Tanya Shadrick: 'Begin by making a list of what you love. It is transformative'

The Cure for Sleep relates how the author made huge changes to her life after coming close to death following childbirth
Tanya Shadrick: 'Begin by making a list of what you love. It is transformative'

Tanya Shadrick, author of The Cure For Sleep.

In her famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote about how a woman needed a space free of interruptions in order to have the freedom to create. It is a particularly fitting pronouncement for author Tanya Shadrick, who lives in the English town of Lewes, not far from Monk’s House, Woolf’s former home on the Sussex Downs; Shadrick also spent time as a writer-in-residence in the gardens there.

 When it came to completing her first book, The Cure for Sleep, Shadrick needed not only her own room, but someone to take on some of the other domestic responsibilities which can thwart creative endeavour.

“Almost every thing I achieved in my first seven years [of writing] was fitted into the gaps left by everything else, the way most women develop their creative life, particularly if they are mothers or carers. When I was writing the book, my husband was working from home for the first time and he could see how I was trying to fit it all in. He kind of put me on a one-month residency where I had all my meals brought to me and I pretty much stayed in this tiny room I’m speaking to you from now. 

"The month where I wrote the final version of the book was the most glorious, exciting, intellectual time in my life. It was just brilliant to see how well I could work when I didn’t have to keep stopping and thinking about meals. It was a revelation.” 

The Cure for Sleep is a fearless and beautifully written memoir of how Shadrick, 48, had a profound reawakening having come close to death following complications after giving birth. She writes: ‘where does it begin — our turn away from risk and adventure? Why do so many of us hide in routine, shrink from opportunity?’ She vows to stop ‘sleepwalking’ through life, and with raw honesty, addresses the emotional fallout of her childhood, abandoned by her father and struggling to connect with a mother who embarks on a destructive romantic relationship. Meanwhile, Shadrick’s own marriage comes under pressure as she confronts her needs and desires.

“I tried to tell a true story about how you change your life while staying — whereas most of our tales of awakening are about leaving. I love those stories — like Wild or Eat, Pray, Love — about women who leave. They have so much courage but it wasn’t something I could do. Does that mean you’re a martyr to circumstance? How do you change your life in the confines? I am most proud of the fact that I did find a way to do that.” 

 There has been a boom in memoir writing from women in recent years — in Ireland, authors such as Sinéad Gleeson, Emilie Pine, Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Kerri Ní Dochartaigh have tapped into a demand for unvarnished testimony of women’s lived experience.

“I love all of those writers’ work. It’s wonderful to see women telling these stories about their bodies and their ambition as writers and thinkers. I love that we are refusing this sense that if you want to be considered a serious writer, you have to be given ‘the novel’, even if it is based on an autobiographical story, like Knausgård’s ‘My Struggle’ series, which I love. But who is going to let a woman write six volumes about her day-to-day experiences?”

 After volunteering in a hospice, where she helped people write their own stories, she undertook an ambitious project which she titled the Wild Patience Scrolls. Over two summers, she wrote a mile on 150ft long scrolls of paper, beside England’s oldest outdoor pool.

“I wrote that in public because no-one was going to give a woman that much space to write in great detail about their life. I just put it on a giant roll of paper. I would put my daily personal experience in front of readers so that they might write themselves into the story as well, and I’m so proud of that,” she says.

The Cure for Sleep ends on a pivotal moment of honesty and forgiveness which helps transform Shadrick’s relationship with her mother, who left her marriage of 40 years to go it alone in her 80s.

“Two years have passed in which she is fully in my life. I love being with her and I talk to her every day on the phone, things that never happened before. My mum is becoming a more sociable, group-orientated person after 40 years of not having friendships at all — female friendships are transforming her life,” says Shadrick.

For older women trying to find creative space in their own lives, she suggests looking at what brings them joy.

“Stop thinking about a goal or some socially defined idea of what a good life is and just go back to the source. I went back to when I was a child and I was at my happiest, and asked myself what were the things that gave me joy. I had forgotten — I wasn’t depressed. I actually sat on my back doorstep one day and I tried to make a list of 100 things I loved and it was painful. It took me all day — it was like engraving on glass. I didn’t know what I loved or wanted because there had been no room for it. 

"It is like when you lose your appetite after an illness and you have to force yourself to eat in order to get your appetite back. I would say to anyone who is utterly lost, begin by making a list of what you love, it is transformative. By the time you get to your 100 some really big soul stuff comes out — but you have to start with the small things.”

  •  The Cure for Sleep, by Tanya Shadrick, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is out now

Five more memoirs to watch out for in 2022 

Any Girl, Mia Döring (February) 

Dublin-based psychotherapist Döring recounts her own experience of surviving rape and sexual exploitation, looking at male violence and the patriarchal systems which support it.

The Instant, Amy Liptrot (March)

 In the follow-up to her acclaimed debut, The Outrun, Liptrot leaves the Scottish island of Orkney behind, booking a one-way ticket to Berlin.

Yeah, But Where Are You Really From?, Marguerite Penrose (May) 

The daughter of an Irish mother and Zambian father, Penrose, who was born in a mother-and-baby home in 1974 and later adopted, confront her past and writes about what it means to be Irish and Black.

Good Pop, Bad Pop, Jarvis Cocker (May) 

The Pulp singer, prompted by a clear-out of his attic, surveys his creative life through the debris of a lifetime.

Pacemaker, David Toms (September) 

The Waterford-born poet, based in Norway, explores what it is like to live with a rare heart condition in this blend of essays, poems and diaries from Banshee Press.

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