Dead let­ter club

FOR­GET BE­ING YOUR­SELF – ME­LANIE KNIGHT WANTS YOU TO BE SOME­ONE ELSE, AT LEAST FOR AN EVENING.

Frankie - - MY PROJECT - Words Giselle Au-nhien Nguyen

Me­lanie Knight’s Mel­bourne home is filled with let­ters writ­ten by peo­ple who have never ex­isted – from sci­en­tists shar­ing tales of an­i­mals on mys­te­ri­ous plan­ets to lonely folks in the coun­try pon­der­ing life in their dy­ing days.

The make-be­lieve mail comes from Dead Let­ter Club: a monthly gath­er­ing where at­ten­dees adopt fic­tional per­sonas and write let­ters to strangers around the room (there are even prompt cards for those suf­fer­ing from writer’s block). A “se­cret de­liv­ery ser­vice” takes the let­ter to its re­cip­i­ent, who replies as the char­ac­ter it’s ad­dressed to. Es­sen­tially, two strangers build a tiny work of fic­tion to­gether, of­ten un­aware of each other’s true iden­tity – the anonymity is part of the fun.

“The whole idea is that it’s a se­cret club you be­come part of,” Me­lanie says. “It’s based on my be­lief that when peo­ple are cre­ative, it pos­i­tively im­pacts their well­be­ing, and that can im­pact their com­mu­nity’s well­be­ing, too.” An art ther­a­pist by trade, Me­lanie dreamed up Dead Let­ter Club a cou­ple of years back, in­spired by the main let­ter-mad char­ac­ter in the Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez novel, Love in the Time of Cholera. She sees the events – which are held in pubs and bars around Mel­bourne – as a way to reignite the cre­ative spark we of­ten lose as adults, as well as a re­turn to the per­son­alised com­mu­ni­ca­tion that ex­isted pre-in­ter­net. “A mil­lion peo­ple could text ‘I love you’ and it would look the same ev­ery sin­gle time, be­cause it’s in what­ever sans-serif text set­ting you’ve got on your phone,” Me­lanie says. “There’s some­thing in­cred­i­bly per­sonal and won­der­ful and ground­ing in see­ing the tone of some­one’s voice; how hard they press the pa­per. With hand­writ­ing, there are so many give­aways that deepen your un­der­stand­ing of a per­son and how you’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other that are lost on Face­book Mes­sen­ger and emoti­cons.” Far from be­ing the quiet, in­tro­verted evening you may ex­pect, Me­lanie reck­ons a Dead Let­ter Club gath­er­ing in­volves plenty of laugh­ter and drink­ing while peo­ple write. Of­ten, club mem­bers – who range from 20-some­things to folks in their 60s – find a re­lease through their char­ac­ters. “I’ve got peo­ple push­ing their pens, mark­ing the ta­ble un­der­neath and tear­ing the pa­per, be­cause they’re go­ing through a fic­tional break-up and re­ally be­com­ing that per­son,” Me­lanie says. One of Dead Let­ter Club’s great lessons is not to judge a book by its cover – the wacky tales spun on these evenings some­times come from places you’d never sus­pect.

“A friend of mine lost her mind be­cause she was cor­re­spond­ing as a high-pitched, an­noy­ing teenager to an­other high-pitched, an­noy­ing teenager, and at the end of the night she found out it was in fact a 65-year-old man!” Me­lanie laughs. “She came up to me and was like, ‘If I’d seen that guy down the street, I would have eas­ily made a judg­ment about him be­ing po­ten­tially bor­ing, but now I know he’s got a shit-hot sense of hu­mour and I had a great evening cor­re­spond­ing with him. I’d never have had that op­por­tu­nity oth­er­wise.’” Me­lanie keeps all the let­ters from the events, scan­ning and email­ing them to the scribes who’d like to keep them as me­men­tos. She’s hop­ing to col­late them into a cof­fee ta­ble book one day, but in the mean­time, Dead Let­ter Club keeps grow­ing – it’s popped up in Canada; will soon ap­pear at the Mel­bourne Writ­ers’ Fes­ti­val; and in Bris­bane for a spe­cial con­vict-themed edi­tion. “I can’t con­vey how ex­tra­or­di­nary peo­ple have been in gen­eral,” Me­lanie says proudly. “Any per­son walk­ing down the street has the most won­der­ful cre­ative mind, and is ca­pa­ble of build­ing the most in­cred­i­ble short story.”

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