In Joe McNally’s book The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light In Small Places, he describes how, in 1981, he went to shoot a space shuttle launch—but, as McNally says, “I had no idea how to do it” (he sounds like an amateur grant writer pressed into service). Neither did the other photographers. Instead, they went to lunch with Ralph Morse, who’d covered Mercury 7 and other space-related events. Although Morse was working for another magazine, he “sat down and told us how to do it. Every step. Held nothing back. Gave us what for and the how to of photographing a launch.” Better yet:
He was comfortable doing that, because he was so confident in his own abilities that he could tell us exactly what to do and still go out there and kick our butt. Which he did.
You may notice that, despite innumerable cookbooks, restaurants continue to thrive. Despite innumerable programming books, programming consultants continue to thrive. Despite many car repair books, repair shops continue to thrive. These days it’s not just books, either: websites and experts proliferate.
The same is true of grant writing. Though there are few if any books about grant writing that are actually worth reading—and we’re not likely to add to that list, at least in the near future—whatever books do exist have not dampened the need for expert grant writers, and those books aren’t likely to. Like any other skill, including photography, grant writing expertise is hard-earned, and most people aren’t going to do it overnight. The real challenge isn’t in reading the book (or blog). It’s in the experience that only comes from doing. Books only supplement the action.
I suspect most people who write how-to books are doing it for themselves as much as anyone else. In writing about something you already know, you come to know it better. That’s one reason you face so many writing assignments in school. It’s also why so many experts are moved to write on their subject.
McNally goes on to say that, in the course of his career, “Knowledge was shared and passed on. I was mentored, instructed, coached, screamed at, cajoled, ridiculed, pushed, and edited by peerless professionals, both on the shooting side and the editing side.” That’s how he learned. The basic learning process remains the same regardless of the field to which that process is applied. The basic role of books is also the same, and the importance of reading widely remains the same. He’s giving back through writing The Hot Shoe Diaries—which was in fact quite useful.* In our own very small way, we’re giving back through this blog, and the information we offer and stories we tell don’t make us fear potential competitors.
The real challenge is going through that process and coming out the other side. Actually, that isn’t a great way of phrasing it: the people who are really great never stop learning. They never “come out.” They just keep going, following the rabbit hole as deeply as it goes, until they go. **
* Unfortunately, it also demonstrates that one needs a pair of flashes, a radio transmitter, gels, and some other nifty but expensive stuff if you want to take the “best” pictures, as opposed to ones that are merely “good” or “better.”
** The Department of Education rabbit hole is particularly deep and surreal.