I figured Amanda Palmer would prefer it if I bought her book from Stroud Bookshop rather than Amazon, so I did, claiming it as a birthday present to myself. To be fair, it took the best part of two weeks for it to arrive but I think that was the distributor’s fault rather than the bookshop. Anyway, it arrived at the perfect time, when I was feeling wounded and vulnerable due to the whole getting divorced experience. Here’s a fact; when you buy from Amazon you don’t get involved in a conversation with complete strangers at the till at the bookshop who are peering over your shoulder to see what book you’re buying, reading the title out loud and announcing “Ooh, that looks interesting.” Amanda would be proud.
Being in the middle of a rather shit day, I decided to treat myself to tea and cake in a local cafe. Well okay, my local Costa. Much as I love Stroud’s little cafes, a lot of them have very worthy cakes. You can only take a cake so far down the whole gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free road before it stops being a cake and becomes something else entirely. Something rather heavy and a bit chew-tastic. Anyway – tea, cake and a good book; the triptych of bliss.
The book details Amanda’s career journey, from her discovery that she could earn money from being a living statue to eventually forming her own bands and making a living from music. Moreover it’s a book about being an artist, and the tricky relationship artists have with money. About learning how to ask for money, having first created a relationship with the people who get you. Money and other stuff, like a bed to sleep in while touring, or a piano to practise on. It’s about building community and the exchange that takes place between artist and audience. Part-inspired by her TED talk on the same subject, and also by the controversy that erupted over her hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, it’s a frank description of what it means to be an artist, what it means to hold onto your beliefs and integrity, and what it’s like when the haters start hating.
I devoured the book. There are moments when the right book finds you at exactly the right time, and this was one of them. It made me hungry for the kind of community she describes – a close knit tribe of strangers united by their appreciation of her music. So often the exchange that takes place around art is distant and commercial – you buy your ticket, you see the art, whether an exhibition of paintings, a concert, a play – you may or may not be able to queue at the stage door for signings, but that’s it. Home time. The conversation which Amanda describes is entirely missing. The exchange takes place at a distant, the art becomes rarefied, it’s never up close and personal. Layers of intermediaries start filling the increasing space between artist and audience, and even between artist and the actual art. Having to jump through hoops to please a record label, a curator, a literary manager can in fact distance you from the creative impulse, from the very art you’re trying to create, as well as from your intended audience.
The book is now on my recommended reading list for anyone who is trying to make a living as an artist. As well as plenty of people who aren’t trying to make a living as an artist. Oh just bloody read it, it’s good. I’m left with several questions to ponder:
- How as artists can we create a sense of connection with our audience and build a feeling of community around our work? This is particularly pertinent to playwrights as you’re not necessarily even present when your work is shown, everything is delivered through other people in a space you generally have little control over.
- How as artists can we take back control of our art so that we can deliver it directly to our audiences without relying on the permission of intermediaries? This becomes more complicated in the light of the Low Pay, No Pay campaign and I’ll Show You Mine debate – theatre is relatively expensive to produce at professional rates, but is it right to ask people to risk working for a profit-share or no pay? Is that an act of entrepeneurship or exploitation? How as a playwright can you take your work directly to the people when you need actors, a venue, or even a set and props and money for all of the above?
- How comfortable are we with asking for what we need, whether as artists or just as people? To what extent are we putting up with shit because we’re just too embarrassed to ask for what we really want/need?
Too often in life we don’t ask – we hope that it will be offered without us having to ask, or we accept that we’ll have to go without, or battle with our feelings of who am I to dare to want this unworthiness. The image that comes to mind is Oliver standing with his bowl outstretched while the Beadle screeches MORE? at him. A curious mixture of both shame and fear of being arrogant is attached to the notion of asking. Back when I was a member of Bristol Freecycle, I found myself asking who do these people think they are when the one request per day rule was blatantly ignored by people asking for widescreen TVs, laptops, cars and other such stuff I would never have dared to ask for. It felt greedy to me, and against the spirit of the list, which was to prevent items from going into landfill by providing a forum for people to offer things they no longer needed. I was wary of those who seemed to be takers rather than givers – yet in order to give, someone else needs to receive. A man called around to collect the mattress we were replacing – the exchange was mutual. Our mattress meant he no longer had to sleep on the floor, while he was doing us a favour by taking it away. Should there be a moral difference between offering a mattress and asking for one? Between asking for a mattress and asking for a television? How come something so straightforward as asking can bring up such awkwardness and push so many buttons?
This book encouraged me to question what I want my artistic practice to look like. It also made me examine aspects of my life that were unfolding in ways that I really didn’t want, that felt entirely out of kilter, and helped me to hold up my hands and say No. Actually, I want this. To start asking for help when I need it, to allow myself to accept help when it’s offered. Ach, it’s late, I’m tired. Just go read the book.
Those who can ask without shame are viewing themselves in collaboration with – rather than in competition with – the world.
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.
(Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking.)