#bestteamever

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For the last four years GDS has put on Sprint, a gathering of digital transformation folk from across government. Sprint 16 was yesterday.

The first one, in 2013, was a semi-improvised scramble to make the best of a snowy QE2 centre; excellent fun and really exhausting.

This year was slicker and more professional than pretty much any conference I’ve ever been to. We gave the demos and show and tells space to breathe, and helped people who know how to transform government share what they’ve learned.

Sprint demands the best of everyone in the creative team. For me, that means helping people tell stories. Helping write and delete and rehearse and improve talks every day for the last couple of weeks. Helping people decide what they want to say – occasionally deciding for them – and making it all as clear as possible. I really like that work. I’m very good at it.

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Here’s a thing though…

When I see someone give a talk I’ve helped write, I get the same flood of adrenaline and performance anxiety that I get when I give talks myself. The difference is I don’t get the resolution that comes from actually performing the thing.

Yesterday I felt like my guts were in knots for about five hours, and I didn’t really sleep after. It’s exhausting. Also, worth it; when you help someone find their voice and watch them carry the note it’s an incredible feeling.

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Mostly though I’m typing this so that, in public, I can say ‘Thanks GDS Creative – you’re the best team I’ve ever worked with’.

First image nicked from Giles. Second one nicked from Daz.

Timing and projects

Had a realisation last month that I’ll probably never write a novel. Small thing that, obviously, but as someone who defines themselves as a writer it came with a bit of baggage. Ultimately it was liberating. Made me think well of some of the things I’ve done outside of work over the last few years.

Loads of the things I’ve written are short-form projects, limited in form by some dimension (time, frequency, length of notebook, etc). I’d always thought of them as exercises, but I’m starting to realise that they are the thing/my practice. Like, threesixfivestart was a good and valuable thing in and of itself, not just a rehearsal.

Late last year, projects like Small Observation, Away for a Walk and A Barrow by a Beacon continued very much in that trend. I’ve found those really positive. I’ve also loved working as a conspirator on things like Study Group and Rockall.

Think I want to formalise that rhythm a bit. A six-monthly cycle. Something as me, something as part of a team.

I’m going to Japan next week and I think part of what’s ticking over in my head is what this looks like as a deliberate exploration. Linking the collective projects and the individual ones. I think it’ll help do two things:

  1. Make my creative workload manageable, so I don’t feel overburdened – I’ve run out of steam on Away for a Walk and I had to leave Kieron to it on Hipsterhammer
  2. Bump my self-confidence a bit – I suffered a hard creative slump after Paper Science finished that I lacked the self-confidence (and, to be fair to myself, support) to get out of

Likeisay, I’ve worked a lot within little patterns or limitations. It might be worth trying to lean into that for a couple of years and see where that goes.

Making ‘A barrow by a beacon’

I published a story today; A barrow by a beacon is a short story about a walk, told in a random order. It’s the first time I’ve written the HTMl, CSS and Javascript for a project myself. I’m pretty happy with it.

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I took a frontend development course at General Assembly over winter, and knew early on I wanted to write a story as my final project. I also knew I wanted that story to be unique in some way for every reader. As it says on the page;

I usually remember journeys in little random snippets, rather than from beginning to end. This is a story about a walk, all shuffled up. If you don’t like the order you can change it.

Those last words turned into weeks of work.

Looking it up ≠ cheating

The visual brief I set myself was basically ‘Blue Medium’; single column, big space, loads of room for font and massive pictures. CSS confounds me, but I made it work by getting it wrong all the time; it took a while to do and problems kept creeping in, but it was faaaaairly simple.

The ‘shuffle’ function was way harder. Probably the most important thing I took from the course was looking up the answer isn’t cheating; it’s the job.

I remember Ben at Last.fm told me ages ago that the thing about making websites is that most of the time someone has already solved the problem for you, you just need to find it. Now, I’m crap at search – it’s the thing I’ve spent the least XP on – but kitbashing the right combination of words usually got me to solutions.

I started by looking up random number shuffle things, and found plenty of hacks and tricks on Stack Overflow. I wound up using two – one for the numbers and one for the images – that got me a demo-y hack for the first review in class. I eventually managed to make one of those shuffles work properly, and then spent a while tweaking it.

The result is a website that does something; jumbles up the sections of the story into a random order, and draws from a pool of around a dozen photos for the feature images.

“HALP!”

Tutors Charlie and Mike were super-supportive, but even then I could see that the code needed tidying; enter Phil and Aanand, maybe the loveliest people on the internet. They pointed me in the right direction to refactor what was there and make it legible, clean, self-contained and beautiful.

Greg, Giles, Ann, Russell and others all offered feedback on the words, as did Mark on the design. Best humans.

The result is my first hand-made website. You can look at the code on GitHub and everything. I’ve never done that before. I’m really proud of it.

http://barrow.matthewsheret.com

In former times

Went to the Work In Progress show from the CSM illustration course last night. Among the pictures, this bit of text;

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“In former times due to common ignorance most of the legends and tales weren’t documented and were passed from mouth to mouth”

And I don’t call this out because of the translation hijinks, so much as because it’s a beautiful and weird collection of words that are also, from a certain angle, absolutely true.

The Bureau of Small Observation

Small Observation is a writing project I’ve been doing the last few weeks; little snippets of people I see out and about.

It’s emailed out every weekday morning, and you can sign up at tinyletter.com/smallobservation

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I’m quite enjoying it. The slew of “30 days of…” exercises has proven to me that I need regular things to keep my brain in a good state, and it’s a bit of a throwback to old projects like The Polaroid Press. Zine-y, but different.

Coupled with my very occasional walking blog, it’s probably the main way I’ll be writing in public for the foreseeable.

I made a stamp for it too. I like having tokens for writing projects; exactly enough clutter to completely remove any pressure to print them.

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A lot of little letters

I don’t really have an image for this one.

A month or so ago I asked if anyone wanted me to send them a postcard with a little story on it. It was a follow-up to a quick exercise where I wrote five postcards one Saturday morning and sent them to random twitter folk – first come, first served.

The plan was to write 30. 37 people asked for one, so I did a few more and (finally) popped the last batch in the post today.

The exercise was strange. Absolutely undocumented, absolutely unplanned. The writing was spontaneous, and there are more than a few out there that I’m embarrassed by (I hate that people will have them – I dread the idea of people keeping them). But there’s a bunch – well over half – that I’m really happy with.

Part of me wondered if it might turn into a story engine; ideas spitting out that might become future projects. Nope. Very few things really bit.

What I discovered is that I like putting words in people’s mouths – literally scribbling imagined dialogue. Thing is, when I sit down and write fiction that’s far and away the hardest part. Spontaneity of voice is something I’ll find different ways of practising again – maybe with a similar exercise, but focusing on the back-and-forth of people telling stories.

Getting the blank cards was fun. Once I started seeking postcards they started spontaneously appearing. The serendipity of finding cards in places I found myself – paid visitor or naive stranger – was really interesting, especially as I spent so much of September away.

Not everyone’s checked in, but about a quarter of the cards definitely arrived. Responses have been positive or neutral, and that’s about what I’d hope for scraps of writing jotted in London, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and all the routes between.

My favourite response though was Katie’s. She wandered in to her house to find a postcard on her mat – no idea which one – having entirely forgotten about volunteering to take part. For a few brief seconds she imagined herself in the opening of some Pynchon-esque narrative, something unfolding in front of her that made no linear sense.

I can only imagine how disappointed she must have felt when she remembered I owed her a postcard.

Thirty stories on thirty postcards

Like I said, one last thirty day thing left in me. But this one I’m keeping offline.

Nat’s started up 30 days of stories, which got me thinking of an alternative version. A cover version. 30 stories on thirty postcards. I won’t be sticking to her list as I imagine the postcards themselves will take me in another direction, but I might well use a few of them.

If you want one, email me; matthew.sheret@gmail.com