Book Notes: The Art of Asking

 

Book Notes: Where we read and condense books down to their main takeaways for creatives, with a look at our own notes from reading.

I admit, I had been avoiding reading this book for a while. Although I had seen the TED talk that spawned this book, and found it interesting, I wasn’t convinced that it would make a meaty book. Although it had some great ideas, it felt…a bit gimmicky? Or maybe just that it felt like a lot of things I had heard before, just said in a cuter way, that maybe her fans were interested in more than someone who never really connected with her music. Whether that’s a fair assessment or not, the TED talk seemed a lot more about her personal history and only kind of at the end got around to the point of the talk. I did enjoy the TED talk, but it didn’t feel like a fully formed idea. All this combined to the effect that I had a copy of this book for about a year (because a number of people recommended it, people that have a reputation for good recommendations) before I finally sat down and read it.

And I am very glad I did finally read it, because there are some very good lessons in this book. Any music or art Amanda Palmer makes and your opinion of it is irrelevant. She has taken the beginnings of ideas you can see in the TED talk and really fleshed them out into messages artists need to hear. Some of these conversations are not new, but she rephrases them in a way that feels like when your best friend is telling you the things you know but you really can’t absorb until a friend tells them to you. Maybe 3 times. She talks about permission, and confidence, and connection with your audience — old messages critically in need of a revision for the age of the internet and social media and Kickstarter.

“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.

The idea that artists are somehow slackers or a drain on society is an old message, and while it’s easy to laugh off on the surface, it’s much more insidious because we have all internalized it. We are told what we do, as artists, is decoration. It’s entertainment. It’s not necessary. It’s not important. It’s the first thing to get cut when budgets get tight, because it’s expendable. And thus, once internalized, that message turns into a inner shame. And an outer embarrassment. We don’t want to ask for help because it makes us worry that we are a failure if we need help. We need to learn that asking for help can also be a gift to others.

 

“There’s no “correct path” to becoming a real artist. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to art school, getting published, 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.”

There is a personal story woven through this book as well – the story of Amanda Palmer & Neil Gaiman’s courtship – which has it’s own sweet and interesting moments, and Palmer does a good job of trying to use their private lives to correlate to themes in the book. But the gems in this book have nothing to do with Gaiman & Palmer’s romance, although it is a pleasing parallel to show her learning these lessons along with her readers. Palmer has done a fantastic job of verbalizing struggles I know go round in so many artists’ minds: the fear of asking, of being an embarrassment, of being rejected. The blurry line between creator and fanbase. The magic alchemy that turns a fanbase into a community.

 

I would recommend this book to every artist working today that interacts directly with their fanbase, especially if they are appearing on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Patreon. It is a very good guide to staying authentic, to trusting your gut when your fans are concerned, and instinctively cultivating the community (or “net” as Palmer calls it) that an artist draws around themselves.

There’s a difference between wanting to be looked at and wanting to be seen.

When you are looked at, your eyes can be closed. You suck energy, you steal the spotlight. When you are seen, your eyes must be open, and you are seeing and recognizing your witness. You accept energy and you generate energy. You create light.

One is exhibitionism, the other is connection.

Not everybody wants to be looked at.

Everybody wants to be seen.


“There’s really no honor in proving that you can carry the entire load on your own shoulders. And…it’s lonely”


“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.”

and, my favorite:

“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.”

Buy The Book: The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

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Background on the “notes” part of Book Notes: When I am reading a book, I am a obsessive underliner (especially of non-fiction books). After I’m done, I copy anything I want to remember into my sketchbook. It’s kind of like making a personal cliff’s note. This column started because many of the people who have seen my sketchbooks over the years wanted access to some of the pages on books or lectures they were interested in (I make the same kind of pages for classes or seminars or talks too). Since I am reading books through the lens of an artist, I wanted to start sharing these notes and condensed reviews with other artists. If you lil the tone of the notes, then pick up the book.

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