When I showcased my trip to Powell’s bookstore a few weeks ago, I wrote that I bought Amanda Palmer’s memoir, The Art of Asking: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. I have just finished it. I loved so many things about this book that I am going to do a two-part mini series on it.
#1 will be about the content of the book and what Palmer can teach us about marketing creative work, living the creative life, and making authentic connections with people.
Week #2 will be about the structure and design of the book – and how Palmer managed to pull off that most elusive of things: a compelling memoir told in vignettes. There are key takeaways for fiction writers in this second week, too – fear not!
Also, THANK YOU for all the wonderful replies to my Friday the 13th “I have nothing to say” quiz. You gave some great feedback and I am inspired by all the things you want to learn about.
What a Rock Start/Blogger/Crowd-funding Master Can Teach Us About Writing
In case you haven’t heard of Amanda Palmer, here’s a brief run-down:
She’s a singer-songwriter-indie rocker-blogger-performance artist- provocateur who also worked for many years as an 8-foot tall “bride” statue in Harvard Square – giving flowers to anyone who put money in her hat.
She travels all over the world to perform with her band, and often puts out a shout on Twitter – to complete strangers -- to ask for a piano, a milk crate prop, a place to stay.
In 2012, she ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund an independently produced record, and became the first musician to raise a million dollars. She raised $1,192,793.
She gave a TED talk on the topic of asking that has 6 million + views. You should watch it. It’s amazing.
She is married to Neil Gaiman, the famous sci fi fantasy writer
The Art of Asking is her first book. It’s an expanded version of her TED talk. It’s the very personal story of her very unusual life. It’s an exploration of the contradictions in inherent in making art. It’s a manifesto about how to market work that comes from your soul.
Here are some key lessons for writers from Palmer’s book:
1. You can’t please everyone. When Palmer worked as a living statue, hordes of people walked by her every day and ignored her. She used to work near a subway, and people were busy, rushed, on their way to work. That meant she had a very intimate relationship with rejection. What did she learn? “It is essential to feel thankful for the few who stopped to watch or listen, instead of wasting energy on resenting the majority who passed me by,” she says, “I never aimed to please everyone who walked by or everyone listening on the radio. All I needed was… some people. Enough people. Enough to make it worth coming back the next day, enough to make rent and put food on the table. And enough so I could keep making art.”
Writers don’t have to stare rejection in the face quite that hard – well, except for that one time when a woman emailed me to say she hated my book and threw it in the garbage can at the airport. But despite the fact that we are relatively protected from it, we should still consider the fact of rejection. We should have a clear sense that there will be people who don’t like our work, and we should consider who those people might be. That is a great way of beginning to know who will like it, and that is the key to connecting with readers.
2. Give yourself permission to write. Writers are often looking outside themselves for permission to tell their story, to share their story and to call themselves writers. The dirty little secret of well-published writers is that they, too, are often still searching for this elusive permission. Palmer totally gets this interior truth, and she writes with poignancy about what she calls “the Fraud Police” – those voices in your head that scream about what a fraud you are.
“When you’re an artist,” she says, “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 you feel stupid doing it…. There’s no “correct path” to becoming a real artist. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to art school, or getting published, or getting signed to a record label. But it’s all bullshit, and it’s all in your head. You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.”
So call yourself a writer. If you write, you are a writer. End of story.
And know that the real goal is to be a good writer. I love Palmer’s description of it: “you’re a good [writer] when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.”
Aim to do that, and I can promise you that you will be on the road to satisfaction.
3. Marketing your work can be beautiful. If there is one reason to read The Art of Asking it’s to get inside of a well-oiled marketing machine to see how it works. It’s about making authentic connections one at a time – no more and no less. It’s as easy as that sounds, and as hard as that sounds, and the only way to do it is to do it. Palmer suffered a lot of backlash when she launched her Kickstarter campaign because people didn’t understand how an “unknown” indie rocker could have pulled off such a marketing coup. She very calmly and rationally explains:
“There’s years and years of authentic work, tons of nonmonetary exchanges, massive net-tightening, an endless collection of important moments. Good art is made, good art is shared, help is offered, ears are bent, emotions are exchanged, the compost of real, deep connection is sprayed all over the fields…. Then, one day the artists steps up and asks for something… And if the ground has been fertilized enough, the audience says, without hesitation: Of course… But it isn’t magic. The first part can take years. Decades.”
So get out and do your own authentic work. Find where your field is. Fertilize it. And if at all possible, don’t wait until you are done writing. Remember: it can take years.
4. There is a sacrosanct divide between making art and selling it. I often advise writers to writer with integrity and market with abandon, because they are two very different undertakings. The one is the work of your heart and your soul. The other is work done in the world of commerce – of buying and selling, of trying to find your reader, of trying to please them enough to pay for what you made. Here’s how Palmer describes that reality of her world:
“I chatted constantly online, and listened to input and feedback from the fans. If they wanted high-end lithographs posters, I made high-end lithographs posters. If they wanted 180-gram vinyl, I made 180-gram vinyl. If they wanted Things – pillowcases with hand-drawn art on them, T-shirts that came in grey in size XXXL – I made the Things. The only department where I wasn’t open to input was the writing, the music itself. That’s my job, not theirs.”
5. Don’t turn away from your reader: Writers who are scared to market their work, or who shy away from marketing, or who claim not to be good at it are shortchanging themselves in a million ways. You don’t have to crowd surf naked the way Palmer does, but take to heart what she says: “I think the real risk is the choice to disconnect. To be afraid of one another… We make countless choices every day whether to ask or to turn away from one another. Wondering whether it’s too much to ask the neighbor to feed the cat. The decision to turn away from a partner, to turn off the light instead of asking what’s wrong… Asking for help requires authenticity, and vulnerability… Those who ask without fear learn to say two things, with or without words, to those they are facing: I deserve to ask and You are welcome to say no.”
If you are nervous about marketing your work, turn towards your reader and keep saying those two phrases over and over again: I deserve to ask and You are welcome to say no.
6. There is plenty of room in the world for your book. On page 327 of The Art of Asking – in the Acknowledgements – Palmer tells a funny story about Brene Brown. (You DO always read the Acknowledgements, right? So many good stories there!) While in the midst of writing her book, Palmer came across Brown’s blockbuster hit, Daring Greatly, in a little bookstore in Boston. She texted her agent and editor: “BRENE BROWN HAS RUINED MY LIFE. SHE ALREADY WROTE MY BOOK. AND SHE STOLE MY RABBIT.” The rabbit is a reference to The Velveteen Rabbit, which Brown references in her book.
The point is that there is always going to be another writer who it seems to be out to ruin your life – by writing your book first, or writing it better, or getting more money, or reaching more readers. But shake it off. All you can do is write the book you want to write and know that the world needs it.
What Palmer did? Pure inspired genius: she got Brene Brown to write her forward.
7. What you make is ultimately what really matters. At the end of Palmer’s book, she writes this lovely little plea: “I am, first and foremost, a musician. Writing a book was great, but I desperately want you to hear my music so I don’t lose track of myself. I made a playlist of all the songs used/mentioned in this book, and I threw in a special `welcome to my actual life’ page of my website for those of you who have just read the book without having any idea who I am or what my songs sound like. It all started with the Art Itself, and I hope the book leads you back there. The playlist is free – you can take it, or pay what you want.”
I love that because it’s so clear where Palmer’s heart lays, and it’s so clear what she wants. She doesn’t want fame or fortune, even though she got those things. She just wants you to listen to her music. Get that clear about your own work. Know what really matters to you. Then go make it.