Book Review: The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

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I enjoy going to book signings.  I treasure the opportunity to meet a writer, hear about their lives and influences and the book they’ve recently published that has put them on the stage or in the book store.  However, a recent book signing event was the worst I have ever attended, which is quite a contrast from the book I was reading at the time.

I’ll tell you about it in a moment.

The Art of Asking or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer (Grand Central Publishing, 2014) is a must-read for any artist.  When I saw it at the book store I immediately thought it would be a good self-help book for my wife.  She is stubbornly independent, so much so that when she took the Buddhist Precepts, she was given a name with the meaning, “Relies on Self.”  Buying her the book, though, would be useless because she prefers e-books to the real thing.

I found myself at the book store again, in front of this book, curious about its message.  The only thing I knew about Amanda Palmer was having heard her recording of “The Ukulele Anthem” on Occupy This Album.  I’d read the inside flap and the back cover blurbs, and, I don’t know, something within it called to me.

A lot of this book is memoir of her artistic career to this point.  But it is also a reflection on her practice of asking and trusting.  “I wanted to address a fundamental topic that has been troubling me: To tell my artist friends that it was okay to ask.  It was okay to ask for money, and it was okay to ask for help.” (Page 5, emphasis in original).

It’s a legitimate topic for those of us who are in the arts.  And Ms. Palmer’s career as an artist began on the streets of Boston, where she dressed up as a bride, stood on a platform, remained stationary until someone dropped money into a hat before her.  She would then animate and give the patron a flower, making eye contact while smiling; the gift of seeing the patron.

A statue performer at the 2012 Ann Arbor Art Fair.

Palmer hits on all the buttons that disable us as artists from asking for help.  For example, she calls out our fear of the Fraud Police:

The Fraud Police are the imaginary, terrifying force of “real” grown-ups who you believe – at some subconscious level – are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, saying:

We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING.  You stand accused of the crime of completely winging it, you are guilty of making shit up as you go along, you do not actually deserve your job, we are taking everything away and we are TELLING EVERYBODY.
(Page 42-43).

She counters that what we do, as artists, is not conventionally categorized and is new.  “When you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy.  You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand.  And feel stupid doing it.” (Page 43).  This is what gives the Fraud Police strength.  I know.  I write, and I have in my mind what the wand looks like that will make me feel legitimate in calling myself a Writer.  But that’s the kind of bullshit I, and other artists, need to cut through in order to make that leap.

In both the art and the business worlds, the difference between the amateurs and the professionals is simple:
The professionals know they’re winging it.
The amateurs pretend they’re not.
Page 44.

Another obstacle are the critics.  The voices from real people who have little good to say about what we are doing or what we’ve produced.  Standing on that platform, Palmer heard numerous insults, focusing on the one that, again, sends chills through us all.

Get A Job!

I had a job.  I was doing my job.  I mean, sure.  It was a weird job.  And a job I’d created out of thin air with no permission from a higher authority.  But I was working, and people were paying me.  Didn’t that make it a job?  And, I would think as my face burned with resentment, I was making a consistent income, which made the GET A JOB insult hurt even more.   Page 55.

I know that’s a mental brick wall I beat my head against often.  I come from practical parents.  If I had pursued a Bachelor’s in English with the hope of pursuing a Master in Fine Arts in Writing, instead of a Bachelor’s in Business with an Accounting major, it would have been frowned upon from my blue-collar, pragmatic parents.  The purpose of college was to Get A Job.

Palmer goes on to tell about the band she started – The Dresden Dolls – and how she used social media to connect with fans.  She would do concerts and contact fans ahead of time to ask any of them if they had a place they could stay after the performance.  She built a fan base and put her trust into them.  They, in turn, shared with her.  This was a major factor in her ability to raise over one million dollars with a Kickstarter campaign for the release of a new album and tour.  That is what prompted the folks at TED to have her record a TED Talk about the Art of Asking, and subsequently the writing of this book.  Here is the TED Talk.

Something that recently hit home was a section where Palmer talks about the signing line.

The signing line is a cross between a wedding party, a photo booth, and the international arrivals terminal at the airport; a blurry collision of flash intimacies.  It’s a reunion with those I haven’t met yet.  There are a lot of tears and a lot of high-fiving and a lot of hugging.  There’s also a lot of asking, in both directions.

Will you take a picture for us?
Will you take a picture with us?
Do you need a hug?
Can I have a drink?
Do you want a drink?
Will you hold my drink?
Why are you crying?

It’s not always the fans crying.  I’ve been held by many fans on nights I needed a random shoulder on which to collapse.

I’ve observed signing lines at other concerts that are not like this, where it’s all business and security officers stand there making sure nobody touches The Talent.  I’ve had to argue with security officers appointed to my signing lines, explaining that, unlike other bands, we don’t WANT security to hurry people along, or shoo them away, making sure they don’t stop to talk.  I need people to stop and talk and hug me, or else I feel like an automaton.  (Page 104-105).

This takes me to the worst book signing event I attended.  It happened on October 28, 2015, when Drew Barrymore came to Ann Arbor to read from her memoir, Wildflower (Dutton, 2015).  The event took place at the Ann Arbor Theater.

It was a two-part event, with Ms. Barrymore and a moderator on stage reading and discussing the book in the first part, then the book signing at the end.

For the discussion portion, before she was introduced, the moderator laid down the rules, which included “no photography during the discussion.”  When I first entered the theater, there were signs taped up on the walls and doors “No Cameras.” I took mine in anyway, asking more than one Michigan Theater employee/volunteer if I was going to have a problem.  The common response was that it would be left up to security.  My thought was, What the hell?  It’s not like they’re taking everyone’s cellphones away.

I was sitting in the 7th row on the aisle. When Ms. Barrymore took to the stage, people began lifting their cellphones to take photos. Michigan Theater security swarmed the area making them stop. I left my camera off (though I was ready to turn it on if security became overzealous and another rent-a-cop or cop issue happened, for there was a strong police presence as well).

For the book signing portion, the moderator, prior to introducing Ms. Barrymore, laid down the ground rules for that, too.  They were 1) she was signing the book, only the book and no other paraphernalia; 2) that she was not personalizing any of the signatures; and 3) that there was to be no conversation or photo taking of her during the process, other than to say a quick “thank you.”

While waiting for my section to be called to get in the autograph line, I asked an usher if the no-camera/no-photography policy was the Michigan Theater’s. She said no, that the policies they adhere to are set by each event.

Ms. Barrymore and her policy did not respect her fans. It felt more like a “pay your money; be grateful that I’m here; do not take my photo; let me sign your book in quick, assembly-line fashion, and be on your way.”

To be fair, I have not been to an Amanda Palmer event, especially now that she is rising in celebrity status.  But what she wrote about her feelings about signing lines seems genuine.  And she puts it quite accurately in the TED talk.  “Celebrity is a lot of people loving you from a distance.”  That was my Drew Barrymore experience, one whose book has fallen so low on my priority reading list now that it could end up being one of the many books in my library that won’t be able to read in this lifetime.

Amanda Palmer is a musician who offers us a flower, sharing the human experience on stage and with those who are touched by her music, like an artist.  Drew Barrymore is an actress who offers us a Wildflower, which is like a weed – a plant growing in the wrong place – sharing stories about her life with her fans from a distance, like a celebrity.

Book signings are for writers who are artists, not celebrities.

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The closest photo I could get of Drew Barrymore at her book signing event, October 28, 2015 in Ann Arbor, MI.

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