Lately I’ve become obsessed with photographing ships at the end of my street, mostly big blocky cargo ships moving up and down the bay.
My husband can’t understand my new passion. He says today’s ships are more like floating apartment blocks than the graceful, streamlined carriers he sailed on when he was in the Swedish navy—ships with exotic names like Masilia and Uddeholm.
He’s probably right, but I still find something beguiling about these big creatures stacked with multicoloured containers. Perhaps I’m intrigued by the distant ports they visit. Perhaps it’s the freedom they represent to my shore-bound self.
Or perhaps it’s because I love the work of Melbourne artist, Julian Twigg, who paints these big chunky ships in colourful abstract shapes and I secretly wish I could splash words around like he splashes paint.
I’m not having much luck with my photography. Even with my iPhone6 on maximum zoom, it can’t seem to cope with the distance from beach to horizon and I’m increasingly disappointed with my blurry results.
I’m also having this problem of distance with a couple of characters in my new novel. They’re both male characters–yet it’s not always been my experience that the opposite sex is more difficult to write–and although I’m getting up-close and personal with my female characters, I know I’m not yet living under the skin of my Henryk and Antek. What to do?
Foibles, says a writer friend, your characters have to have a couple of good foibles.
I like the word foibles. A weak point. A fault. And when I look closely at Henryk and Antek, I think I’ve given them some interesting character flaws. Yet I still don’t inhabit their souls: like the ships in the bay, they’re way too distant and hazy.
Once, a problem like this would have been my undoing. But completing The Lost Child has taught me about the importance of waiting. Waiting for my unconscious mind to do the work for me. Waiting for my ship to come in.
I’ve begun to think of my novel-in-progress as my own cargo ship stacked with scenes in containers, and when one ‘container’ doesn’t stack easily, I’ve discovered others will. By writing scenes where my problem characters are not needed, I’ve learned to trust my unconscious mind to go to work on Henryk and Antek and sort them out for me. A bit like leaving my crew to stack the containers while I attend to other duties.
Of course it’s a different problem if the hazy characters dominate the whole story. By taking a complete break from life at sea–a visit to a gallery; lunch with a friend; a good gossip; a long walk; a short trip away–I can fill up my creative well with new sights and sounds, colours and words, and return refreshed to my ship.
I also find it helpful to have a close look at how other captains organise their containers. Picasso said: Good artists copy. Great artists steal. I don’t think of it as theft; more inspiration.
Yet sometimes ships are delayed in port for longer than expected and it’s just a matter of waiting. A matter of trust. No better expressed than by Keats in his theory of Negative Capability: ‘Where one is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’
It’s often hard to do, isn’t it? We’re programmed to want instant answers and to ‘think’ our way out of delays and dead ends. But I keep Keats on my pin board to remind me it’s possible.
And my photography? Yesterday the sea was gloriously calm and I felt as if I could reach out and touch the ships on the horizon. It’s probably my best effort yet, but it’s still a bit hazy. I might have to dig out the old Pentax.