Book Review: The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

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The world doesn’t make sense; perhaps it never has. We live in more than one story at a time – the story of our personal lives (itself divided into the world we think/imagine we live in and the one we really do live in) and the story of our communal life, as a neighborhood, a family, a society. One of the stories that is told about us, which a sad number of people buy into, is the Trust No One story. Crime is up; terrorism is hidden behind every face that is not like yours. People are just out to take advantage of you. Ignore the fact that none of these are true; it is enough that some people live through these beliefs to make them real. Please note that real and true are different things, and I’m using them in very different ways.

For creative people, which is just about everyone to some extent, it’s a hard time also. The institutions and corporations that had guided commercial creative endeavors are changing, and gaps have yet to be filled. There is a simple answer – ask for help. Kickstarter and Patreon have grown into near-household word status because of it. But it’s hard to ask. In America we have a common legend, that of Rugged Individualism, which says we must build the log cabin we were born in with our bare hands. We (meaning me, for this is a legend of one) tamed the wild and subdued Nature. Why didn’t we have help? Because of self-sufficiency, because others can’t be trusted (there’s that rabbit hole, with no rabbit in it), and because – whisper here – of ego. But outside of the myths and misinformation is another, more grounded and more true, existence. People will help. You’ve seen it time and again, perhaps even participated in it. And out of it, good things come.

Amanda Palmer is a distinctly talented singer and musician. Her career with the Dresden Dolls and as a solo artist is easy enough to research. As the author of The Art of Asking: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, she carries that humanist, rough-hewn ability to tackle the question “Why am I afraid to ask for help?” And, by extension, “Why are we afraid to ask for help?” In between these questions she tells us portions of her life: breaking up with her record label and becoming a solo artist, the discursive career path, her marriage to Neil Gaiman. Through it all is a bewilderment, at herself and others, to ask for help. We’re not speaking of begging or panhandling, two terms that have been used against her; those represent giving without expectation of reciprocation, the seedy side of alms-giving. But giving through Kickstarter, Patreon, or in less organized fashions, has a goal beyond the betterment of the recipient. Most of the time the recipient doesn’t benefit directly at all: a recording session is funded; money to produce CDs or afford a tour is asked for. The donor gets something in return but, because this kind of giving doesn’t fit into the traditional capitalist categories, it is seen as disreputable. It is down at ground level, where people work every day to make their creative visions real, with the help of their friends and fans, that another, more true story emerges.

Palmer is not a natural writer, by which I mean she doesn’t easily come to the artifice we recognize as “natural” writing. She will not give Dickens any competition, but I doubt Dickens could belt out a song on the ukulele either. (And what is this idea of always comparing one creative person to another? I know tons of musicians who are no Bob Dylan, yet I like and even love a great many of them.) Her writing is episodic but on-topic and selects amusing and revealing moments in her life that advance the overall story – an album seems the right term. Though the book grew in part from a TED talk she gave a few years ago, the book casts a much wider net. Her personality shines through clearly, in the weaknesses she (sometimes unwittingly?) reveals and the strengths that got her through the hard times. You don’t have to know her music to follow her adventures (she prints the lyrics to several songs to give you a taste) or even be interested in it. She tells the story of stepping up, past fears, past the myth of Rugged Individualism, into a deeper story of human connection. It’s a love story, and a love note, wrapped in one.

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