Penelope Chai and Jane Dickenson are Melbourne-based writers of fiction, nonfiction and for the screen. They are the co-creators of Clothing for Correspondence, a project where they barter for clothing by writing other people’s correspondences. They ghost write love letters, complaint letters, letters from dogs, letters to cars, lists, speeches, Christmas card greetings and basically whatever people can come up with.
Outside of this project, Penny’s writing has been published in an assortment of magazines and anthologies including harvest, Visible Ink, INSCRIBE, Toffee Magazine and the 2011 Sleepers Almanac. In 2009 and 2011 she was shortlisted for the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards. She studies creative writing and screenwriting at RMIT and freelances as a researcher, copywriter and editor.
Jane’s writing has been published in a number of journals and magazines including Slushpile, IsNot, Toffee Magazine and the 2011 Sleepers Almanac. In 2010, her manuscript, The Story of Being Here, was runner-up for the Varuna/Penguin Manuscript Development Prize. She works in Indigenous health and teaches yoga.
What are you working on right now?
We’ve got a few Clothing for Correspondence requests we’re working on: a list of first-date ice breakers requested by someone who found himself severely tongue-tied on a recent date and some copy for a website about learning to love a seemingly unlovable country town. The majority of requests we get are letters, but we’ll write pretty much anything. We’ve written dating profiles, restaurant menus, goodbye speeches…all kinds of things.
We have a short radio segment once a month where we talk about the letters we’ve been writing and we’re in the very early stages of planning a Clothing for Correspondence book. Outside of Clothing for Correspondence, Penny is working on a novella and a film script and Jane is working on a novel and a biography. They both write short fiction, as well.
Where did the idea for Clothing for Correspondence come from?
As creative writers, we’re never going to earn the big bucks, so we love secondhand clothes. They also fit with our quests to lighten our carbon footprints and avoid disposable fashion. One day Jane was lamenting the fact that Penny seemed to have many more people giving her hand-me-downs so we concocted a plan to use our writing skills to barter for clothing. At first we thought it was an hilariously funny idea but we doubted anyone else would a) understand it or b) play along. We’ve been pleasantly surprised. We get requests from all around the world and most of them are charming and fun.
What does your typical day look like?
There’s no real typical day. We’re both writers with day jobs so it’s that never-ending fine-tuning of balancing between paid work and passion. Jane starts her day with a coffee and Penny, more healthfully, usually starts with a swim or a jog. We both work from home a lot, spending hours on laptops and we try to cancel out the damage to our postures (and souls) with yoga. We rarely seem to live in the same city at the same time so we’re constantly emailing drafts of letters back and forth. Good days involve some outdoors time, some catch-ups with friends, films and art. The very best days involve writing like maniacs and being totally absorbed in a project.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Brainstorming is important. We have a ‘writing group’ that consists of just the 2 of us. We used to talk about getting other people to join but never really found anyone on the same page as us. We used to hang out in cool cafes, pretend they were our living room, drink chai and plan, plan, plan. Last year we only caught up in the flesh 3 times, so most of our ‘writing group’ meetings are via Skype or email. Talking things over really helps to grow ideas and having someone around that believes in you is essential.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
We’re drawn to anything that involves reusing and recycling in innovative ways. There’s a lot out there, be it product design, art or fashion. One great example in Melbourne is The Social Studio (socialstudio.org), a project in which young people from a refugee background learn skills in designing clothing from recycled products.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
Jane’s worst job was waiting tables at a golf club in Florida. She learned that she has neither the patience nor coordination to be a waitress. Penny’s worst job was transcribing recordings of doctors’ reports in Scotland. She learned that she couldn’t in any way, shape or form decipher the Glaswegian accent.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
Nothing really. There have been a lot of things we’ve learned along the way about the awkwardness of mixing business and friendships and about how incredibly time consuming a ‘small’ side project can turn out to be. In all honestly, we’d do it all the same again.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Well, we need to point out that we’re not the type of entrepreneurs who make money so our advice may be a little off the mark. With that disclaimer, we believe you should stick really close to what you love to do. It’s so easy to get sidetracked and follow paths for the wrong reason so be sure to check in regularly to make sure you’re still following your passion.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
By business do you mean something that makes money? Because if you do, the question should really be: what is one business idea your readers are willing to give away to Clothing for Correspondence? Seriously. We’d love to know. Please email all viable ideas to [email protected].
If we have to come up with one ourselves, we suggest becoming a movie star and moving to Hollywood. That seems to work pretty well.
Tell us a secret.
Now and again we get a piece of clothing that really sucks.
What are your three favorite online tools and what do you love about them?
They’re really basic but we love Campaign Manager for easy mail-outs and Twitter and Facebook for keeping in touch.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Okay so this is a little cheeky because it’s not a business-related book, but we think everyone should read a fabulous book of short fiction called The Sleepers Almanac no. 7 by Zoe Dattner and Louise Swinn. Two reasons why: first is we each have a short story in there so if you like our website, you can read more of our writing; second, because creative stimulation should come from all different kinds of art forms. You never know where a brilliant idea is going to stem from.
What’s on your playlist?
Jane: I Need a Dollar by Aloe Blacc, Jungle by Emma Louise, the Morning of the Sun soundtrack and a little Dolly Parton.
Penny: You’ve got the kind of nerve I like – Tiny Ruins, Billie Holiday, Beirut, Bon Iver and Peter Joseph Head.
If you weren’t working on Clothing for Correspondence, what would you be doing?
We’d still be writing and working on all of our other projects. We’d probably just be a little less stylishly attired.
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
The tumblr Suri’s Burn Book makes us laugh out loud almost daily.
Who is your hero?
We both have a writerly crush on the Australian writer Helen Garner. We’d love her to join our writing group but we’d probably be too scared to ever show her anything.
What’s the biggest challenge in running an online business?
If your work is online, it’s really easy to get distracted. A quick, “I’ll just look this up…” can lead to hours on Wikipedia or YouTube. There are so many amazing articles, podcasts, photos, etc. out there that it can take a lot of discipline to stay focused.
What’s next for Clothing for Correspondence?
As mentioned earlier, we’re in the planning stages of a Clothing for Correspondence book. Some of the requests we get are so great that we need to share them. We feel really lucky to have these small insights into other people’s lives and we’d love to get some of the stories down on paper. And maybe we’ll package the book in an item of secondhand clothing.
Clothing for Correspondence Website: www.clothingforcorrespondence.com
Clothing for Correspondence Email: [email protected]
Clothing for Correspondence on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/clothingforcorrespondence
Clothing for Correspondence on Twitter: @WeWriteYouDress