I am ploughing through the middle of the Tasman Sea on a cargo ship. The water is 4.6 kilometers deep and swirls against a bow traveling at 18 knots. Equally 707 nautical miles (1311 km) from Australia and New Zealand, the internet, phone and my pathologically social life: I’m on a self-funded floating residency.
During a residency, time staring into the middle distance – in this case the sketched cobaltic lines of the sea – isn’t procrastination. It’s essential. Banging on about it in logbook entries: also essential. In the first days I make dot points that cover notebooks and the back of my left hand like shopping lists for container travel:
- South 39°, east 161°
- Breakfast: strange sausage, scrambled eggs
- No booze is good booze
- Engine could power a small city
- Throw up seasickness tablet. Take another.
By the fourth day of our ten-day voyage we are beyond the reaches of land and I am in a writing routine adapted from a Writers’ Victoria Steven Caroll master class: write for two 90 minute sessions every day, no edits, no breaks. In this, life revolves around fiction. On a cargo ship though, life revolves around the meal schedule. There’s also head bumping cabin yoga, short films to make with co-resident boyfriend Tom Doig, Russian and Filipino to attempt, staring to be done into the deep. I discipline. Urchin away hours to write by the porthole.
With no land in sight, my words turn nautical. A residency is usually about producing text. It’s also about giving yourself the time and space to get some perspective on a story. It’s about making room for new words. The short story collection that I’m writing about Cambodia takes huge gulps of sea air in the back of my brain while I write about the ship. I scribble, standing in the control room bridge where the captain and his officers peer at their beautiful charts; where a squiggly line like a sea monster directs our path; and the crew look out with sailors’ eyes over the containers and the ocean beyond. On the circular scale that sits to the west of the South Island chart, one of the officers has written ‘withdrawn temporary’.
Some may not like a cargo ship residency. It’s initially expensive, the food is meaty and you wobble about like a matryoshka (babushka) doll in the swells. The first day at sea is spent with your head in the toilet and the sailors have stories of harbors, oceanic disasters, love and loneliness – it can be hard to be disciplined. But to catch a merchant ship is to enter another country, where starboard and port replace house and street and nautical miles, fathoms and knots replace metres. Time is liquid. Information is gathered through the stars and you suck in enough material to fuel your writing for the next decade. To catch a cargo ship is to admit to the size of the world.