Next crisis

Years and years ago, my therapist told me I over-think things. Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder: what did she really mean?

I do know that if you see me lost in thought, it is usually about whatever the next thing is that I have to do. I’ve often got to a party or a meal or a play and consciously thought right, got here, that’s done, what do I need to do tomorrow?

Do you do this too? I also queue up my worries. If I have a big event coming then the single way I have of ever getting it off my mind is to have another big event coming up before it. So I’ll come out of that first one probably feeling great – yesterday was event number 176 of which 10 were meh and 2 were ulcer-bursting awful – and I’m immediately fretting about the next one a week away.

But.

Two things. First, when I’m actually working at an event or a workshop or whatever, I’m right there in the moment for every single moment and there isn’t a whisper of a thought of the next thing from start to finish. I think this may be why I like producing and presenting events so much.

Second, this did happen to me again yesterday. The day was fun, I glowed out of there and through a tea with a friend and colleague from the event, I glowed into joining up with Angela and then right in the middle of a curry, wallop.

Angela looked at me just like you’re doing.

But the reason for saying this to you today, the reason for the But up there a few paragraphs ago, is that this changed. This went away.

We saw Dar Williams in concert at the Glee Club. She’s the artist I’ve said I wouldn’t kill to write like – but I’d maim. I adore her work, her music has meant a lot to me for a very long time and I’ve often seen her in concert. Every time has been good, but this one was great.

Whatever I was thinking about when I went into that concert, she took us all wherever she wanted to go.

I’m going to think about that.

The spoken word

I’m a writer. It’s possible that I’ve mentioned this before. But something over two years ago – I actually cannot remember the date – I returned permanently to Birmingham and something under two years ago, I talked on stage.

For that one I was being interviewed at PowWow LitFest by Steph Vidal-Hall in September 2012. I’ve been interviewed quite a bit since then and I’ve also been the interviewer many times. Produced a few events. Run a lot of workshops. Presented a great deal. Book talks. Author talks.

Being a writer, I wrote all this down. I have a list in Evernote. It’s got LitFest as number 1.

Tomorrow is September 2014 and I’m in Burton upon Trent to run a Young Writers’ Group session for Writing West Midlands – and that is number 100.

After the first 9, I started counting how many people heard me. That’s sometimes necessarily approximate and I’ve no way at all of even guessing the answer when I’ve been on radio or television. Or when I’ve done teleseminars for other companies. That’s quite eerie, speaking into the void. So this can’t be accurate at all, but I’ve at least spoken to 1,754 people.

Funny thing, though: I still think of this as writing. It’s the same job of communicating an idea. (Or hopefully lots of ideas: you’re spending money here, I’ve got to give you good value.) I go about it the same way in obviously planning and structuring but less obviously in reaching into myself as deeply as I can to find something new and something that might be worth your listening to.

So it’s writing, which I’ve done all my life, and by tomorrow I’ll have spoken 100 times to something like 1,754 people and still it’s scarier than writing to you like this. You’re nice.

Actually, I think the 1,754 people were nice too.

But that only helps from the moment I begin speaking. From that instant and throughout the talk, most certainly afterwards nattering with people, everything is great. Usually.

Up to that instant, not so much.

I’ve only vomited once with nerves and that was before this 100 started. During the 100 I’ve come close only two times so that’s pretty good: near-retching 2% of the time.

Funnily enough, I’ve been wretched 2% of the time.

Clearly I’m not saying I’m fantastic the rest of the time but those two stand out as bad. I should say that these two weren’t same as the two near-vomit ones and actually I’m being a little unfair. One of them, number 80 (Royal Television Society mini-summit at BBC Nottingham, 17 people on 26 June 2014) I was merely rubbish.

But for the other, number 3 (Mee Club spoken word cabaret, before records of exact dates and audiences began), I stank.

It wasn’t for a lack of effort. I just hadn’t got the material right, despite a lot of work and a lot of time. The material only came together that afternoon and I didn’t physically have enough hours left to get it right.

Cat Weatherill ran that evening and let me atone very shortly afterwards with number 5 (Tell Me on a Sunday, also before counting began). I was much, much better then.

So I have Cat to thank for that opportunity to redeem myself. I have Steph to thank for making me sound great on stage that very first time, I have 1,754 people to thank for at the very least pretending to listen very well.

But I’m a writer, okay? I just talk about it a lot.

Work away

I am three hours early for a gig. I’m in a Costa Coffee and am on my second mug. Can I get you one?

It’s strange being somewhere familiar yet in such an unfamiliar way and at an unfamiliar time. We’re drinking in Stratford upon Avon, you and I, and I’ve been here a thousand times. What about you? Probably most often I come for the theatre – the RSC is just over there, behind the high street, you can see the tower – but I’ve also often come just for the sake of coming. Idly, purposefully, for half an hour, for a day.

Always for fun, though.

I’m confident today will be fun too, but it’s different. I’m at the Stratford Literary Festival and I’ll be doing The Blank Screen workshop for creative writers and possibly some normal people too. (Have you heard me go on about this? Take a look at The Blank Screen news site but bring a packed lunch, I talk a lot.)

I talk a lot, I do this particular workshop a lot and it is a thrill how weeks or months after a session I will get a tweet from someone saying they were using what I told them. That they had therefore finished their novel. God, that is wonderful.

However, since it’s you, I’m going to admit something. Today is the first time I’ve run The Blank Screen as a full day workshop. Considering that I have regularly struggled to get everything in, I should be ecstatic. But I’m so used to squeezing down that I’m blinking at the idea of not galloping through things at lightspeed. I’ve done this in a country hour.

In comparison, a whole day feels as long as a radio show: that clutch in the stomach when you know you could have dead air. I am prepared through the roof and I know this stuff I do works, I am excited to get to meet new people and talk about it. But I am stomach-clutching.

I knew I’d be nervous. I know I am always nervous until the second that I start and some kind of light switch switches on. I even spotted a while ago that I was so nervous about this one that I had made a mistake with the trains. I booked myself on one leaving Birmingham at half past stupid o’clock. Hence being here three hours early.

What I had forgotten, though, was how different a place looks when you’re working there. Most of the shops are closed. (Bless Costa.) People look like they’ve yet to be wound up properly for work. I passed a dozen Morris Dancers rehearsing. The streets are busy enough but they feel like a stage set, not quite ready for lights and cameras and action yet. Definitely not ready for tourists, not yet. I’m suddenly reminded of a morning in New York City where workmen just nodded at me like I lived there because no other tourist would be up at that silly time. (No other tourist was recording a UK DVD Review podcast, but that’s another story.)

And today I walked from the station to here. Walking is especially good for showing you a place. (I loathe that I just said that to you. I’m a writer. We sit. We sit good.)

Walking through streets and going to work. I feel more at home here today than I ever have. It feels more familiar than it ever has.

Which interests me particularly because I ran a news story on The Blank Screen earlier this week about research that indicates working away from home is good for us. Just to be Russian doll about it, let me quote the quote I quoted in that Blank Screen story that I’m now quoting:

Research shows that experience in other countries makes us more flexible, creative, and complex thinkers.

How does studying or working abroad change you? You return with a photo album full of memories and a suitcase full of souvenirs, sure. But you may also come back from your time in another country with an ability to think more complexly and creatively—and you may be professionally more successful as a result.

These are the conclusions of a growing body of research on the effects of study- and work-abroad experiences. For example: A study led by William Maddux, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, found that among students enrolled in an international MBA program, their “multicultural engagement”—the extent to which they adapted to and learned about new cultures—predicted how “integratively complex” their thinking became.

Read that exact same quote all over again on Go Away. As Far as You Can together with details of the research or at least of where I first heard about all this. Plus musings of when I personally first gathered that going away was a good thing, before I read it anywhere.

It’s really, specifically, that working away somewhere is good though. Not just going. Not just visiting. Working. Becoming part of the place shapes you. And I am fully confident that today in Stratford would shape my writing. If I weren’t so nervous that I can’t write.

They do toasted things here, want to split one with me?