Writing ‘Place’ – Tanya Shadrick & Wild Woman Swimming

Tanya Shadrick is a former hospice life story scribe who has become a ‘writer of the outside’. She recently edited Lynne Roper’s ‘Wild Woman Swimming’, nominated for the 2019 Wainwright Prize for UK Nature and Travel Writing. Tanya was over 40 when she began writing, and works to encourage others to put pen to paper and share their stories.

Here, Tanya tells us about her passion for writing the out-of-doors, and her top tips for writing ‘place’.


Join Tanya for this special National Writing Day event:

‘Stay This Moment’ – Diary Writing in Virginia Woolf’s garden
Wednesday 26th June | Monks House National Trust

This workshop takes place in Virginia Woolf’s garden at Monks House National Trust.  The session will explore the theme of ‘Stay This Moment’ – using a phrase from Woolf’s diaries as inspiration for mindful writing of place. Find out more about the event here.


How did you get started as a writer?

I’ve always kept private diaries, but after a near-death experience following the birth of my first child, began to find ways of using writing to connect with others and be of service.

I started as a scribe for hospice patients, helping them record memories and final messages. After that, I jumped into the deep end – literally! – by writing a mile beside the country’s oldest outdoor pool. It took two years, and was novel-length on scrolls of paper as long as the lido. By the time I finished, I’d become known as a writer of place, with invitations to work in residence abroad, in nature reserves, and even for the National Trust at a tiny cliffside Grade-II listed former artists’ cabin.

This year I am writer-in-residence at the Wealden Literary Festival – a celebration of place and nature. As well as speaking and chairing talks, I will be encouraging festival-goers to find their voice too, by writing about their memories of childhood play spaces.

What motivates you to write?

I believe passionately in the National Writing Day motto ‘Everyone has a story to tell’. I was lucky to have a higher education in English Literature, but grew up with farming folk who told extraordinary tales to whoever would listen, but rarely left any paper record of their lives. By sharing my own memories of where and how I grew up, and how I live now, and by writing outside, I hope to help people of all backgrounds find simple ways to set down their stories.

A powerful example of what I mean is this. I wrote a short blog post once about being in the West Country seas during childhood. A wild swimmer who was dying in my home country of Devon read it and got in touch. She had been keeping a swim diary for five years, but was too ill now to edit and send them to publishers. I met her only once and was convinced of the power of her writing about the natural world. I edited her diaries myself and set up The Selkie Press to get them to readers. I learnt this month that the book – Wild Woman Swimming: A Journal of West Country Waters by Lynne Roper – has been longlisted for the Wainwright Prize 2019 for UK Nature and Travel Writing. If my words hadn’t brought me to Lynne, her story would have died with her. Now she is finding readers all over the world.

Why do you feel it is important to write about the wild?

I don’t write about the wild so much as quiet, out-of-door times – now, as a mother of young children, and how I played as a child in cattle sheds, parks, garages, even bricked-up cars. I try to remind my readers of small, free ways we can all pass time, without expensive equipment: stripping sticks of bark just for the look and feel; making marbles from mud; lying on our backs so that swifts or swallows fly inches past our face.

While I am a constant reader of nature books by writers who go on long quests to truly wild places, my circumstances – like many others’ – just haven’t made that an option for me. But it’s possible to have vivid encounters outside just by spending a day, an hour, by oneself, on the edges of wherever one lives. Some of my closest brushes with nature have happened by the duck-pond at the bottom of my small town! I sat so still once, that a heron’s wing brushed my cheek. Another time, a fox with a rabbit in its mouth collided with me – and was as surprised as I was.

Can you give us your top tips for writing about natural space?

When I am outside I just look and listen. Sometimes I make one-minute sound recordings; other times I fill old cough-sweet tins with little samples of what’s around me. Once home, I try to do the same in words – get the essence, the concentrate, of what I felt, saw, heard. I use simple language to write about all these experiences – a little line made in my private notebooks are as precious to me as the longer pieces that get published. Occasionally I might use a specialist word for a type of landscape, but only once I’ve checked its exact meaning!

I also try to earth my writing about natural places by describing litter, the noisy conversations of passersby, how small children will throw things at birds and squirrels: I find some modern nature writing a bit too precious and removed from our (sadly-messy) reality.

The Japanese poetic form of haiku is one I use often with school children for recording their impressions of nature. In its English version, the aim is to write three lines – they don’t rhyme – where the first and third lines each have 5 syllables and the middle one has seven. For an extra challenge, try to use a ‘kigo’ word – one that tells the reader what season it is. My favourite haiku-writer is the ancient Japanese poet Basho.

How do you feel the natural world and creative writing can impact on mindfulness, health and wellbeing?

In all the times when my health or wellbeing has been challenged – I had meningitis and ME as a teenager; was chronically homesick one year living away from the Sussex Downs; have now long-term back pain that ended my management career – I have gone outside, even when I’ve been too ill to walk far. Just sitting on a park bench in a public garden or a shopping precinct is one of the cheapest, easiest ways to connect with both nature and other people, and to forget for a while some of one’s worries and cares. I keep little treats in my bag for birds, and can sit watching jackdaws and rooks for hours. To write about these times later is a way of extending the pleasure – and by sharing photos and short posts online, I’ve found myself connected to lovers of nature and writing all over the world.

Your National Writing Day event is in Virginia Woolf’s garden. How will this setting offer creative inspiration?

The title of my event is ‘Stay This Moment’ and it comes from this lovely passage in Woolf’s diaries (an entry she made in the garden at Monks House);

‘If one does not lie back and sum up and say to the moment, this very moment, stay you are so fair, what will be one’s gain, dying? No: stay this moment. No one ever says that enough. Always hurry. I am now going in, to see Leonard, and say stay this moment…’ (Diaries of Virginia Woolf, 1932)

Virginia and husband Leonard Woolf’s gardens are so rich in colour and birdsong in June. I feel sure visitors will find a quiet place and slip easily into a stream of consciousness – as Woolf’s way of writing memories became known. I will be reading aloud passages of her writing about the house and its gardens too, as and when folk gather, which should also inspire people to words of their own.


Take part on 26th June 2019:

Everyone has a story to tell – what’s yours?

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National Writing Day is led by First Story and partners across the UK.