But I disliked feeling that I had a handicap, so after finishing school, I set out in a more or less orderly way to hone my interpersonal skills for business. I got as much training and education as I could, and then leaped into the realm of learning by experience, which has been terrifying and messy, and yet still reasonably free from major disasters. Here are a few of my stumbles, and a few of my better moments -- perhaps some of you can relate to them?
A few times, I've overestimate the skills of my participants, and set them a project that left them bewildered and disengaged, and my assistants and I had to scramble frantically to make up the gaps. It was embarrassing for me, and hurtful to them, and I felt horrible to have done that to those poor people. That's definitely an important part of my practice -- learning to gauge my audience and plan accordingly, and learning to break out of my own boxed-in ideas about making things and come up with fresh activities and approaches. Usually, for me, that's meant letting go of my automatic technical fixation and loosening up -- something that my professors were always telling me, too.
Sometimes it's good for me to mess up like that, because I come back with a real winner and make it up to people. After one not-great session with a group of seniors, I came back for the next session with a completely new project. When I showed it to the programmer, she told me, "I'm getting goosebumps -- this is going to be amazing!". And it was! The participants were so, so happy.
A few times I've jumped into a project to 'help it along' aesthetically, or held my standards too high, but I've learned that doing that kills the confidence of my participants and disengages them, rather than supporting them, the same way that too-difficult projects do -- except perhaps worse, because it singles people out! I put my foot in my mouth twice in a row in a workshop once, trying to 'help' someone. I've certainly learned that it's often best to leave well enough alone, especially when working with beginners; knowing what to say or do to empower people and support them to do their best work is a craft unto itself, at which I'm still pretty novice.
Sometimes my stumbles have happened behind the scenes -- I frequently used to put myself through days of intense anxiety, elevated heart rate and all, worrying about how I was going to come up with enough materials for a workshop or a project. On occasion I've needed to connect with people in bureaucracy in order to gather materials or complete projects, and the first few times I did that were good examples of me falling flat on my face: no response at all to my queries -- not even my phone calls! Classic cold-calling nightmare.
But then I realized that these folks probably didn't mean to snub me, I was just coming too far out of left field for them; so I learned to back up my requests with photo documentation of what I was doing -- inserted right in the body of the email -- and in some cases, if I'd already gotten similar permission previously, to let them know that I would just go ahead unless I heard from them otherwise.
I once had a meeting with a park superintendent who went from completely confused to excited and eager to help in the time that it took me to pull out a sample and say, "would you like to see what we're going to make?". It was amazing, and a real eye-opener for me about the power that my documentation can have.
My photography skills, historically, have been really bad compared to the things I do well, so documentation is one area in which I've really had nothing to lose by trying. And I had a significant advantage over a lot of artists and craftspeople starting out, in that my sister Andrea Routley is the editor and publisher of the literary magazine Plenitude, so she's savvy in the ways of web design, marketing, and writing -- and a much, much better photographer than me, to boot. She gave me the boost that got me going, helping me to set up a website when the idea of doing that was too overwhelming, and helping me with the first photo shoot.
Just as I never expected to earn my livelihood by teaching, I likewise never expected that documenting would be something that would be so important to me, or interesting and fun for me. Once I had a starting point, I learned to refine and get pickier about the lighting and styling of my photos. Then, because most of what I was doing was process-based, I learned to make slideshow videos -- which I am infatuated with, because they give me the power to describe a narrative arc and interpret the images. I feel that a slideshow communicates the meaning and value of what my participants and I are doing much more effectively than stills.
And I believe that in the end. the meaning and idea of value is the most important thing we create.