Tanya Shadrick, writer-in-residence for the 2019 Wealden Literary Festival, recommends essential texts and other tips for aspiring writers.
Is there one work of writing about the natural world that has had the biggest impact on you?
After my near-death at 33, the book that became talismanic was Matsuo Bashō’s 16th century travelogue and haiku collection The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This idea of a scribe wandering the land, enjoying long stretches of solitude in nature punctuated by stays at hostels and welcoming homes, was how I decided to live this ‘extra life’ I have now. The aesthetic of how I write outside at a low kneeling table is my version of his way of being: There are sections in the book called ‘The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton’ and ‘The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel’ – this is how I want to end my days: worn smooth with beauty and use.
Aside from the residency at Wealden 2019, what are you currently working on?
My husband and I met at 20 and married at 25; this year is our twentieth wedding anniversary. We’ve always written small books to one another at key lifestages, but want this year to do something more formally challenging.
Romance of Maintenance: Marriage and Its Many, Moving Parts will be a book of two halves – like those weatherhouse barometers that captivated me as child, where the woman swung out from one door, her husband the other. In the absence of elders living near us, we gathered many of our married values and routines from odd sources – the 70s classic Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour and Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn in particular. We want to show how treating marriage as structure and smallholding rather than a romantic relationship has helped us weather infertility, near-death, important others, and more: those storms of chance, fate, accident, opportunity, that come to all of us over time. (And there is nothing self-congratulatory or complacent in this; rather it’s a surprised feeling, as in the D H Lawrence line – Look, we have come through!)
Congratulations for reaching the longlist for the Wainwright Golden Beer Prize 2019 for Wild Woman Swimming. This is quite an achievement – how does it feel?
To have the only title from my own Selkie Press be longlisted beside books from Penguin and Faber – and to see Lynne Roper’s posthumously-published work keeping company with Robert Macfarlane, Max Porter, Julia Blackburn and other fine place writers – this gives me a feeling of quiet delight.
Lynne was a well-known wild swimmer, but a stranger to me when she made contact at the end of her life. I met with her just once in her hospice in the month before she died, and she entrusted her unedited swim diaries to me. She has an irreverent and refreshingly direct way of writing about nature – Wordsworth one minute, Victoria Wood the next – combined with a deep and expert knowledge of Dartmoor, Devon, and how to read wild waters. To get her voice to readers has been a true heart and soul labour for me.
Is there a single piece of advice you would give to aspiring writers?
Unless you have a gift for historical or fantasy narrative, be intensely local in your first pieces: where you are now, or where you were when young. Tap into your raw materials of the here and now, or your there and then. This is where you will find your voice, if you’ve haven’t yet. Be content with the simple, the given – what is in your street, your local park or shopping precinct.
Look for regional projects that are accepting submissions rather than going straight to big national competitions or publications. My first four essays were all published in one season by two linked local projects on the psychogeography of Lewes on the Sussex Downs: One of those essays – about a year I spent painting railings in my street – led to the sculptor David Nash becoming my mentor, and then to my major work to date (Wild Patience – a mile of writing beside the country’s oldest lido).
Tell us more about your own creative process and how the natural world can inspire your writing
I make daily longhand notes in exercise books, and share the American poet William Stafford’s approach to writing: I don’t get blocked because I lower my standards and keep going (his book The Answers are Inside the Mountain is a little-known classic on the writer’s life and craft).
Whenever I feel myself becoming too abstract, I leave my desk and spend long stretches outside or, during winter, bundled in my car on the top of Firle Beacon: Up there on that high point of the Sussex Downs, I let the wind rock me and roar in my ears, and I watch the rooks playing on the gusts and buffets. Return always from outside time with a renewed sense of my own rhythms and ways of being at ease.
What other books on writing do you most often recommend to people?
As well as the ones I’ve already mentioned, the other key texts I share most often on presence, patience and craft of writing are:
How can writing about our relationship with place help us meet the environmental challenges we are faced with today?
It is natural I think to become mute in the face of all we are learning about the rate and scale of the climate crisis: I spent a month without writing or reading early this year after David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth. Faced with the time-frames set out by him and others, I’ve had to question why I write: I always wanted to join that generational conversation between authors and texts, and that sort of long-term literary tradition doesn’t feel likely to endure now. I don’t have an easy or consolatory answer to this. I have begun to write again, and because I want at least to keep my eyes open, to take it all in: to honour what we have, what we’re losing – as Cormac MacCarthy uses the last paragraph of The Road to describe in the most vivid, almost-lover’s language the brook trout that are gone from the streams in the mountains.