Kelly Dennett, winner of the 2016 The Surrey Hotel Steve Braunias Memorial Writers Residency in Association with The Spinoff Award, wrote 30,000 words during her week at the Grey Lynn hotel. Runner-up Antony Millen wrote 28,000 words. Second runner-up, Wellington poet Ashleigh Young, managed to write approximately 43 words. But she met a nice cat.
On my first day of my writing residency at the Surrey Hotel I came across a dusty little black cat – one of those cats that immediately drops to the ground and wriggles around luxuriously when you approach – in the carpark. I assumed it must be the famous Surrey Hotel Cat, so I lured it back to my room, where it went straight to sleep on a big red armchair. Writing cat installed, I made a start on a poem. The first lines were “I wished someone would write a song for me, then someone did / but it was called ‘Actually Ashleigh’ / and I think of the cruelty of songwriters …” I got the feeling I was in for a rough ride, even though I had all the right tools: laptop, beer, cat, patch of sun in a place to myself, and time. Time. Time, like the occasional passerby for the stray. Maybe a few pats today, maybe a slice of ham tomorrow.
My writing residency was for four days. One of those days would be spent in Hamilton at the Wintec Press Club “free lunch extravaganza”, where poet Hera Lindsay Bird would be delivering the keynote address to a room full of journalists, and because Hera is a VUP author and I work at VUP, it seemed silly to not go, even though I found the idea of a room full of journalists extremely daunting and was starting to think I shouldn’t go. Realistically, I would spend at least one of my other days writing through a hangover. So my writing time would be piecemeal. But I was used to that. My difficulty was something else.
Among working writers – that is, the writer who works fulltime and writes around the edges – a lot is made of the difficulty of finding time to write. I’m not sure I completely subscribe to that difficulty, in and of itself, anymore. Whenever I’m excited about writing something, time miraculously opens up to me and other priorities fall away, as if like lemmings they’ve driven themselves over a cliff. The difficulty for me is more the need to distract myself from the fact of my writing time’s brevity. “The end of the time is coming,” I say to myself. “I must make something before it gets here.” But time is time. Constantly reminding yourself it’s nearly over is like putting on all your clothes before diving into the sea. Longer writing residencies, where you can try out a life that has writing as its centre, give you the time to get used to the idea of having time. A sort of insulation around the time itself. My Surrey residency had no such insulation. It was just cold, bare, bony time. And yet: a gift.
I hacked away at my poem for a couple more hours, then, frustrated, took a few selfies of myself “being a writer”– which, it turns out, look exactly like ordinary selfies – and then went to explore the Surrey, leaving the cat there as a placeholder for the writing life.
I was interested in the pool and also the gym, because I work best when I can alternate between two extremes – motionless in pyjamas at a desk, or thrashing around in shorts. Next to the bar, the gym was tiny and crammed with equipment. It reminded me of my grandfather’s shed full of ancient farming machinery. And the pool – although it had a big mural of a city, a yacht, and some penguins – didn’t look comfortably swimmable; it would take you five seconds to swim a full length, so essentially you’d be doing forward rolls back and forth. It was as if the Surrey, ever sensible, was saying to me, “You’re not here for that.” I knew it was right.
The hotel cat slept on my bed that night and in the morning demanded food, of which I had none, so I put it outside, where it immediately dropped to the ground and wriggled around luxuriously. “This is how you should approach your writing,” the cat seemed to be advising me. “Each moment is filled with the joyous possibility of sustenance.” I shut the door on the cat, brewed some tea and buckled down.
Later that day I was meeting the musician SJD at a café down the road to talk about putting some poems to music. I was nervous about meeting SJD. I’m prone to starstruckness and knew I’d probably flip out a bit. How would I stay cool? When he arrived, a nice-looking, friendly-faced man with his head slightly ducked as if trying to not be too conspicuous about being one of the greatest songwriters of all time, a memory of trying and failing to watch one of his early music videos on dial-up internet flashed across my mind – how powerless I’d felt! Then SJD was shaking my hand and eating a muffin, and we were having a nice conversation. Maybe I was dreaming that part and in reality I was overturning tables and screaming with excitement. Afterwards, I went back to the Surrey to recover, and grimly tried to get another poem moving, a love poem, this one beginning with the lines: “What will we do? / Bump into each other blindly, like foam noodles in a wintering pool?” Not for the first time, I wondered if I was cut out for the writing life.
That night I wandered around the car park making chirruping noises, hoping to lure the hotel cat back, but it didn’t come, and so I just stared at my stupid poems while eating takeaways, then gave up and wrote some work emails instead. In the back of my mind was the Wintec Press Club Luncheon and the possibility of backing out. But the next morning I woke up to find myself getting off a bus in Hamilton. Too late.
I went down to the river to steel my nerves. From a few hundred metres away I saw the telltale shimmer of my boss Fergus’s hair. There he was, sitting alone on a bench down by the river, like a figure in a piece of café art. I didn’t want to interrupt the scene so I walked further down the riverbank and found a long jetty. I walked to the end of it and lay down in the sun, and thought about the impending social situation, and decided I was definitely dreading it. A man walked out on to the jetty and asked if I was having a good rest – did he think I was considering throwing myself into the river? – and then I stood up and faced the task at hand.
I want to briefly defend the role of the party in the writing life. Even though going to a party is the opposite of sitting down to write, the party can be like the last deep breath a free-diver takes, before going down. It’s painful, but sustaining. Without it you won’t last long in the depths of your solitude before starting to go odd. Or maybe I’m making excuses for not doing any writing at all that day, except for a couple of tweets. “How can we make poetry cool again?”, Hera asked in her speech, and I thought of how my poetry efforts over the last few days were hindering progress, but that it didn’t matter right now, because there was all of this wine and the river was rolling past outside and everything was wonderful and there were so many famous people here. Tomorrow I was going to do the best writing of my life.
Saturday. My last full writing day. I went for a walk to Western Springs and stretched out on my jacket in the sun, and woke up some time later, puffy and morbid, surrounded by pigeons. That night, tapping desultorily at my laptop, I heard an urgent squalling outside my door. I rushed to open it. The cat. The cat had come back. I scooped it up before it had a chance to collapse to the ground wriggling. With the cat snoring once more on my bed, I felt somehow free, and finally I finished the poem I’d started on Wednesday.
Then, in an idle moment, I went to the Surrey Hotel website to see if there was any information about the cat. I noticed that the description of GM was accompanied by a picture of some other cat – a delicate grey-and-white thing. It looked like it had never bared its belly to anyone before. I looked from that picture, to the little black cat asleep on my bed, and back again. So. The truth. My cat was a nobody. Or, I had stolen the cat. Probably both.
But, like any writer, I’ll take what I can get. And besides, we’d already bonded. I gave it some of those little hotel thimbles of milk the next morning and then we said goodbye, one of those stilted goodbyes where one party doesn’t realise they’re supposed to be sad and instead they’re delighted by all the attention and then they decide they’ve had enough and abruptly go and sit on top of someone’s parked car.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.