I have been a fan of Amanda Palmer’s for many years. I can’t remember who or how I was first turned on to the Dresden Dolls (her band before going solo), but I fell in love with Yes, Virginia and have followed her career with interest ever since. Back when I joined Twitter in mid-2009, Palmer was one of the first people I followed. I have paid what I wanted for music direct from her site as well as being a part of the infamous Kickstarter campaign (I was part of a community of mostly strangers who all chipped in for a house party – we’re even briefly mentioned in The Art of Asking – the illegal underground London speakeasy).
When I heard she had landed a book deal, I was equal parts curious and excited to see how it would pan out. Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help is the outcome of three months hardcore writing in Melbourne coffee shops. It has deservedly become a best seller and should be read by every creative person on the planet.
Amanda Palmer was worried about writing a book. What did a songwriter know about writing a book? Her Fraud Police were on fine form, belittling her before she had even begun. Palmer’s fans, however, knew she had it in her. She had been writing epic blog posts for years and generally interacting with her community/fan base like no other artist out there. The Art of Asking is another example of Palmer’s open and honest approach to her interactions with the world at large.
Someone not used to Palmer’s writing style might find the structure (or lack thereof) schizophrenic reading, but this isn’t a novel, nor is it an autobiography. Some have classified it as self-help but I’m not sure it really fits there either. It is more philosophy than anything else, a discussion of life lessons from someone who has been ballsier than most. What at first might seem like a disconnected set of vignettes, scenes and snapshots into Palmer’s life, do form a structure – a structure of conversation. Like much of her interaction with fans, the book is an extended conversation with anyone willing to dive into her world. Whoever had an interesting conversation that went all the way from point A to point B without digressions?
This ‘review’ comes with a warning up front. While it isn’t necessarily a spoiler-filled review (as the content isn’t a story, so you can’t give away too much), a review of this kind of book needs to have reactions to the philosophies explored. If you don’t want to have the content given away before you’ve read it, go buy your book (and Amanda asks that you try to do so from independent booksellers where possible), read it, then come back here and engage in a discussion with me on my thoughts and reactions to The Art of Asking. The book is a very personal, intimate book and requires a personal, reactionary response.
Asking for help
The core idea for the book comes from a TED talk Palmer delivered back in March 2013, encouraging artists to reach out to their fans directly and ask for help. Palmer is a high profile and extremely successful Kickstarter alumnus. Her Kickstarter was the most successful music crowdfunding campaign at the time (I believe it still holds the record, but I could be wrong). After leaving her label in 2010, Palmer wanted to find a way to fund her next music project without turning to the big wigs in the industry. Kickstarter was the perfect fit for her. She reached out to her carefully cultivated fan base and asked for help. They gave it in spades, reaching over $1 million in backing.
Asking for help isn’t something many people are very comfortable with. Palmer admits that she too can have trouble with it, citing her hesitancy in asking her well-off husband Neil Gaiman for help at times. And who could blame her? We all have our own hang ups. Most of us are taught that we should be able to do everything ourselves, be independent and strong. But Palmer shows us that asking for help doesn’t make you weak. In fact, if you recognize what areas of your life you need help in and find the courage to ask for it, you are stronger than most.
Palmer likens crowdsourcing to street performers. The upturned hat or open guitar case is an open question. It isn’t begging, as the artist is creating something of value – art. Passersby like the art (or not) and throw in a coin (or note). The value that piece of art has is different for each person, someone might put in 5 cents, another $20. A homeless person who had been begging might put in a few coins. It might not sound like much, but in comparison to how much they have in total, the value of that contribution is incredible.
There is a distinction between asking for help when you need it and sponging off others. If you need help filling in finances until you get your next gig, that’s ok, as long as you are actually working towards that next pay check. If you simply sit on your ass and just ask everyone else to cover you without working towards any goal, that’s a different story. It is much like the writing process. Much of it is done in solitude – tapping away at a keyboard while you fuel yourself with caffeine – but once the words are down, you inevitably need help. Beta readers, proofreading, editing, all these things require external input. So why is life in general any different? Sometimes in life we all need a little help from our friends. So just ask!
‘The Fraud Police’
It is public knowledge that most artists suffer from low self-esteem at least some of the time. I constantly see articles online about ‘what to do if you think your writing stinks’ and similar variations. We are a sensitive bunch, us creative types. For many of us, we create an external validation requirement for our work to be considered valid. For instance, I desperately want to be a traditionally published author one day. For me, that validation from an agent and publisher is what will make me feel like a real writer, or at least one with some worth. Before reading The Art of Asking, it never really occurred to me that once artists ‘make it’ they still might feel like a fraud.
Palmer has dubbed this internal voice that constantly puts her down her ‘Fraud Police.’ The idea that Palmer ever felt like a fraud is crazy to me. She has lived art. I was reading her stories of feeling like a fraud while being a living statue and living in a kind of art commune and I thought to myself ‘If this woman felt like a fraud, what hope do I have with my ordinary 9-5 office job?’ But that’s precisely the point, no one is really a fraud if you are working towards your art goal – be it music, writing, painting, whatever. If you are working on your art, you are an artist, and there’s nothing fraudulent about it.
Boiling down the philosophy contained in The Art of Asking gives you something like this: making connections with our fellow humans is important. Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? So why do so many of us find this so hard? Why have artists so often cut themselves off from their fans? Take Jennifer Lawrence, for instance. I am a huge fan of hers, she’s awesome, but she has recently said she will never join any social media given how awful the internet has been to her. Why? Sure, there’s hate whether she’s online or not, but there’s also a whole lot of love and she could tap right into the beating heart of it, and maybe give some back.
Amanda Palmer trusts her fans, they are like friends and family. She shares with them and they share back. While occasionally things go wrong, for the most part the community is loving and supportive, to the supposed ‘head’ (Amanda) as well as to one another. Most importantly, it was only because of the strong connections she had made with her fans that her Kickstarter campaign was so successful.
‘Effective crowdfunding is not about relying on the kindness of strangers, it’s about relying on the kindness of your crowd.’
This important distinction has been lost on many who have turned to crowdfunding for their projects, as well as critics. People, whether already well-known or not, turn to Kickstarter immediately and can’t work out why their project doesn’t get funded. ‘My project is as good as, if not better, than plenty that got funded!’ they cry into the night. Well, did you cultivate a connection with your audience first? No performer climbs on stage and tries to crowdsurf cold, they warm up the audience first, get them on side. Crowdfunding is the same.
Whether or not you agree with Palmer’s propositions you won’t be able to escape completely falling for her. She pulls you in with love and openness – it’s irresistible. Reading The Art of Asking is like going to an Amanda Palmer professional hugging studio. It’s all you need to feel good about yourself and the world.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. By the time she talks about her best friend Anthony’s illness, I was so close to her and her life that as she described her horror I internalized it. My skin prickled and I felt myself grow lightheaded. The feeling of heartache was so strong I needed another cup of tea. If you manage to get to that point in the book without feeling like Amanda is part of your family, I’m not sure you have a heart.