“All good writing is swimming underwater holding your breath.” F Scott Fitzgerald
If you visit Pells Pools in Lewes this season then you are likely to see writer-in-residence Tanya Shadrick knelt at poolside, writing on a series of paper scrolls which — at 150 feet — are as long as the lido itself.
The project — called A Wild Patience: Laps in Longhand — was designed, Tanya says, to demonstrate and explore the nature of writing as daily discipline of mind and body: an activity requiring similar tone and focus to swimming.
She has chosen to write a mile because ‘it frightens her with its size, as lake and other long open-water swims can both thrill and terrify’. To reach it, she will need to complete 35 lines of text across her five scrolls (one for each swimming lane): At around 150,000 words that is a novel-length under-taking, and one done in public rather than the comfort of a study. ‘To become a competent swimmer you have to get in the water with those who are far more experienced; I wondered how my writing practice would develop if I took a similar plunge,’ says Tanya.
She is also intrigued by the inner lives of swimmers as they move silent and solitary through the water: What are they thinking as they do their self-chosen number of laps? Where and when did they feel most wild and free? To what did they ever given their whole wild patience, such as she is bringing to the paper each day?
‘A woman arrived last week to find the pool empty. She hesitated to get in, but then swam for an hour in line with me and my writing. She emailed later to say how my presence transformed her experience: She began to question and then play with her usual set of lengths, and thanked me for helping her ‘step into a space I often don’t give myself permission to occupy.’ That was exactly the service I hoped to provide as writer-in-residence.’
The title of the work comes from an Adrienne Rich poem about a woman in mid-life (as are many of the regular weekday pool-goers, including Shadrick herself). Called ‘Integrity’, the poem begins:
A wild patience has taken me this far
as if I had to bring to shore
a boat with a spasmodic outboard motor.
‘That idea has absorbed me ever since I learned to swim three years ago, in response to a near-death experience and its painful aftermath,” Shadrick says. “I am moved by the idea of our working often with imperfect equipment while still steering ourselves towards health and meaning. The many swimmers I have connected with at the Pool and through social media seem to share this joy and endeavour: Stories of great soulfulness are being trusted to me daily, and they all go into the scrolls.’
Do stories of the lakes and oceans that other swimmers are preparing for make it hard to stay in one fixed spot all summer? ‘I have lived a very contented local life until now, but being newly connected with those who are swimming in Dartmoor’s rivers, Cumbria’s lakes and along the Australian coast means that I have a huge wanderlust kicking in finally. I love the idea that I might visit some of the other glorious lidos and tidal pools in this country next year. Sit writing beside them, enjoying the company of the many wonderful swimmers I have met through online communities like the Outdoor Swimming Society.’
You can follow Tanya on Twitter @LidoWriters and read more about her project at www.tanyashadrick.com
Pells Pool — the oldest outdoor freshwater pool in the UK — is open seven days a week until 15 September. For times and prices go to www.pellspool.org.uk