I’m being uncharacteristically arty in this picture because I want to talk for a moment about art for art’s sake.
Last night my husband asked me, “Do you feel good about the work you do? Do you feel fulfilled?”
I have wanted to create for as long as I can remember. It has been a driving force my whole life and, in my career, during the years that work was less than creative, I always subconsciously found ways to twist my job to make it more creative.
But I used to feel very guilty about this, and I was constantly questioning. What is my place in the world? What value do I bring to human-kind? To feel proud of myself and my legacy on this planet, I thought I needed to do something truly humanitarian. Like... be a doctor in a refugee camp, you know, that sort of thing... nobody could question the value of that work! But writing stories and painting pictures? Selfish, I thought.
Until a friend reminded me of the value of art to the human condition.
"Imagine this world without any music, or art," they challenged me. "A world without dance, without movies, without cake, without stories."
Human beings crave imagination, experimentation, and beauty. I knew that a long time ago but what I found difficult was admitting that it was OK. It was OK for me to seek these things, and to make these things. That admission was hard, but it was even harder to accept that by putting these things into the world, I was making a genuine contribution.
Our world doesn’t always value art particularly well. Politicians pour funding to business and infrastructure and other serious, money-making activities. I don’t want to get political here and I’m not going to debate funding decisions or political leanings but I do want to suggest that even the most hard-headed of politicians, the most aggressive of investors, and the most senior of executives, seeks art in their lives.
Whether that means sinking into a chair at the end of a long day and listening to music, reading a witty opinion-piece in the paper, watching Game of Thrones, or cooking up a special meal, they are gaining solace, entertainment and joy from something that somebody else has created. Art that was made for art’s sake.
A year ago, when my husband saw a thousand vintage postcards for sale quite cheap on Ebay, he bought them for me on a whim, and challenged me to post all of them in one year. At the beginning, that project was just a bit of fun. We laughed at the (often ugly, bizarre and sometimes questionable) postcards, and I scribbled brief notes into the tiny sections that were left after I’d added three giant stamps (stamps are so big these days!), an address, and had numbered the card out of 1000.
But the Thousand Postcard Project, as it became known, became more difficult as the year went on. I grew busy, and it became more and more challenging to find the time to stamp, address, write-in and post those postcards. One thousand postcards is 19 postcards a week and while that sounds like a lot, imagine you skip just three weeks - now you need to write 60 postcards before the weekend, just to catch up! By Christmas, only a week before New Year and the end of the challenge, I still had several hundred left to write.
It’s then that it became really tempting to give up. Honestly, what was the point of sending them at all? There was no money to be made, nothing to be gained, and the people I was writing to were mostly strangers. Would they really care if they didn’t receive a postcard from me? Would they even remember they had signed up? Probably not!
It began to feel like a frivolous project. Art, in the most loose sense of the word. Not even art. Maybe just... “fun.” A pointless, albeit fun, art-project that was now keeping me up until 1am night after night, and filling my every spare minute during the day, during the one holiday-week I had at home with my family all year.
It was rough. Why continue? What had started as a tangible, external challenge had become much more internal; a battle inside my head to finish what I had started. Even my husband, who had set the challenge in the first place and spent hours sticking stamps onto postcards to help me, was ready to let it go. "If it's too much, just stop!" he said, tripping over the bags under my eyes.
Honestly I think I only made it through those last few hundred postcards out of sheer stubbornness. I don't like making promises and not keeping them. I don't like starting things and not finishing them. And I've been a journalist for a long time so I don't like missing a deadline! But as I wrote, even as the cramps in my fingers ran all the way up my wrists and kept me awake with pins and needles at night... even when my pen ran out of ink and my head dropped with weariness onto the desk in front of me... as I wrote, this project still gave me joy.
I liked seeing the names and addresses as I wrote them down - some of them familiar, some of them strange. Exotic, foreign worlds. Kuwait. Guatemala. Finland. South Africa. Iceland. Romania. Brunei. Eritrea. Cyprus. Vanuatu. What were their day-to-day lives like in those places? How were they like mine? How were they different? I liked thinking about how people might feel when they got my postcard. It had been so long - would it come as a surprise to them? Would they wonder (probably they would) why a stranger in Australia was sending them a sixty-year-old postcard of a nondescript roadside motel in America?
Yesterday a beautiful lady sent me an email in response to the postcard I'd sent her, and she has given me permission to share it here. I've just removed anything that could identify her:
"Imagine my excitement this morning when I opened my PO Box and found a post card. Oww who is this from, do I know a Naomi, then the penny dropped. I was quite emotional about getting this which probably underlines my craziness. Anyway I was very moved that you had chosen me and that you thought about me while you wrote this postcard.
"I have felt increasingly isolated as I have resigned from my job and moved to a small town in recent years. It was really lovely to get a postcard. I do get them from time to time.
"I always used to send people on leave when I worked, with a cheery 'I’ll wait for your postcard.' Deaf ears mostly. Then one day a colleague said, 'I had no idea about you insane ranting about a postcard until I got one from you when you were on holidays. I was really quite excited to receive it and I now totally get why you want a post card.'
"She went on holidays and I got about ten post cards. This friend now lives overseas and says how she comes home sometimes and there is a letter from me on the hall table and my handwriting is very distinctive and it is always a cause for a sit down with a cuppa and time to read my ramblings.
"Thanks again and I am so happy letter writing is not a totally lost art. Young people enjoy a letter or parcel in the post too. I would have though those of us that grew up with the post not necessarily the internet would be more jaded about post as it is normally bills and bank statements, not always cards and postcards, but it seems the younger generation are really getting into it."
It made me so happy to know I had created a little piece of joy in this woman's day through such a simple act as sending a postcard. And to imagine all those other letters and postcards she wrote about, making their way between friends and strangers alike: spreading love, building friendship, and sharing joy.
And that made me think, again, about the concept of art for art's sake. Maybe my project wasn't pointless, after all. Turned out I had sent a thousand missives of care, quirkiness, humour, friendliness and surprise out into the world. And that's a little bit of something, at least.
No-one will get rich or famous from this project, and it won't save any lives, but that was never the goal, was it. These days, I've learned to see value in other things, too. In creativity, for example.
So last night, I was able to answer my husband’s question, without hesitation, and with a resounding Yes! Making lovely things and sending them out into the world gives me an enormous sense of joy and fulfilment.
But even better is the feeling I get when somebody tells me that something I’ve said, done or made has given them joy, or has helped them rediscover their own innate creativity. That's when I get goosebumps. That's why we do what we do, me and you.
ps. Do you want to see some of the postcards?
ps. If you're in the mood for even more letter-writing inspiration, I want to remind you about my letter-writing and mail-art e-course, "The Most Beautiful Letter You Have Ever Written."
Over four weeks, I will guide you through multiple methods of making beautiful mail-art and creative, handmade stationery; teach you the art of writing and storytelling; help you forge personal connections in your letters and find pen-pals if you want them; and share time-management tips so even the busiest people can enjoy sending and receiving letters. There's also a host of downloadable resources, and access to my own private mail-art pen-pal group. Registrations are open right now, and you can find out more here.