At the start of my late and strange life as an artist, I spent two summers beside England’s oldest lido determined to write a mile on scrolls of paper as long as the pool.
In the aftermath of my sudden near-death a decade earlier – when I almost died in minutes – I became fascinated with the idea of slow time. A life in which hurry and rush would be reserved only for accidents and emergencies.
As I sought out stories of extreme effort and patience in service to artistic, social and spiritual causes, my palm-sized private diaries in those obscure and recuperative years became an ongoing commonplace book: Hokusai, Rilke, Jung, Wendell Berry, Agnes Martin – I wrote out by hand what artists and writers across the ages had to say about these values. I read the Paris Review Interviews archive from the 1950s to the present day to learn the working methods of hundreds of playwrights, poets and authors. Said aloud pages and pages of work by writers I most admired in order to tune my ear, before attempting short essays of my own.
In this way I was also dedicating myself – and my unexpected second life – to the practice of effort and patience. What might it do to my days, my imagination, my relationships? If I focussed on process not results?
As I knelt to my five 150-foot long rolls of papers during those first seasons of my self-created midlife apprenticeship, I had by heart this passage from the poet Adrienne Rich as courage and inspiration:
Freedom. It isn’t once, to walk out under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers of light, the fields of dark – freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine remembering. Putting together, inch by inch the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.
From ‘For Memory’, Adrienne Rich
Five years later, and the Wild Patience Scrollsare completed (all 100,000 words of them), having opened up for me a public life of rich connections unimaginable to the shy student and office worker of my first four decades.
Now, as I begin work in a more solitary way on my book The Cure for Sleep (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: 2022)I will share here some perspectives from that earlier time, in case it keeps even one other person company in their own creative awakening.
“I am…an old silkworm spinning his cocoon. It is not a hundredth the size of the house of my middle years. As I complained my way through life, each passing year has added to my age, and each move reduced my dwelling.”
Kamo no Chōmei
After living through fire, famine and earthquake, Kamo no Chōmei (鴨 長明, 1155–1216) made in his sixties the remote hermitage he describes in his brief but vivid Hōjōki (方丈記) – known in English as An Account of My Hut or The Ten Foot Square Hut.
He describes in tender detail – much as Thoreau will in a later time and place – the small additions to the original structure he has made over the years: a three-foot awning, a veranda of bamboo slats, a dividing screen. And while he is most often alone, he delights in the occasional company of a small boy belonging to the local warden:
He is ten, I am sixty – a vast difference in age, yet we find our pleasure in the same things. We pick the seed-heads of grasses, collect rock-pear berries, gather mountain yams or pluck wild parsley. If the day is fine we scramble up to the peak and gaze off the to the skies of the capital, my old home, or look out over Mount Kohala, Fushimi Village, Toba and Hatsukashi. No one owns a splendid view, so nothing prevents the heart’s delight in it.
Kamo no Chōmei
To read his short essay for the first time is like finding a still-bright dried flower pressed in tissue: a concentrate of place. How grateful I am that he made it.
Even before this time of necessary confinement to home during pandemic, my subject and experience as a writer was one of constraint: how to live with it, and tend it into meaning. A series of accidents and illnesses since earliest childhood has had me spend long periods confined to home and hospital beds, so that I have sought out stories about solitude in small spaces, both chosen and enforced: Tenzin Palmo’s 12 years in a Himalayan Cave, Richard E Byrd’s account of his solo stay on Antarctica in 1934, Edith Bone’s seven years of solitary imprisonment without trial in 1950s Hungary. A common feature in all such accounts, as in Chōmei’s of his hut, are these close and almost-loving descriptions even of spaces that were unpleasant or unchosen.
During the hardest times of my adult illnesses, I have created a sense of mental space by revisiting in words & maps the interiors of my childhood – a creative practice I share now in my work as a writing tutor and artist-in-residence, and one which always surprises intense feeling and new energy in those who take part. Choose a few rooms from earliest childhood, I say to people, and see how much returns to you from them. I keep my students company in these exercises, and it is always an authentic experience for me: I remember each time things I’d forgot –
An only child, I spent my pre-school weekdays haunting the cold spare rooms of my grandfather’s house. Turning little fretted keys in flimsy wardrobe doors, counting the pig-skin spotted kidney beans that were spread on newspaper to dry for the next growing season, uncapping ointments (what real and unreasonable grief got each time I rubbed myself with Vanishing Cream and it did not remove me from my solitude). Writing on dresser tops with furniture polish. Singing in the understairs cupboard, the bathroom, the front porch to hear my voice bounce back to me so I could imagine myself in company. Too too long alone at my own devices so that I invested inanimate objects with life, personality: Imperial Leather talcum powder, Original Eau de Cologne in its grand blue and gold wrapper, Vosene shampoo – my friends before friends.
It is always a thrill, too, seeing what happens with others when they make the journey: Last year at Wealden Literature Festival, a married couple chose to share a large sheet of paper having grown up in the same area. His childhood territory was the whole of the Isle of Sheppey; hers was a single bungalow and back garden within it: they each, however, reached an equally deep seam of sense memories, despite the different scales at which they were working.
A Wild Patience Exercise
And this is my invitation to you now, in turn. Leave the rooms you are spending so much more time in than usual, and travel back to the ones of your childhood: your own first home, or a favourite elder’s. Somewhere that is comforting to revisit. Make a map and annotate it. Begin with the objects, and let them lead you to feelings. What ways of passing unstructured time can you bring back with you, and use in this unusual here and now? For yourself, or the children or elders you care for?
Alternatively, project yourself into your old age. What would be your ideal last dwelling? Your view, the objects around you? How would you choose to live in it?
The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard (Penguin Classics: 2014) A depth meditation on the domestic spaces that shape us, as well as other forms/habitations that speak to our spatial imaginations – nests, shells, hermits’ huts.
Dear soothing, healthy, restoration-hours––after three confining years of paralysis––after the long strain of the war, and its wounds, and death.
Specimen Days, Walt Whitman
After each hard and slow return to the world I’ve had to make after serious illness, I turn always on my first days back up (as again now, after ten days with Covid-19 symptoms) to a few trusted rites and rituals.
The first day is always appalling. The world, whatever the season, has a layer of frost over it, and I am frozen out. My place in the nature of things is lost, forgotten. I feel fear, panic, self-pity. There is a lump in my throat, a stone in my stomach. It seems impossible I will recover my appetite for food, life, laughter.
This is when I take myself in hand. I scour myself with a rough flannel. Pinch my cheeks and bite my lips to bring my colour back. Tie on my apron, my headscarf. Sit then with blank page and pen to simply describe the view from a window.
It is always painful laboured stuff, as with the burning first walk nurses make one do after abdominal surgery, or the deep necessary breaths after a chest infection to force fresh air into the swampy lung bottoms. On my worst return – from month-long pneumonia that happened after the loss of a beloved friend – I believed myself finished. Broken beyond repair; heart, health. But I wrote anyway, if only to prove I was still made of moving parts (albeit unstrung by grief and illness):
New Year’s Day view from the kitchen table. An exercise in beginning again after loss, folly, failure, and the pain in the guts I am left with. Back garden gate swinging on its hinges, its crossbars rotted off leaving wet unpainted strips. Along the back bed, the verbena all fallen flat and tangled, like my daughter’s hair unbrushed during my confinement. Old cereal bowls and camping mugs left out on every low wall by her and her friends in their last mud-pie making of summer. (Sharp pang: Their last ever perhaps, being nine now).
Lid blown off the compost bin. Wheelbarrow brimful of rainwater. Sodden egg box. Go on. Keep looking. How ruined it all is. Watering-can consumed by weeds. The three espaliered apple trees bare of leaves, just unkempt twigs spread out like the chicken feet of Babayaga’s house. (I picked no fruit this summer; was hungry, following my return from a once-in-a-lifetime’s foreign residency, only for an unwise life as an entirely free woman. The work of this recovery will be to learn how to write as well as wife, mother, and husband my neglected home and friendships.)
It worked after all, once again. The strange alchemy by which a simple listing of even dismal things had me arrive at the private shames, fears and failures which had me hesitate to return to the everyday after illness.
My other recovery ritual is to read Walt Whitman and Annie Dillard, both of whom spent long seasons alone wandering creeks after serious illness: Whitman, strokes; Dillard, near-fatal pneumonia (Robert Macfarlane’s essay about how her classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creekemerged from this time is in itself a sort of smelling salts: reminding us, sharply, of how much life can emerge from drawing close to its opposite).
To think of Whitman in 1877 always moves me and restores my courage. There he was, after all he’d seen in his time as a volunteer hospice nurse during the American Civil War and the strokes which followed. Facing too, at 58, that he’d never been fully reciprocated in the sort of male love he yearned for. He takes all this – his infirmity, his longing – to the trees:
Feb 20, 1877: – A solitary and pleasant sundown hour at the pond, exercising arms, chest, my whole body, by a tough oak sapling thick as my wrist, twelve feet high – pulling and pushing, inspiring the good air. After I wrestle with the tree awhile, I can feel its young sap and virtue welling up out of the ground and tingling through me from crown to toe, like health’s wine. Then for addition and variety I launch forth in my vocalism; shout declamatory pieces, sentiments, sorrow, anger, &c., from the stock poets and plays – or inflate my lungs and sing the wild tunes…I make the echoes ring, I tell you!
Rather than some passive idea of nature as cure, what delights me in Whitman is his genius for tapping joy and taking big giddy draughts of it.
I read him til I’m able myself to wrap up and reach whatever small patch of woods my circumstances allow. Once there, I smell, I touch. Improvise moves I imagine are Tai Chi among the trees. Let boughs and branches take my weight. Say aloud to the birds the small stock of poems I have by heart. Sing, like Whitman, the song of myself til my self comes back.
📷 Banner: Ash Dome by David Nash; Main: 7 x 7 Irregular Cube by David Nash. Credit Tanya Shadrick
As in Whitman, what I love in the work of my mentor David Nash, is the interplay between mind, body and natural materials. His Ash Dome – which he began growing and shaping in the 70s in response to the Cold War – is an ongoing engagement with forces that act against growth: ash dieback, his own ageing. This is a lovely long interview, conducted in the place where the Ash Dome and other living works are situated.
A decade after the cluster-bomb of events that shattered my early thirties, I think now that what saves us – once medics have healed our bodies, and friends or social care systems have supported us through a sudden loss – is neither what we own nor even whom we love. I think our essential survival kit is composed of what we do: the everyday habits and routines that help us repair or rebuild what we care about.
The Japanese art of Kintsugi has become in recent years a cultural shorthand for this: The tradition of mending pottery with golden lacquer so that the repairs are visible and insist on the object’s value. We send images of these beautiful things around social media — our shared circulatory system for heart and soul — and feel better for a while about what is broken or fragile-feeling in our own lives. But we can forget I think to do ourselves this slow and painstaking maintenance work.
I was lucky, I see now, to grow up in farming country amid the exertions of looking after land and animals. Every evening, my grandfather walked his fields with a knife and ball of baler twine. Always a new hole worked by a fox coming in or a sheep going out, and by trussing it up with strong orange cord he kept everything in better order than if he’d waited for money and time to replace his fences.
And although my mother and I were abandoned by my father in a small bungalow down a remote and lampless lane on short rations, our frightened nights gave way each morning to defiant daytimes in which we cleaned and gardened and studied and cooked. My mother lost so much weight in those years that she could share my five-year old’s t-shirts, but we agree now that she and I both grew in trust – in each other, ourselves: what we could recover from.
I was fortunate, too, to be part-raised by a grandmother who survived brutal bereavement — the sudden death of her beloved husband in a minute after she kissed him and reached for a cup of tea — through this same belief in care-taking. My young years with her were a life’s lesson in everyday effort, in seasonal routine. Every spring I was set to paint a new coat on the garden gnome who’d faded over winter. Each November she bore the anniversary of her husband’s loss by taking his clothes from the spare room and darning them. Every evening, however bad her knees, she knelt to light a fire, saying it kept the spirits up.
When my own hard times came — waiting in a distant part of the country for that darling woman to die, enduring the suspended time of infertility, living with chronic pain after a medical emergency — these deep ancestral traditions saved me: My hands knew what to do.
I bought orange wool and began a blanket for the child I might still have (which now covers my son and daughter when they are poorly, needing comfort). I spent a year painting the railings that had gone brown and brittle on my long street. Swept leaves for my elderly neighbours. Began, through these manual labours, to belong to a place and people other than those I’d lost and couldn’t have back.
Recently I found a book my husband bought in our distant undergraduate days, before anything bad happened to us. When we were carefree, unblemished. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. It fell open on a chapter called ‘The Romance of Maintenance’. Yes, I thought, that’s what it takes, this life. To fall in love with what happens afterwards: once things fall apart. When the times call forth our courage and skill to piece things back together.
A Wild Patience Exercise
In this unsettling, home-bound time we are all now cast into, it is hard for most of us – even those with wellworn creative routines – to reach deep and concentrated thought. But any gentle tasks of caretaking that we can do in our new and necessary solitude, or which can be done while children circle and call, will make a clearing in the anxious thoughts which may otherwise crowd in.
Cleaning windows; kneading dough for simple bread rolls; untangling wool or thread; peeling veg and letting preschoolers make an anarchic mix from the leftovers; mending hems and seams, even if our stitches are uneven and improvised; sorting jumbled clothes cupboards; sanding window-frames: Anything rhythmic which grounds us in the material world, and leaves our things and our souls a little better tended than before, is right for this time.
These tasks can take the weight of our disquiet, sparing our close relationships when there is already so much talk to metabolise.
The crochet blanket made during my infertility holds a hundred thousand interlinked O-shapes – all the much I could not say – but for my husband across from me, my knitting was a balm in that otherwise unyielding season. My mother’s constant gardening was a way to exhaust the nervous fear that made sleep difficult, but I delighted in playing beside her. Granny’s mending of her dead husband’s clothes was likely a needle-sharp time of remembering, but it gave comfort to me – small child from a broken home – who watched. We can be these still centres for those around us at this difficult time – whatever private worry moves our hands.
I call it The Slow Time of Accidents: what happens when – through loss, illness or emergency – our sense of time stretches and slows, both immediately and in the long-term. Cut off or cast adrift from the routines that make our days tick past, we arrive unprepared by the tempo of modern life into a becalmed, uncharted place.
Just over a decade ago, my life almost ended in minutes – faster even than the events of this last month which are separating all of us from work, schools and loved ones: an arterial haemorrhage a fortnight after the birth of my first child. I saw the light, believed my life was ending. I survived, just. Mended, almost. What I never recovered from – and hope not to – is this slow time I’ve lived in ever since, and learned how to navigate. This fragile extra life; the total, continuous attention it gifted me.
In the first years afterwards, I was aware mainly of struggle; of not knowing how to make good on my abrupt separation from a familiar world. It was a suspended, difficult stage, full of frantic and largely mistaken attempts to retrain: I could be a counsellor, a midwife, a teacher. I signed up for courses and worked late into the nights while my babies slept, trying to attain a new and useful identity (one that had, too, some external status in the world).
But eventually, exhausted by my failed attempts to rebuild firm ground while suffering long-term health consequences, I simply swam out into the free days, and away from news cycles, office gossip, TV shows.
I became a student of older traditions, where time had another measure. My only essential tools were now pens, paper, a park bench. Poetry. I travelled through time and space; landing in the east of five hundred years ago, a thousand. Kenko’s Essays in Idleness, Chōmei’s An Account of My Hut, Bashō’s Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, Po Chü-i and others collected in Arthur Waley’s Chinese Poems — all a world away from fast, mass-produced culture. I began to write outside and attract lost souls, as they did.
(I’ve just been made redundant. I’ve all these hours now. Will you read to me? said a middle-aged man, seeing me in a park with my books. Does it come back, the quiet? A wistful new mother, with her pram. My reply, succinct and Zen-strict: Not unless you keep just a little space for its return; build in quiet minutes.)
As I began to imagine a late creative life for myself, this by Japanese painter Hokusai transformed my relation to time still further:
From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing’.
I wanted to feel for myself such a long view – that steady persistence in pursuit of mastery – even if it would have to be fitted around the care of small children. And this was how I arrived in 2016 (already a decade after my near-death) at my Wild Patience Scrolls. A mile of longhand in which time, attention and paper were all stretched to mythical proportions. As I inched along my five 150ft scrolls across two summers, watched by hundreds of pool-goers, I was newly free of worry, full of thought. Held by the here and now.
My slow and patient work surprised strong feeling in others. Office workers who had come to the lido to do fast laps and grab the lunchtime sun, began to draw near, grow curious. One wrote to me later: Your simplicity was profoundly affecting. I imagined you from a distant time, focussed on something important.
It had become a novelty I realised, with sadness, then hope: Writing – that ancient, simple means of being both self-contained and open to experience; one of the cheapest means of becoming fully awake to one’s lives and times. Here is a pen, I said to those who came close, and paper. Use them. Write me how it feels.
A Wild Patience Exercise
And this is my invitation to you now, in turn. In this slow time you have been cast into, take a pen and allow time to stretch and spool still further, if just for one day. Around your necessary care for others, pick up your pen over and again to make minute by minute notes: Noises from your house, your body; how the light moves in rooms you are often not in during the working week; what birds go past the window; short transcribed snatches of your family in talk.
As the 21st century continues at break-neck speed Lindsey Chapman brings you a moment of calm, as she meets some extraordinary musicians and artists, to find out the motivation behind creating slow art. Featuring the Ash Dome of David Nash, Jem Finer’s Longplayer – a composition for a thousand years, and Tanya Shadrick’s Wild Patience mile of writing.
On his lifelong practice of list-making, prolific author Ray Bradbury said:
Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer…I tell people Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.
When I began my self-created artistic apprenticeship (during a bleak period of extended sick leave, as described in a previous entry), Bradbury was one of the authors I chose as guide to a more creative life. I admired his fluency and joy in the work. Starting so late at writing, and doing so around the care of young children, I couldn’t afford the models of creativity I’d encountered during my distant English degrees – artists bleeding slowly in life, on the page, both.
As I sat outdoors in that first season of trying to write, quiet in the daytime for the first time in seven years of working while raising small children to school age, I was as blank of desire as the page before me. What did I love? If I’d ever known, I’d forgotten.
The difficulty seemed worthwhile. I would give a whole days to it, and make a list not of ten things but a hundred, more. Try in this way to recover appetite, as when we have to force ourselves to eat again after a long illness.
The first ten items were simply domestic, and very close to hand – ‘growing things from seed’, ‘apples eaten with a knife’, ‘my husband’s wedding jacket of brown corduroy, hanging still in our hall’. Then a spurt of cultural stuff – ‘The diaries of Virginia Woolf’, ‘The life of Iris Murdoch’, ‘The sculptures of Barbara Hepworth’.
Next came more evocative ideas and memories, while still on a modest scale. Colour, texture: ‘Knitting myself a winter jumper on a summer beach’, ‘the railings on my long street which I painted green this year’, ‘handkerchiefs worn as headscarves’.
It was only towards the end of that day’s long, awkward courting of my lost self that deeper feeling returned:
67. My sense of calm, of rightness, when I sit at the hospice with a dying person 69. Lives lived wholly in one place: My mother, Granny Shadrick, Old Mr Phillips 81. The idea of this country in the two wars: How classes mixed; men and women 87. That I met what I thought was my death with courage and clear sightedness 93. Nobel Laureates of Peace and Literature 94. My ugly hands which mother, make love, knit, write: their strength and skill 99. Watching myself and my husband age together, this two decades
Until I arrived, finally, at a new and larger perspective of myself, and what I was pursuing:
100. That I am trying to live a connected and considered life after a difficult childhood: My life as a quilt made from the better stuff of friends – patched, borrowed, cobbled together – and yet, through my sincere effort, becoming something my own.
My first published work was still two years away – an essay about painting those railings I mention as Number 33, then a story called The Weather House about my childhood’s most beloved toy (a broken barometer shaped like a Swiss Chalet that my estranged father threw in the hedge as rubbish on a rare visit).
It would be a full five years before I could look back and see just how much of my second life’s work grew from that list made on an obscure out-of-work school day. Not only the material, but also the aesthetics: When I performed my two-season Wild Patience mile of writing by the historic lido of my home town, I wore a handkerchief as headscarf and had red polish on the short nails of my large hands that moved across the pool-length scrolls of paper – things from my list become emblems for the kind of woman, the type of writer, I wanted to be in the world.
Creative writing teacher Natalie Goldberg calls it ‘The Dead Year’: the time when – at whatever age – a person decides that they want to be a writer so bad that they are prepared to begin. To draw up some sort of regular schedule and attempt it. To a friend who embarked on what she had so many years ago, and was finding it hard, Goldberg writes in Wild Mind:
The dead feeling hits hard and permeates the first year. It comes back to test you often in the following years, but if you get through the first year, then you know about it. It will never have the power to defeat you again.
My dead year came when ill health had me on long sick leave from my job on a beautiful university campus that I had wanted to keep until retirement. Hardly able to sleep or eat or sit from pain, I spent school hours like a ghost in my own life. Making deliberate, daily marks on paper felt like the only way I might give myself material substance at a time when my identity had become so badly shrunk and scattered. So I chose a tiny palm-sized reporter pad – modest as my concentration span – and began.
How hard it was to fill even a page with my invalid life!
And so I decided next that just to make the pen move across the paper every day would be enough – or at least better than nothing – even if all I did was copy out work I admired by hand.
In this way, for the next year, across thirty small notebooks (and then dozens of larger exercise books as my muscles strengthened), I created – by accident almost – a commonplace of writers on the practice of keeping going. And these are passages that retain their value when I look back now. Here is one that proved decisive for me – Ted Hughes to a friend losing faith in writing:
Now you have started, don’t you think that rather than escape into a job for a year you ought to keep writing. You are at an age now as I am where jobs are no longer ‘experience’ – only delay and obstruction, and your best experience – & the only absolutely necessary experience – is now that of your own thinking and writing. If you write nothing but bad nonsense for 3 years you will have done more and be nearer what you want to be than if you had ascended to 2nd mate on the Queen Mary in that time, or travelled along every line of lat and every line of long as marked on the Mercators
While I wasn’t a free, childless fellow from the 1950s, something of Hughes’ words went in deep, early on. I adapted it to my own, different circumstances. Around the care of small children, tests and treatments, my return to work, domestic duties: what if I gave myself permission to write nothing but bad nonsense for 3 years?
And so I did. What I now call the Wild Patience diaries are close to a half million words written for no audience in that time.
After that I had – quite suddenly it felt – the daily practice and private voice which allowed me to make a big, late leap into my public art undertaking, the Wild Patience mile of writing. It felt like magic, but it was – I see now – only a strange yet quite natural product of such a gentle but determined apprenticeship.
The urge to observe and write about the outdoors has come up through every setting & circumstance of my life. Even when chronic pain and the care of small children have kept me house- and town-bound, I have still made notes on birds, weeds and wildflowers. And yet my finest times are when I can – for a while – rise early, range widely. This written from that, as a keepsafe for times when my world slows & shrinks again.
I am a writer not a poet. These thoughts only have this shape now because I wanted to extend my relationship with a poem by Wendell Berry that has great importance to how I write and why: How to be a Poet (to remind myself). If this by me sends even a few readers onwards to discover that, then this apprentice piece of mine will have earned its keep.
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 Learnin 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 Mountainis 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.