50-for-50 interview: Judy Herrmann, reframer

judy herrmann

Possibly the most useful skill in this age of rapid-paced change is one that Judy Herrmann mastered long ago: the ability to present what’s happening in a way that makes it easier for people to understand from their own perspective. This is no easy task when the folk who most need to hear something have their eyes, ears, and minds fogged up with fear. Judy comes by her reframing abilities the old-fashioned way: she reads omnivorously, she pushes herself to acquire new skills, and she practices her ass off. But she dances her way through the fear, sharing stories of her own struggles and how she overcame them, so we can see that it can be done. Sharing ways of applying the abilities resident in the accomplished artist to the daunting new challenges at hand. And mostly, I think, by sharing her enormous heart, her passion for the art of creation, and her gorgeous sense of humor. Her training sessions are like the best kind of church, complete with agnostic come-to-jesus moments. Yeah—I pretty much wish Judy Herrmann could teach a class in Everything.

When did you decide to become a writer?

I’ve never really thought of myself as a writer.  Not a good writer. Not a real writer.

I’m a photographer, an educator, a speaker, a consultant.

I write but I’m not a Writer.

I’ll never be a poet or a novelist.  I’ll never craft pithy aphorisms or snappy sound bites.   I’ll never really understand how to deconstruct a sentence or use a semicolon correctly.

But, and here’s the important part, none of that matters.

I write to teach.  I write to explain.  I write to help other people grow their businesses and figure out how to earn a living doing what they love.

Shortly after I started my blog, one of my readers wrote to thank me for changing how she thinks about thinking about her business.  Wow, I thought, Oh my God…Wow…and when I was able to breathe again, I realized that I may never be a terribly gifted writer, I may never write a single perfect brilliant sentence but so what? As long as I keep plodding forward, one foot in front of the other, one word after another, I can still make a difference.

Writing gives my life purpose and meaning.   Writing lets me take every struggle, every bad decision, every mistake I’ve ever made, everything I’ve learned the hard way – and I learn everything the hard way – and turn it into an opportunity to help someone else do things better, smarter, faster and more easily.

I never decided to become a writer.  I just wanted a way to make my struggles worthwhile – if not for me than for someone else.  That’s why I write.

Who was your favorite teacher?

Miss Forest in the third grade who was young and kind and genuinely liked children (a rarity at my elementary school). We bonded over being the only Democrats in the entire class (and quite possibly the whole school). Mr. Ratliff in High School, an imperious, demanding, frequently cruel and sarcastic man with a piercing stare.  He was hired to teach us how to write but took on the thankless job of teaching us how to think. Marion Patterson, my first photography teacher who had studied with Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Jerry Uelsmann and Minor White and who understood that even 14 year olds need to find their own voice and vision.  Yosh Soga at UC Berkeley, who taught experimental darkroom techniques and fostered my love of breaking the limits of traditional photography. Mike Starke, my business partner of 22 years, who has patiently recited the inverse square law over, and over and over again and finds my complete inability to memorize it more charming than annoying.

What do you love to write about?

I don’t love writing. I kind of hate it, actually. It is so fucking hard.

But I write anyway. And I follow the wisdom of writing what you know.  In my case that’s things like how to start and run a small business, how to strike the balance between earning money and doing personally satisfying work, how to figure out what’s really important to you and build a business that fulfills those needs, how to promote yourself, your work and the business you love, how to work productively and efficiently so you can keep all those balls in the air and how to ask yourself whether it’s really necessary for them all to stay afloat, how to avoid conflicts with clients when you can and survive them when you can’t, how to anticipate and adapt to change and how to reinvent yourself, your art, and your business as often as necessary.

What has writing taught you?

Writing has taught me that I can make a difference. That my words can reach off of a page or screen and grab another person—a person I may never meet or speak to or know about. And those words of mine, they can make that person understand something in a whole new way.  They can change that person’s life. That is magic. That is power. That is a heady, heady rush. And ultimately, it’s addictive. Like any other junkie, I’ll put up with the pain of writing just to get that high when it actually works.

Writing requires both craft and vision.  Craft is important. Craft is good. Craft takes training.  But that vision, that voice – without it all the craft in the world can’t save you.  And finding that voice, freeing that voice, letting that voice soar and sing, that, my friends, takes courage.

And that’s why programs like WriteGirl are so important.  I worked my way through college teaching UCLA Freshmen from inner-city schools how to write well enough to sidestep the 30% attrition rate.  Ninety percent of our time was spent on craft.  But, ninety percent of our work lay in convincing these students that their words, their thoughts, their experiences, their voices mattered.  That the world needed to hear what they had to say. And trust me, the world does need to hear what they have to say.

How has writing made you stronger?

I’m not sure it has.  I think writing takes as much strength as it gives.  Writing has forced me to be more courageous, to develop a thicker skin.  It takes an enormous force of will to share my thoughts and ideas with perfect strangers.  To play around with language and style and approach until I find the right rhythm and voice for my message.  To think and rethink and refine and revise and rework each piece until it’s as accessible and as clear as i can make it.  Writing has made me work harder than almost anything else I’ve ever done.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

You know how you’re gonna be 36 when the year 2000 hits and that sounds soooooo old?  It’s not.

Oh, and you don’t have to wait so long to start calling grown ups by their first names.

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

I will read anything. I am a reading slut, a tart, a whore. Cereal boxes, the warning labels on ladders and pillows, the papers on someone else’s desk,  rightside up, upside down, backwards, sideways, it doesn’t matter. I read everything I see with little discernment or discretion. Every few weeks, I go to the library (the fact that the U.S. still has free public libraries is one of the few things that gives me hope about our culture) and judge books by the cover. I scan the shelves of the “New Fiction” section searching for cool typography, a great title, captivating cover art. It’s amazing how often I score something fabulous.

Earlier this year, I read Charlotte’s Web to my 4-year-old daughter and discovered it can still make me cry.  There are so many books I can’t wait to share with her: the Narnia Chronicles, Harry Potter, The Phantom Tollbooth, To Kill A Mockingbird.

I love The New Yorker Magazine and am so very grateful that kind of in-depth reportage and storytelling still exists in the world.  Every time I flip through a copy of Wired, I come away with one epiphany or another.

I adore Colleen’s blog—her voice is so fresh, so funny, so real and true and right on target—now there’s a gifted (and hard-working) writer!

I obsessively collect resources on business trends, career development, strategic planning, reinvention, managing change and earning a living doing what you love.  I’m in the process of uploading these to the ASMP‘s new social bookmarking site for imaging professionals, CameraCake.com.  There’s some cool stuff there—check it out.

Since 1989 Judy Herrmann of Herrmann + Starke has partnered with Mike Starke to produce evocative imagery that utilizes playful compositions, beautiful lighting and exquisite post-production effects to communicate key messages and connect with audiences. Their creative work has been featured in numerous industry publications and won acclaim from Lurzer’s Archive, Graphis, PDN, HOW, Pix, and Communication Arts. A past National president of the ASMP, recipient of the United Nations’ International Photography Council’s Leadership Award, and digital photography pioneer, Judy was named an Olympus Visionary in 2000 and, in 2010, hailed by Rangefinder Magazine as one of eleven “photographers you should know”. Since 1995, her energetic and inspiring seminars have helped thousands of photographers build more successful businesses. Through one-on-one consultations and her blog, she helps people earn a living doing what they love.

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