The Cure for Sleep: Reading
Season 2, 008: Scenes from our reading lives: What books (given, lent, lost, found, shared, annotated, more) - or memories of reading/being read to - are at the heart of our own stories?
The Cure for Sleep was published in January, and ten months later my last public events for it have only just finished. And so this book that contains much of my and my husband’s shared life this last thirty years? It can rest now on a shelf at home, just one among many hundreds, which is as it should be. And Nye and I can begin to return to what we were before publication day: readers of books, rather than characters within one.
And if you’ve read our story, you’ll know how much our life has been shaped by the words of dead and distant authors, our main companions through our shy twenties. As two introverted working-class kids who had the good fortune to meet and band together at university, we used our evenings and weekends to read, read, read:
Going magpie-like through biographies became our shared passion: how Lawrence made a home with Frieda from each rented cottage by distempering the walls, sewing lampshades; the way Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury Group remade arrangements for living and loving; what it cost women poets of my mother’s generation when they dared to voice their sexual selves.
We were learning through those late nights of our early twenties (so we believed) to go beyond our class, its constraints, and design a life of our own
Shadrick, Tanya. The Cure for Sleep (p. 74). Orion.
Later, when my perspective of life had been shaken to its core by my sudden near-death as a new mother, I found in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass a book like a secular prayer to keep close for courage as I tried to design a new way of being that could honour even a little of the great generosity and connection-beyond-work-and-family I’d experienced in what I believed were my last minutes of living. And lines from that book run now through my own as section epigraphs: a small way of honouring my debt to it.
On Laughter and Forgetting
A book story not in The Cure for Sleep, but key to its being written, relates to a copy of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera that had been left by a previous guest in a hotel room on my childhood coast. It was June 2018, in the early aftermath of a great loss of love, and I was there to nurse my shame and heartbreak. I took Kundera’s novel out onto the cliff path with me, even though I was finding it difficult to read with pleasure or concentration for the first time: all books become a painful reminder that I had never written one, and likely never would now I was so mired in emotional mess.
But the minute I opened it something uncanny happened.
There on the page was an unusual word of great significance in my relationship just ended. And immediately after this, a ray of light fell across the paper, so bright I had to close my eyes. And as I did, a thought came - unbidden, from outside; as if said to me by another person, although I was quite alone.
You will write a book. Soon. And it will have a title like this one. Simple words, big forces. It will be the story of your small personal life - the only story you have - and yet done with the purpose of calling forth the stories of others.
The light shifted. I went back to Kundera. Read him in a single sitting as I hadn’t managed with a book for several years. But it wasn’t an instant and completely healing epiphany. Much of my life continued to feel only failed, mistaken, for many months to come.
But at the very end of the following summer? The idea for The Cure for Sleep arrived with me, all at once, and by a similarly uncanny method: just as predicted in that strangely-lit clifftop moment.
your invitation to write
One of the deepest pleasures while doing festivals, workshops and mentoring sessions this year was to learn in return what books or reading habits had life-shaping importance to others. Hence this month’s prompt, below…
Share a scene or story from your intimate life as a reader: your relationship to an author, a book, a character, or only passages/lines from a story or poem. Or: tell us about an experience of reading, the act of it - alone or with others - that has made a mark on you.
[Please read the guidelines for contributors if this is your first submission to the project.]
You can read the stories already contributed by readers over on The Cure For Sleep website: bedtime stories | memory games | bonding | choosing | promises | size & shape| time | desire | regret | faith | rebirth | play | hands | mirrors | friends | skill | longing | mentors | birthday letters
(All themes are still open for contributions, so that subscribers with time or health limits have the opportunity to take part as and when they are able.)
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from ‘Atlas of the Difficult World: XIII’ by Adrienne Rich
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand because life is short and you too are thirsty. I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language guessing at some words while others keep you reading and I want to know which words they are. I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse. I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read there where you have landed, stripped as you are.
Read the whole poem here, or find it in An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991 (W.W.Norton)
signed & inscribed copies of The Cure for Sleep
Deadline 4 December 2022: If you’d like to order a signed copy of the hardback to give as a Christmas or New Year present - specifying too a personalised inscription you’d like me to add - then you are invited to do this by no later than 4 December through the beautiful Much Ado Books at Alfriston. The order form that Cate and Nash have set up allows you to request the words you’d like me to include when going in to sign…
ask me a question…
If you have a question about The Cure for Sleep or writing more generally, do remember that I have an always-open thread for this on my Substack. I always try to give answers with links to further resources that might keep you good company in your own creative journey.
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In 2003, my partner and I arrived in the high, thin air of Mexico City at the start of a year long adventure. The culture shock was massive, a combination of altitude, the bustle of 10 million people, unfamiliar food, smells, faces and so much noise. The hostel overlooked the Zocalo, with its Spanish colonial buildings sitting on top of an aztec temple, the main square of the city. I felt homesick, shocked and disoriented and searched for the familiar. We travelled lightly and the hostel had a shelf full of books left by travellers coming and going from all parts of Central America. I found a battered copy of McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy, a story of his travels around Southern Ireland. I took it with me when we hopped on the bus south to the Mayan riviera and read it cover to cover on the 20 hour journey imagining the green fields of west cork as we drive along the parched Mexican highways scattered with cacti and dust. Arriving in Playa del Carmen in Yucatan with its turquoise sea and blazing white beaches and another hostel, I swapped my book for another battered novel and lay reading in a hammock. That carried me on to a jungle traveller village in Guatemala with an open air jungle canopy bathroom and howler monkeys in the trees as I sat reading on the loo. And so it went. I read, I passed my book on, I swapped and shared battered books with global travellers all the way through Belize, through LA and onward to Fiji, on campsites and hostels across New Zealand and Australia. The comfort blanket of novels and autobiographies and books I never dreamed I would read. Adventure, poetry, classics. Anything that was there- I was open to it all. I have never read so widely and prolifically even during my literature degree. I had no expectations, no requirements, I just read what was available and there for me. No judgement. My final swap was in a hotel on the Khao San Road in Bangkok after winding our way through south east Asia. I ended my journey and flight back to London with another story of travel, another story of wandering in Ireland. The books carried me, were my blanket, my thread, my familiar, my safety in a year of absolute freedom and uncertainty.
The stories of Raymond Carver
The first shock was the cover. I’d remembered a series of small images, mini-lino prints, of everyday scenes, domestic scenes. In fact there were only eight images, and two of them were of a whisky bottle and a glass. In the others, figures were disembodied: legs, arms, the back view of two people in a car. The faces that could be seen had harsh black slits for eyes, for a mouth.
And then I opened the book, and memory went awry. I’d written a date on the fly leaf: May 1985. I was 25. This couldn’t be. I’d convinced myself I’d bought this book when I was at university.
I left university in 1981.
I read a few lines of the first story. The language is spare, sparse: a waitress describes serving a very large man in a restaurant. I remembered reading it in 1985: my amazement at what the simplest language could achieve. The lack of similes, of metaphor, made the emotional impact of the stories even more intense. This was real. This was true. I believed every word. Nothing was wasted. I absorbed the stories as if by osmosis, and wondered how he did it. The stories were perfect. His words described the quiet desperation of the characters in a way I had never seen before, the loneliness, the alcoholism, the despair.
1985. The year I had my first abortion. The year I lost my job. The year I woke up in many strange beds around the city, wondering if I had the money in my pocket to get home. I never made the connection between the life I was leading and the stories I was reading.
Many things have changed.
But looking back, it can sometimes seem as if, in that year, I was sleepwalking: a bit part player in my own life. Like a Raymond Carver character, hungover, staring into space.