Note to self: don’t call this entry ‘The Write Stuff’

Last week, I was reminded that when you have a passion for an activity, you’ll find a way to carry it out no matter what the conditions.

I’ve subscribed to Artificial Womb, a feminist zine run by my friend Ana Hine. The format really is an old-school zine, with A4 pages of typed text and freehand drawings stapled together into a booklet. But this edition was different. The first variation to catch my eye was the return address on the envelope; it was a hospital in Kent. In this issue, Ana is candid about why she’s confined to the place at the moment.

Regardless, she somehow managed to find collaborators, write and illustrate the zine entirely by hand, photocopy the pages, and post the finished product to subscribers. On top of that, there’s a mini booklet about her former partner and a small piece of art on a separate sheet. I think that’s marvellous work under the circumstances.

You can subscribe to the zine right here.

A public-domain photo of an open notebook.
A public-domain photo of an open notebook.

Most of my fiction, poetry and even blog entries start life as pencil on paper. But last week, I also wrote a letter of my own by hand.

I have a friend in the US who goes by many aliases, but for the purposes of this entry, I’ll call her C. In March, I sent her special-edition David Bowie stamps and she replied recently with a thank-you card, two postcards, and a handwritten letter. I felt compelled to return the favour.

On one hand, I found the process of writing to be liberating in the sense that there was no urgency. Unlike an electronic message, there is no expectation of a near-instant response, so I was able to draft and redraft the letter, and also to write one of the postcards in the area depicted in its photograph.

But the process also highlighted a difference in style between her letter and mine. C would go off at tangents and ask questions, some of them rhetorical, whereas I was more inclined to create a narrative structure and answer questions rather than ask them.

So I rethought my style, and the final letter deviates radically even from its last draft, answering some of her questions and posing my own. Even with the aforementioned postcard, that ends on a cliffhanger, with the comment that a stranger had sat next to me on the bench as I was writing and that I wished he would find his own spot.

I also alerted C when I’d posted my letter, as she’d told me that mine was arriving. After our brief discussion on the matter, I don’t think I’ll flag it up next time, and simply let it be a surprise. I might also surprise you and end this entry abru

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Writing to 10 of My Greatest Influences

Regular readers will know that a few months ago, I wrote a letter to Kazuo Ishiguro after reading his book Never Let Me Go. I did it because his publisher didn’t provide anything but a postal address for its authors.

To date, Ishiguro has not replied, but I was itching to repeat the experiment with others I admire. It’s a slower and more laborious process that makes you think about every word you write. Yet the sealed envelope is far more difficult to ignore, and your words don’t become just another comment on another social media page.

With this in mind, I’ve tried to emulate the pre-Internet and pre-fax era as much as possible, a time when celebrities felt more removed from their audiences. I’m lucky enough to have mutual friends with a few popular performance poets who influence me. I’ve excluded them because they feel too ‘close’, even though we don’t know each other directly.

There’s one important concession to the old-school vibe: it would create a lot of hassle to find out the postal address of agents, management companies or publishers in an offline manner. I therefore set a rule that I was allowed to use the Web for the task, but I wasn’t permitted to contact anyone to ask for the correct details. I instead used the most likely addresses I could find.

So who are the top 10? I’ve listed them in no special order:

  1. Andrea Gibson – performance poet
  2. Peter Doherty – musician and poet
  3. Marshall Mathers – rapper, aka Eminem
  4. Mike Skinner – rapper
  5. David Nicholls – novelist
  6. Tracey Thorn – musician in Everything but the Girl
  7. Jasper Carrott – comedian
  8. Billy Joel – musician
  9. & 10. Harley Alexander-Sule & Jordan Stephens – musicians in Rizzle Kicks

It took under an hour to collate most of the addresses. However, I counted six contacts for Marshall Mathers alone as he has a number of specialist managers, so I settled for writing to his agent. Conversely, Peter Doherty proved über-difficult to pin down. My initial searches pulled up a management company in the West of Scotland; later searches provided a much more likely address.

But finding the contact details was only the start. Before I uncapped my Biro, there were other issues I wanted to iron out.

  • Firstly, should I use my pen name? A pen name would allow the recipients to look me up online should they choose, whereas using my legal name would ensure that any reply is correctly delivered. I decided from the start I wouldn’t include an e-mail address to maintain the pre-Internet feel – though I can be easily contacted via this site – so I’ve compromised by including my legal name in the address, but explaining in the body of the letter that I write as Gavin Cameron.
  • Secondly, what about the content of the letters? Naturally, this had to be customised to the recipient, but the text can be broadly divided into three sections. In the first, what I enjoy about their work or views; the second explains why I’m writing by hand rather than doing it online; the third is a summing-up and best wishes. I haven’t asked for an autograph, a photo, or even a reply; I wanted the letters to be mainly about the recipient and his or her influence, without me being too much of a fangirl.
  • Thirdly, do I publish any replies? I quickly decided that would be a negatory, rubber duck, other than to provide a brief summary in a future blog entry. It’s not that I think any of the recipients would mind, but because personal letter-writing is an inherently private activity, I would rather the recipients kept my correspondence confidential, although there is a sample in the picture and it’s ultimately their decision as I haven’t specified I want it kept secret.

    Notebook with tear-out pages for writing to celebrities
    Notebook with tear-out pages for writing to celebrities

So how did I feel when I put pen to paper? I knew I would have to develop a template of sorts as it’s far easier than starting from a blank page. I first drafted the Marshall Mathers letter (pictured), then copied it onto writing paper in pen. Even with my preparations, I found it difficult at first to place my thoughts in a flowing order.

Probably the easiest letter to write was that to Andrea Gibson, which ran to three A5 pages with my signature on the fourth. I found once I’d started that I had loads I wanted to say, and I acknowledged at the end that if I’d been using a PC, I would have edited much of the ramble. I could have started a new letter, but I felt it wouldn’t have been so candid as it was in that first form.

If I did make a mistake in a word, I would simply cross it out and write it again. It didn’t occur to me until I’d sealed the envelopes that Tippex still exists. I’m glad I didn’t realise this, though, as it wouldn’t have looked pretty on the cream page.

The hardest letters were probably those to Jasper Carrott and Billy Joel. I imagine it’s because they influenced me more in my childhood than they currently do. But I’m glad I still wrote to them because I might not repeat this experiment, and none of us will be around forever.

The one thing I didn’t find intimidating at all was the level of fame my recipients enjoy. I’m currently taking the MLitt course at the University of Dundee. There, I was introduced to the concept of thinking about where I fit in with other writers and poets, including those who are well-known. So rather than considering yourself to be lower down the food chain, you’re encouraged to ponder whether you’re producing your own work to an equal standard, and how you can raise your standard if you’re not. Or in Internet jargon, MIND=BLOWN.

Thinking in those terms helped to relieve the pressure. I know I can produce work to the same standard of some of the folks I’ve contacted, and I also know I can pick holes in their work just as much as they could potentially rip mine apart. So in that respect, I’m a person doing one creative activity who’s writing to a person who does another creative activity, not a ‘civilian’ writing to a ‘celebrity’.

If I receive no replies, I won’t cry into my notebook, as I’ve said what I have to say. I’ll be happy if I attract one response; I’ll be ecstatic if I receive two; goodness knows what I’ll be like if three or more come back.

Now all I need to do is what writers do best: wait.