Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Centrelink ordeal seems to have passed without incident. I am now on the dole, and must now set to the task of fulfilling my "mutual obligation" requirements. My understanding of this Dickensian jargon is that they are obliged to pay me money and in return I am obliged to provide documentary evidence to the effect that, try as I might, I cannot convince anyone to employ me.

But what does this mean, in practice?

Over the next 3 months I must apply for ten jobs per fortnight and write the details down in my "dole diary". Each job application will include a covering letter, and perhaps even a customised CV. The covering letter will contain around 200 words. By the time I have completed my dole diary, I will have written about 12,000 words - the length of a shortish Honours' year dissertation.

So many words to be wasted on petty covering letters for pointless job applications. Couldn't 12,000 words be better spent on something more interesting and worthwhile? On the other hand, I am unavoidably obliged to expend these words in this reckless manner, or risk cooling the ardour with which Centrelink feels itself under obligation to pay me. After all, I am in effect being paid to write letters.

Convention advises us to always to reflect on the shinier side of any anotherwise dull-looking situation. The key to the bright side in this case may be the place letter writing holds in literary and cultural tradition. Not only was letter writing considered something of an art, letters formed the basis of an epistolary literary form:

Pamela, considered by scholars to be the first official English novel, was presented in its entirety as a long series of correspondance.

Wilkie Collins gave birth to the modern detective fiction genre (no, not Arthur Conan Doyle) with thrilling books such as The Moonstone, which was written in epistolary form.

And then there are the letters of the sexually frustrated Abelard and Heloise, famous for the poem they inspired by Alexander Pope containing a line that inspired the title of a Hollywood film about something completely unrelated.

Not to mention the famous private correspondance of Horace Walpole, Diderot, Mme de Sévigné, etc.

Hence, to write a letter is to venture with trepidation into a well established literary tradition, burdened by the legacy of l33t letter writers who have met and conquered the form long before one was even born. To guess that expectations are high would be an underguesstimation. The correct answer is that they are monumental.

And I am expected to compose no less than ten of these letter things every couple of weeks. It is more than a little harsh. Still, it has been estimated that Clarissa Harlowe would have spent at least 15 hours per day writing her letters to her friend Anna, totaling half a million words over the period of about a year. If a fictional character from the 18th century can do it, so can I, I suppose.

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