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