I got my first penpal when I was 9 years old. Her name was Claire and she was the 11 year old niece of one of my mother’s colleagues, a woman who had migrated to Australia from Scotland. Claire wasn’t very nice, she thought everything I told her about in my letters was “stupid”, including me, but I was hooked on writing and receiving letters, so I kept writing to her.
When I was about 12 and started buying Countdown and Smash Hits magazines, I started writing letters to the people advertising for penpals in there. Some of them wrote back. One who was fairly local (Brisbane to my Rosewood, about 45 minutes drive apart) and I became friends for a few years. Later in High School, I wrote to people who had advertised in Dolly magazine, THE teenage girl magazine of the time. When I was 16, I had a penpal advertisement in Dolly myself.
It went in to the January 1989 edition. By Easter, I had received over 500 replies. I wrote to all but a handful of them (I got free postage in those days!) and struck up a correspondence with more than half. They ranged in age from a 12 year old girl to a 45 year old man.
I know what you’re thinking about the 45 year old man writing to a 16 year old girl. But you know, I wrote to Nicholas for about a decade, I still have most of his letters and he never said anything inappropriate, never asked me personal details, just told me about his farm and the music he liked and we talked about TV, movies and books we loved. We would trade mix tapes and I found so much amazing music through him. We lost contact during one of my frequent moves. I often wonder what happened to him, he’d be in his 60’s now.
Almost 22 years after I placed that ad in Dolly magazine, I still write to one of them. Her name is also Kath, she’s about the same age as me and lives on a farm in Western Australia. About 5 years ago we finally met when she and her husband and daughter came to Queensland for a holiday. The following May, I flew to Western Australia and had a holiday with her and her family. We still write fairly regularly, but these days it is via email. I consider her one of my best friends, despite the fact that we live so far apart. We’ve watched so many things unfold in each others lives over the years that we are fairly well connected despite the distance, and always seem to know just when we need each other, and what to say. She’s one of the special people in my life.
Nowdays, I do all my writing online. I keep in contact with friends via social media. I miss writing on paper with a pen. Sometimes at lunch time I will go and hide in a nearby cafe that always seems fairly empty, and write in a notebook. Quite often I write blog posts, or just thoughts about something down, but the act of writing with a pen and paper is something that is soothing to me. I hope I never lose the skill of being able to write the old fashioned way. My handwriting is never going to be called anything special, I learnt to write just as they were changing from cursive to the standardised printing, so I have a funny mix of styles, and my mother used to say my handwriting was like me, big and loopy. But it’s as much mine as my fingerprints, so I like it.
Do you write with a pen and paper? Have you ever been a letter writer? Do you like to read letters? Tell me your stories.
This means that 46% of Australians do not have the prose literacy skills needed to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work. This not only includes people who cannot read at all, the illiterate, but also includes the rather large number of people who can read individual words, or simple sentences, but do not have the comprehensive skills to understand an average sentence or longer, or a paragraph.
At first this revelation shocked me. But on more recent experience, I understand it now, and can honestly say I can see the evidence of this in my day to day life. Even in online services and tools that rely solely on the written word (ie blogs, Facebook, Twitter, forums etc), I am noticing how many people struggle to comprehend what they are reading. It’s not that they cannot read each individual word, it’s that they are unable to comprehend the words together in the form of sentences and paragraphs. And what often happens is they compensate by taking in what they think the sentences and paragraphs say, and not what they actually say. I would say it’s easily a good 20 – 25% of people I read daily (and often interact with) would fit in to the sub-literate category.
Never has this been more evident to me than recently. If you like, go and read the most heated comments in some of my earlier blog posts. How often do you see me respond with “You are not reading what I have written.” or “But that is not what I have said.”? It’s alarmingly frequent.
As a librarian who believes deeply in literacy being the one thing that will better our society, I sometimes wonder how to contribute more to raising people’s literacy in not only Australia but the world.
One popular school of thought is that writers should simplify their writing, take it to a more basic level.
I believe this is “dumbing down” and I believe it makes the problem worse. Can you imagine if we dumbed down brilliant wordsmiths because some people don’t have the literacy skills to read them? One of my idols in language and writing is Stephen Fry. He plays with language, constantly tweaks it and polishes it. I can’t imagine not having writers like this, who are not afraid to really get their teeth into words and language to read. Not to mention the fact that I dream to have the skill that he shows with language.
Newspapers are traditionally written for an 11 year old reading ability. Let’s leave it to them to keep that level, and let’s gently encourage people to practice their reading by finding writing that they LOVE. Recreational reading is fun and relaxing, or it should be – there’s another whole blog post on forcing or guilting people into reading what is “worthy”, which I may write in the future. If someone has found the subject matter interesting enough to pick up the book, or click on the link, or open the magazine/newspaper/comic, then that is the first major step to improving their literacy. The more someone enjoys reading, the more they’re going to strive to do it, to expand what they are reading.
As writers, I feel we should all be honing our skills, not just opting for the easy road out and going for that approach that newspapers take, of sticking to the 11 year old reading level. As our writing gets better and better, so do the skills of our readers. At least this is what I believe.
The best way to improve your writing skills? The same way in improving all skills… practice. It doesn’t matter if every piece isn’t a masterpiece, but if you’re doing it, and polishing it as you go, then you’ll get better and better at it. You want practice at it? Then keep doing it.
This post is especially for the guys. I would like to ask you all to please go and read this article:
Ladies may read it as well, but I wager it’s all nothing you haven’t heard or thought before.
I am not using my real name. However many of you know my real name, or I have enough information on here for anyone who knows me, to know that this is my blog. I did have my real name on my Twitter too but changed that, however I use my first name regularly there. I have toyed with using my real name everywhere, as I really want to be transparent in my blogging/tweeting etc, I want my name to be connected to my writing, but I have had some troubling experiences in the life of my blogging. I have been lucky so far, I’ve not had anything truly frightening, but I have had some upsetting experiences.
However I don’t want those to take my joy of writing, tweeting, sharing photos and videos away from me. I want to stay transparent and open, I’m proud of that. I want to share my experiences and the wisdom I gain along the way, and dammit my opinions too.
So that’s why I’m asking particularly the guys to read the Kate Harding article linked above. Because when you fellas let it slide when some douchebag makes our lives miserable, or insults us, or “drunk tweets” feral sexual comments about us, or harasses us in blog comments, or rolls their eyes when we get upset about something and so on, you’re giving those misogynistic fuckers the message that it’s ok. And that encourages them to take it to the next step, and the next, and beyond.
But I would also like to take this opportunity to thank those men who DO stand up and say “Oi, that’s not right.” when these things happen. I would like you to know how much it matters to women when you do that. Not just because you’re seen as being on our side, but because it gives us a feeling that we are safer having your support. That not every man is out to crush us down, shut us up, force us into our “place”. That there is hope for change for women who wish to be seen, who don’t want to be invisible.
So thank you.