Jo Mortimer

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A Q&A with Tanya Shadrick

Tanya is a former hospice and lifestory scribe who works in public spaces to encourage and embolden others to share stories and take their own creative risks - a practice which has earned her Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts. Her Wild Patience mile of writing - using scrolls of paper as long as the country’s oldest outdoor pool - were recently featured alongside David Nash’s Ash Dome in the BBC Radio 4 show Pursuit of Beauty: Slow Art.

During her long-distance writing project, Tanya was contacted by the well-known wild swimmer Lynne Roper, who was in her last months of life. On the strength of just a single meeting with Lynne and her writing, Tanya made a promise to publish her posthumously. Two years later, the newly-launched Wild Woman Swimming: A Journal of West Country Waters is the result.

You have previously spoken of using your writing and speaking work in service to others. Why do you believe this to be important?

There is a line in Iris Murdoch - her diaries I think - where she is struggling with a close friend taking holy orders and going into a convent: ‘What use is a cloistered virtue?’ She asks. Something of this doubt I had about my education. I’ll try to explain…

In my twenties I had this rich four years deep in literature at Sussex University - extraordinary given that my first two decades were in a remote rural community where books were in short supply - but I struggled thereafter with how to use it. I worked in television documentaries, education outreach, tried teacher training, resisted the novel form - there was some problem about reach and connection I kept coming up against.

 It was only when I began working as a hospice lifestory scribe and then writing in public, that I felt I’d found a way to share fully what I’d read, and share too the way of paying close attention to others’ voices that I’d developed.

 Whilst editing Lynne’s journals, did your relationship with her change?

I met Lynne only once, as I describe in the Editor’s Afterword to Wild Woman Swimming, and we’d only exchanged a small amount of messages before that. It was a meeting, a connection, an urgent handing over of her regrets, hopes and writing before dying.

To spend several years thereafter reading closely her wild swimming diaries, at a time when I was enduring significant ill health, was tough: She lived in her skin much more vividly than I have so far, and her language runs richer than mine. So to immerse myself so fully in her writing has been a real risk. I feel quite private about the experience and how I will move forwards, so this will have to do as a shorthand answer.

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Has your work of the past three years impacted on you in unexpected ways? If so, how have you managed this?

Ted Hughes wrote about the immense impact of becoming a public person - even in a minor way, by being mentioned in a local newspaper say. And I was wanting that for myself - not fame, but connection. An expansion of the territory available to me. By working in residence for The National Trust, Pells Pool, the Jan Michalski Foundation in Switzerland, and now a Sussex nature reserve, I’ve had so many opportunities to share what I have and be gifted stories in return. But after each public phase, I am learning now to burrow in back home. Go wordless and solitary through days and weeks, tend my family when they come home each day. Life has become about a rule of thirds: private life; writing; talking about writing and art. There is a balance to that which is sustainable I think. Anything else strains the ratio.

What is the point of walking?

For me, it is about going slow, establishing rhythm, letting my focus loosen so things occur to me: sights, sounds, new ideas. I wandered the Downs in daytime the first years of filling tiny private notebooks and trying to become a writer - and important muscles formed in that time - but it was only went I sat still in public with my pen and paper that the magic happened. So although I love books on psychogeography and drifting, I think there are times when one needs to sit down, stay still, hold one’s ground. Wendell Berry’s ‘How To Be a Poet (To Remind Myself)’ is what I read each time I find I’m walking more than sitting…

Where would you most like to write?

My month in residence at the Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing and Literature last September, and my August week by the sea in a tiny National Trust writing cabin, have given me a passion for arriving as a stranger in a place and earning through my practice a sense of belonging by the time I leave.

 Because I’m so little travelled, when the children are older I hope to spend a half or whole year in a completely new-to-me country and culture. Keeping regular hours, listening more than speaking, and quietly collecting stories that I hand back to those who told them before leaving.

Is truth stranger than fiction?

What interests me more is how differently people handle the extraordinary when they encounter it in life rather than fiction. Chance encounters that alter the direction of our lives, collisions with birds and others animals at moments of great personal change, other strange gifts or timings…I’m always fascinated to see the ways in which those telling these true stories ascribe or discount meaning.

You can order Wild Woman Swimming: A Journal of West Country Waters by Lynne Roper from www.selkiepress.com

Jo Mortimer