Title: The Art of Asking: How I learned to stop worrying and let people help (2014)
Author: Amanda Palmer
Read: 20th – 23rd July 2017
Genre: non-fiction; memoir
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“Rock star, crowdfunding pioneer, and TED speaker Amanda Palmer knows all about asking. Performing as a living statue in a wedding dress, she wordlessly asked thousands of passersby for their dollars. When she became a singer, songwriter, and musician, she was not afraid to ask her audience to support her as she surfed the crowd (and slept on their couches while touring). And when she left her record label to strike out on her own, she asked her fans to support her in making an album, leading to the world’s most successful music Kickstarter. Even while Amanda is both celebrated and attacked for her fearlessness in asking for help, she finds that there are important things she cannot ask for-as a musician, as a friend, and as a wife. She learns that she isn’t alone in this, that so many people are afraid to ask for help, and it paralyzes their lives and relationships. In this groundbreaking book, she explores these barriers in her own life and in the lives of those around her, and discovers the emotional, philosophical, and practical aspects of THE ART OF ASKING. Part manifesto, part revelation, this is the story of an artist struggling with the new rules of exchange in the twenty-first century, both on and off the Internet. THE ART OF ASKING will inspire readers to rethink their own ideas about asking, giving, art, and love.” (Synopsis taken from the publisher’s website.)
As with most memoirs or non-fiction with a strong authorial voice, the audiobook is definitely the way to go, if available. Amanda Palmer has such an easy voice to listen to that it made the audiobook fly by, and she wasn’t distorted when I cranked up the speed a little, as I tend to do with audiobooks. It’s easy to feel a connection to the author when listening to an audiobook narrated by them but Amanda, in particular, is wonderful at creating that instant connection and empathy between reader/listener and author/narrator. She speaks with such confidence and conviction, even when she’s recounting a difficult or particularly intimate moment. The audio medium also meant that Amanda Palmer’s back catalogue could be used as section/chapter breaks and, as someone who hasn’t so much as heard a single chorus of a Dresden Dolls’ song, it was extremely useful to have that frame of reference for when she was talking about creating music. Definitely an unexpected advantage to trying out the audiobook! However, if you can, I’d recommend you follow it along with a hard copy/the pdf file included in order to get a better feel for the sections of the book and the photos alongside, as it was sometimes hard to differentiate between sections whilst listening to the audiobook.
“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.”
Being unfamiliar with Amanda Palmer’s work, I admittedly found it a little disorientating when she jumps around her life. It took me a good 30% of the book to construct a timeline in my head so that I could visualise which time in her life she was recounting with her anecdotes. Having said that, there’s something organic about this type of structure; it makes the memoir feel less regimented and more genuine somehow than if she’d split it into ‘childhood’ ‘before breakthrough’ ‘label troubles’ sections. Instead of feeling like I was being told the rites of passage in her life in neatly defined boxes, I felt like I was hanging out with Amanda whilst she told me some tales, and gave me some life advice, maybe over a drink or two. Most peoples’ thought processes are never as sensible or logical as memoirs make it feel – life experiences can’t easily be categorised into the five ages of man; you don’t suddenly stop becoming a child and become an adolescent, it’s a greyer area than that, and I think the way The Art of Asking is structured reflects that.
“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.”
There are a few moments where she recounts conversations with her late, dear friend Anthony or her now-husband Neil Gaiman, that genuinely hit me. Like ‘almost cried at work’ hit me, like ‘laughed out loud’ hit me – the latter because of her prodding Neil to say ‘tomato’ and ‘schedule’ just to hear him be all British, the former because of this exchange:
Amanda: You tricked me! Why did you tell me so much about yourself when I first met you
Neil: Because you asked me.
A: Asked you what?
N: How I was doing, about my life. Nobody else had ever asked me that before.
A: That’s totally ridiculous. You’ve been surrounded by people all your life who love and worship you. You have friends, you’ve had a million girlfriends. I’m sure you’ve been asked relentlessly, like to the point of being annoyed.
A: Nobody ever poured you a scotch and said ‘so hey Neil, how the hell are you really doing?’? No girlfriends ever asked what the hell was really going on? That’s utterly impossible. I’m sure they were asking but you just weren’t hearing them.
A: Maybe you just weren’t ready to be asked?
N: Or maybe I found the person I could answer.
I can’t even explain why or how that hit me. Just… damn you Amanda Palmer you made me feel a thing for every single person in my life who has ever asked me how I feel with genuine consideration and concern! Also, her Neil Gaiman impression is very amusing.
I’m not an artist, or a musician, or a performer. I don’t write (very much) or freelance or need to fund money to fund my creative ventures. I’m a girl with an administration-based 9 to 5 office job that reliably pays the bills every month, with some left over for frivolous vices (mostly books and food). So, at first, The Art of Asking might seem like an odd choice of reading material. But this book is so much more than Palmer explaining why and how she chose to leave her traditional record label and turn to an alternative source of fundraising using Kickstarter – it is, as its subtitle suggests, about how you can “Stop Worrying and Let People Help”. If there is a takeaway message from The Art of Asking it’s to know that most people who seem to have their life together probably don’t – they’re just bumbling along like the rest of us, trying their best, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it is the times when it doesn’t work that really defines you as a person.
“From what I’ve seen, it isn’t so much the act of asking that paralyzes us–it’s what lies beneath: the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of rejection, the fear of looking needy or weak. The fear of being seen as a burdensome member of the community instead of a productive one. It points, fundamentally, to our separation from one another.”
Palmer advocates bravery, in the most down-to-earth, everyday sense of the word. Don’t be afraid to reach out and put yourself out there, do the scary thing, ask for someone’s advice, admit that you’re struggling and need a little help. It’s not something that comes easily – as Amanda clearly shows, she struggled a lot to reconcile the differences in asking for help on platforms such as Kickstarter and borrowing money off her husband, because both placed her in an uncomfortable position where your project depends on someone else validating its worth and believing in it/you enough to place their money where their mouth is. In the end, we’re all just individuals, floundering along in the world, and craving connection, of one form or another, to other individuals – and pursuing that connection and exchange is risky because you’re opening up and allowing yourself to be vulnerable in front of someone who you might not trust, yet. But you’d be surprised at strangers’ kindness and compassion, if only you gave it a chance, and just asked.
“Asking for help with shame says:
You have the power over me.
Asking with condescension says:
I have the power over you.
But asking for help with gratitude says:
We have the power to help each other.”
Also check out Amanda Palmer’s 2013 TED Talk on “The Art of Asking”