So 551, not out and March 29, not out either

It turns out that this is the 551st Self Distract. It was pointed out to me last week that I’d started it in 2006, but I know it didn’t become a thing for some years. But it’s been every Friday for a long time now so let’s say 551 divided by 52 equals ten and a bit. Let’s call this the tenth anniversary of Self Distract proper.

Funny that it should happen today, though. I mean, okay, we’ve just contrived the numbers to make it happen, but the numbers were there and they were there today, March 29, 2019.

Since whatever day it was that I actually made this an unbreakable weekly chat, I have broken it once.

Just the once.

You won’t know or remember the absence of a Self Distract, but you’re a bit more likely to recognise the date. It was the day after June 23, 2016. The result of the damned Brexit referendum was announced and I couldn’t move.

Well, I’m surprised I say that because moving was all I could do: I shook. I actually convulsed.

When I regained some discipline, the following week, I wrote this:

If you looked out of your window and thought everything seems much the same as it did, go out the door instead. If you think we’ll look back on this in five years and wonder what the fuss was about, you’re confusing things being fine with having no damn choice about it. I hope we will become inured to this result but we are permanently injured.

And here we are. March 29, 2019, the day the UK leaves Europe –– except it doesn’t. I no longer know what date to dread, but the effects are already here and I’m not over it.

I wanted to talk to you about music today. About how we can and can’t write to music, how it does and doesn’t help us when we’re writing. But then I saw the 551 number and then I realised that not only had I nearly forgotten to put the bins out, I’d also nearly missed today’s date.

i think I’m going to carry on missing it. Let’s put the kettle on, get back to writing, and try to do something good.

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?