I read a lot. (Really, if you’re a writer, you should.) I read all sorts of different things, not really concentrating on fantasy and science fiction, but dipping into mystery and literary fiction and graphic novels and history and biography and whatever happens to grab my interest. Once in a while, though, I find something so amazing and eye-opening that I have trouble following it with anything else. Recently, that book was Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking.
I’ve followed Amanda Palmer’s music for a long time, since the radio station I used to listen to started playing Coin Operated Boy in heavy rotation. I saw Dresden Dolls in 2008, where my friend Jamie spun poi as part of their art brigade. Somehow, though, I missed Palmer’s wildly successful Kickstarter campaign and the TED Talk where she shared her thoughts about it, a talk that she expands on in her book. It’s part memoir of her life and her career, part manifesto on her artistic aesthetic, and I highly recommend it to any kind of artist for its exploration of what really drives artists to pursue their work – a need to connect with others.
An example that Palmer gives early in the book is a childhood memory of falling down the stairs, then telling her family about it only to find that no one believed her. This experience, she realizes, has come to affect her entire life: “PLEASE BELIEVE ME. I’M REAL. NO REALLY, IT HAPPENED. IT HURT.” Not only that, but it informed her art, and maybe the work of every artist:
I laughed thinking about every single artist I knew – every writer, every actor, every filmmaker, every crazed motherfucker who had decided to forgo a life of predictable income, upward mobility, and simple tax returns, and instead pursued a life in which they made their living trying to somehow turn their dot-connecting brains inside out and show the results to the world – and how, maybe, it all boiled down to one thing:
I teared up a little reading that. It happened a lot throughout the entire book.
But art doesn’t stop with the artist’s desire to be seen by the world. Palmer describes how artists reach out to their audience. One of her first jobs, before she formed the Dresden Dolls, was as a living statue, painted white and standing motionless in a public square, only moving when someone dropped a tip into her hat, to give them a flower.
I liked giving permission to people to look at my face… I knew that, having invited them into my face like a host invites a guest into a kitchen, I would be equally invited to look back into theirs. Then we could see each other. And in that place lies the magic.
I see you.
Sometimes I wish I were a different kind of artist. Writing is lonely work. Opportunities to interact directly with readers are few, since smaller conventions and book festivals are struggling, and the big venues like Comicon put lesser-known writers in competition with big names for limited table space. Going online to find the readers is like going out into the wild, where the relative anonymity of the internet gives people the freedom to express their frustrations as angrily as they want to, sometimes in the form of unnecessarily nasty reviews. (Palmer also discusses the ugliness that has sometimes confronted her online, and her struggles to remain positive despite it all.) It would be much simpler, I sometimes think, to be a performance artist, able to get that immediate audience response, to find the receptive face even if it’s in a sea of ignorant or unpleasant ones.
But I’m a writer anyway, and even in my lonely artistic world, I found a lot of inspiration in The Art of Asking. Here’s Palmer recounting a story shared with her by Dita Von Teese, a burlesque performer who previously worked as a stripper.
Her colleagues – bleach-blond dancers with fake tans, Brazilian wax jobs, and neon bikinis – would strip bare naked for an audience of fifty guys in the club and be tipped a dollar by each guy. Dita would take the stage wearing satin gloves, a corset, and a tutu, and do a sultry striptease down to her underwear, confounding the crowd. And then, though forty-nine guys would ignore her, one would tip her fifty dollars.
That man, Dita said, was her audience.
This is an almost perfect analogy for my writing career. I’m the stripper in the satin gloves.
When Confidence Game came out, and I was still in the first-time-author habit of obsessing daily over my Amazon rankings and reviews (of which there were seven), I liked to joke that seven people read my book and four of them hated it. But those three people – those are the people who connected with my work. Those people matter, even if there aren’t many of them. Those are the people who think, I’m real, someone sees me. And I shouldn’t let discouragement over low sales trick me into abandoning those people.
There’s a good dose of realism in the book, too. Not everyone is going to be wildly successful just because they ask for help. Palmer also tells the story of a composer who, despite having plentiful YouTube views, failed to get his Kickstarter funded. He was able to raise only $132. I’m almost positive that I would get similarly dismal results, and it’s why I’ve never even considered doing a Kickstarter. His inability to succeed as she had, according to Palmer’s analysis, is because his relationship with his audience was different, not as close, not as trusting. So is mine. But that doesn’t make him – or me – not an artist, or change our desire to reach whatever audience we have however we can. So we keep working, keep making our own kind of art, keep reaching out in our own way.
I’m real. Believe me.