I read a lot. And I like most of the books that I read. But rarely am I so moved and touched by a book that I have to tell everyone about it over and over. I recently read The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer and I find that I keep mentioning it to people.
I didn’t realize when I picked up the book that the author was one half of The Dresden Dolls, a cult band I loved fifteenish years ago although I was never the devoted fan that Palmer describes in her book. I discovered their music through file-sharing back in the early days of high speed Internet, before I fully understood the legal dos and donts of music downloads. I wanted to see them perform live once, at Bimbo’s when I first moved to San Francisco, but it didn’t happen. Then they split up and I started listening more to folk and pop ballads and things shifted. But it’s interesting to read Palmer’s descriptions of her devoted fans, to realize that I was one step away from a life that included participation in that world, that a breath taken differently here or there could have meant I was being described in her writing.
Palmer’s book is about the mutual relationship between an artist and her fans, whether she’s an established musician and best-selling author or just a statue performing on the street (which Palmer did in New York for five years and describes in such loving detail that I am forever changed in the way I watch our San Francisco statues now). Her book is the outgrowth of a TED talk of the same name and it drew attention in large part because it illuminates crowdsourced funding, such a hot topic today.
It captured my interest because of my own recent ups and downs with the choice to fund a project that wasn’t yet finished. I discovered that the pressure of having people already backing the project immobilized me, making it difficult to keep on working through the writing, creating a writer’s block that feels permanent although I know it’s not. I finally chose to offer refunds to my backers to relieve some of the self-imposed pressure of the project. Palmer’s success with crowd funding is lovely to read about, in part because as a reader I get to witness her own ongoing insecurities with the constantly-evolving relationship she has with her fans. She also shares several stories of projects that did and didn’t get funded and did and didn’t get completed and I resonated a lot with the truth in all of these stories.
Help in Abundance
Palmer talks really about how we can identify what we need, ask for help from the “crowd” and get those needs met but only if we are participating in a sort of community where we also give back when others need it as well. She talks about how, working as a statue, she would exchange a flower for a donation and how the donations came from people rich and poor, other street performers and homeless people, children and the elderly and whoever and how the exchange is equally valuable regardless of the monetary value or the participants. And how this is all relevant to other exchanges … how sharing and hearing stories, for example, is part of the community need.
I have noticed since reading the book how often people do actually ask for and receive help within the community around me. Someone gets on the bus and doesn’t have change and people everywhere look up from the immersion in their phones and offer their coins. Friends express that they are going through a tough time and the community comes together to create a safety net to buoy that person up until they can stand on their own again. We spend a lot of time in this life expressing our lack (lack of sleep, lack of time, lack of whatever) but in opening my eyes to what’s around me I’ve noticed there’s really abundance all around me.
I’m an active user of social media but I’m not sure I ever fully understood the human connection value of it until I read Palmer’s book. She writes about “the fundamental things that create emotional connections: the making of art, the feeling-with-other-people at a human level”:
“That’s what I do all day on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and my blog. The platform is irrelevant. I’ll go wherever the people are. What’s important is that I absorb, listen, talk, connect, help, and share. Constantly.”
“The net tightens every time I pick up my phone and check in on Twitter, every tie I share my own story, every time I ask a fan how their project is coming or promote somebody’s book or tour.”
I’ve always had an appreciation for the way that people reach out to me via social media and email but reading Palmer’s book made me really stop and want to acknowledge each of those interactions. It made me want to share more, more genuinely, more authentically, in a new way, in a richer way. I thank her for that.
Partnerships and Love
Throughout this book, Palmer shares her struggles with learning to let her husband (author Neil Gaiman) support her financially in her work. She finds that she can easily let strangers help her but it feels different taking money from her love partner. It’s a struggle I think many female artists (and those who don’t call themselves artists, I suppose, and maybe not just females for that matter) deal with in their relationships. Money and love and art … this is life and yet we try to hard to keep them un-entangled to keep them clearer in our heads, which is all just an illusion but one that makes us feel more in control.
I can’t seem to put together cohesive thoughts about how much this book impacted me as I read it and as it keeps rippling through my mind. It’s all still forming I think. Palmer writes about how we all take things in, sift through them, put them out in a different way and this is our art. I want to quote her on this but can’t find the part in the book where she wrote it and maybe that’s okay. The idea is that we accumulate all kinds of different material and then we shuffle it and re-form it and give it back to the world in a new way. With some art, the inspirations are clear. I tend to write like this – to draw a lot of clear connections and then share my own insights from them. For others, its changed and distorted a lot from the original input. I remember now that Palmer writes about blender settings. Some people really turn the blender up to level 10 and mash their inspirations into something so new that you could never tell that the smoothie they offer you was once a strawberry and a banana and some ice and some milk. I remember my parents’ old blender and how my favorite button was always “pulse”, hitting it again and again to slowly stir up a little bit of something different while watching the outcome as it shifted.
And Other Recent Reads
I’m returning The Art of Asking to the library today. It’s still settling into my head although the poignancy of it will probably get buried beneath the stacks of other writings I consume so regularly. Already there are other inspiring reads that are recent but fading. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness had me momentarily terrified of epilepsy and intrigued by all we do and don’t know about the workings of our neurons. Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty fascinated me as it taught me to understand the language and history of computer programming and how it relates to Indian fiction writing. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way has me thinking about my own elite high school education and what we do right and wrong here in American learning. And I wonder how these things will and won’t stick with me, work their way into my own philosophy of the world, emerge in my own writing.