The Cure for Sleep: Skill
Season 2, 004: Celebrating what we do well
your invitation to write
Tell me about a skill you possess. I want you - in the way of Whitman - to ‘sing the song of yourself’. Celebrate something you are able to do that gives you quiet pride - or even exaltation. OR: Describe a skill you admire in someone else.
When writing The Cure for Sleep, perhaps my favourite parts to work on were those where I got to celebrate my own and others’ skill: how my mother, as a young woman before I was born, defied her parents’ low hopes for her future to become (after thousands of hours of difficult training) a skilled shorthand-typist in the local bank; how my gentle husband taught himself to cultivate plants from seed as a way to cope with our otherwise barren-feeling time of infertility; how, at 42, I embarked - after years of private diaries - on the public, poolside mile of writing that would change my life. All these and more.
Yes, it was delicious to spend time describing and celebrating effort and its reward in a cultural moment that so often pays attention to more superficial forms of success. I hope you will likewise enjoy writing about this for our shared project here.
A suggestion for more work around this theme in your private creative practice: Make a list of everything - large or small - you can do with ease, pleasure and skill. How many of these things are still a regular part of your week? And can you find more ways to share them with others?
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
(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.)
the cure for sleep: july extract
To write a mile, I’d need to do thirty-five of what I’d call my laps of longhand. Too many horizontal lines to fit on a single scroll, so long yet so narrow. And so I’d use five rolls: one for each of the blue-edged swimming lanes, and with seven lengths of writing on every one. With the small and neat way I formed my letters, I calculated that I’d need to do a hundred thousand words: a novel-sized undertaking, all done by pen on paper in full view of swimmers.
I conducted all this odd planning with as much, or more, focus than I’d ever expended on paid work, conscientious though I’d always been. It came from a part of me never used before, operating without reference to anything except my own curiosity and will to make something that satisfied my sense of beauty. As birds are when working at their nests: nearest I can find to describe it.
And of course the first day was awkward, and awful.
And the next. And the third when it rained, and I was the only person there, working under the bike shelter while wind blew my books off their stepladder library. It was as if I’d fitted out a fancy new shop at great cost for the notice of no one…
But I kept going back, whatever the weather, affecting not to mind the unreadable looks of those who only watched from a distance. Like the mirror I placed on the floor as a child, trying to make contact with God and my father. All the hours lying in fields pretending sleep and hoping to be found. As I held out grass to cows on the far side of the field from the bungalow. My long nights of learning quotes by heart for a few undergraduate exams. Resolving to turn early motherhood into an expedition. All these earlier exercises in persistence – even the hopeless ones, especially those – kept me knelt there, under the tree.
Then one morning the sculptor came to visit. Sitting on the grass across from me, he asked a few questions then understood everything. My reason for kneeling (a posture that recalled both prayer and the pillory: the stakes to which women are so often tied – purity, disgrace). The power of my being headscarved at work on a long piece of paper that was in the lineage of tapestries made by so many anonymous women going back through time. Yes, yes. And the scale of it, the absurd patience required. Yes.
Telling me then, before he went back to his own art, not to judge my success by how many people drew close. It was a tempting measure, but not the most important. It would be worth all my risk and effort, this huge and true display of . . . vulnerability, if it brought just one decisive person into my life (as my essay on the railings had connected him and me). He told me then how – as a still emerging artist in the seventies – he’d had a solo show in an obscure alternative London gallery. Nothing very likely to change his fortunes. But on a day of heavy rain, a curator from an American museum stumbled in on it by chance and a few years later included him in a show at the Guggenheim that lifted him to international prominence thereafter.
Once he was gone again, the paper no longer seemed so silly or resistant. I forgot my audience, or lack of it, and went down deep into my own stories, discovering there a powerful new dimension to what I was doing.
How had I not seen it till now? My mother’s days had come alive for a while by marks made on paper: that rapid shorthand which caught every word from the mouth of her male boss. And through her rare skill, she gained entry for a while to the worlds of regional banking and local politics – little ponds, perhaps, but she felt herself a big fish at swim in them: all that was best in her being fully used and recognised. And now there I was, a half-century later, also using pen and paper to break open a larger life. What a heady, hardy feeling: to be reclaiming the stories of my female line and laying them out like brickwork – word by word, inch by inch. Building foundations for a legacy that just might last.
Shadrick, Tanya. The Cure for Sleep (pp. 186-189). Orion. Kindle Edition.
Thanks for reading The Cure for Sleep with Tanya Shadrick! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
this month’s extras
You can listen (again) to my conversation with US author Dr Skye Cleary which we shared to celebrate the UK launch of her fascinating new book: How To Be You - Simone de Beauvoir and the Art of Authentic Living. I asked Skye what de Beauvoir meant by authenticity, and why this still offers us radical possibilities for how to live now.
And do head over to my fellow author Lorraine Candy’s brilliant Substack for Issue 3 of our shared Wild Women Reading club, where each month we both choose a book we feel might speak to curious spirited dreamers with an awakening on their to-do list. This month, Lorraine’s choice is all about love, while mine is a novel of desire…
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.