the-mill way she coped with these mind-numbing, soul-sacrificing jobs.

Zigzag StreetIt’s also worth noting that McGuire’s gone on to do some cool stuff since the book’s publication, including setting up the Women of Letters literary events I recently attended for the first time and blogged about. In short: she got out.

I’d sit Apply Within alongside John Birmingham’s He Died With A Felafel In His Hand, which recounts the horrors of sharehousing with people whose habits and cleanliness aren’t always above board.

I’d also liken it to Nick Earls’ breakout book Zigzag Street, which likewise put some parts of Brisbane on the map. This in no way means that non-Brisbane-ites couldn’t and shouldn’t read it, because the dead-end job theme is one that transcends city and state borders. But it’s rare for Brisbane to feature in books (or books you actually want to read), so it warrants mentioning.

Having raced through Apply Within in three too-short sittings (it’s just under 200 pages long), I’ve enjoyed my sugary reading treat and am heading back to the not-so-sugary How To Change The World. Wish me luck. I’m determined to finish it; I just might not enjoy it.

Women Of Letters

Apply WithinFor the most part, my reading and writing time is spent in silence, which is precisely the way I like it. In fact, my favourite after-lunch (or any-time) activity in primary school was what was called USSR, a play on the initialism for the former country that for us stood for Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading. For me, avid reader that I am, it was an immediate and welcome afternoon treat, albeit a too-short one.

Sustained, silent, and largely uninterrupted reading will always be my primary method of enjoying and absorbing words and language, but I was reminded yesterday of the joy of having others read to you. It was also a huge part of primary school, and listening rapt as someone read aloud to me was something that left a lasting, positive impression.

Primary school memories were not what I was expecting to have invoked when I attended the most recent adult—and by that I mean, licensed, ID-requiring, occasional but not gratuitous swear-word employing—Women of Letters event in Brisbane.

I missed the first one out of, well, a lack of getting myself organising to procure a ticket before they were all snapped up, and have rued it ever since. Everyone who went said it was brilliant, and that they laughed, cried, and were generally all-round inspired (my friend Kirsty wrote a particularly brilliant account). So when one of my friends offered to organise me by buying group tickets for this one, I jumped at the chance.

The premise of the Women of Letters literary event, just in case you haven’t heard of it, is an afternoon that celebrates talented women writers, musicians, comedians, and other professionals and the ‘lost art’ of letter writing. Each event is unique and the invited panel of fabulous women read out a letter they’ve written on a particular theme.

The event was thought up by two talented writers: Marieke Hardy, who you may be familiar with from Triple J, Frankie magazine, The First Tuesday Bookclub, and a variety of shows and columns she’s written; and Michaela Maguire, whose book Apply Within: Careers of Career Sabotage is one with which many of us who’ve worked some fairly horrid jobs while trying to make ends meet and study and just generally live can relate to. Proceeds go to Victorian-based animal shelter, Edgar’s Mission, adding a feel-good factor to the afternoon of inspiration and fun.

It’s incredibly difficult to convey in typed words how fantastic this event is, and I’m loathe to pull the you-should-have-been-there line. Think a cosy, dimly lit room packed to the max with eager ‘readers’ enjoying good food, good wine, and good company, being entertained by intelligent, savvy, witty, incredible women who offer their take on a given theme. The intimacy of letter writing coupled with the intimate venue in which they’re read out, I think, give you insight into these women’s most private, most honest selves.

The most recent Brisbane event’s (and Women of Letters plays out regularly in other cities too) theme was love letters, and the likes of Kate Miller-Heidke, Kris Olsson, The Greats singer Patience, and Morag Kobez-Halvorson wrote love letters to their 12-year-old self, the alphabet, New York City, and their absent health, respectively. This saw them:

  • liken a boyfriend to a Clydesdale and themselves to a vine that needed to be free
  • explain how they knew it was time to wean their child when they were old enough and articulate enough to tap the other breast and say in a ‘udder one’ in a lispy voice when one was empty (and yes, the inadvertent udder-for-other replacement was uncanny)
  • tell us that the letters of the alphabet are spelt out on the wings of butterflies (this one I don’t wish to double check because I so want it to be true)
  • point out how important it is to locate an ovary as a point of reference before intimating that you think there might be a five-centimetre, cancerous growth in the area of the roughly five-centimetre-long ovary
  • and show us how it’s possible to express your love for and connection to someone as ‘I need you like a tourist needs a toilet’.

Diverse, eclectic, impossible to predict, thought-provoking, entertaining, and distinctly their own voice and style, these ladies and their letters were all brilliant. I’ll be signing up early for this form of out-loud reading the very next time Women of Letters visits my town.