Amanda Palmer on the Art of Asking and What Thoreau Teaches Us about Accepting Love
“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.”
By Maria Popova
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it,” Lucinda Williams sang from my headphones into my heart one rainy October morning on the train to Hudson. “What seems cynicism is always a sign, always a sign…” I was headed to Hudson for a conversation with a very different but no less brilliant musician, and a longtime kindred spirit — the talented and kind Amanda Palmer. In an abandoned schoolhouse across the street from her host’s home, we sat down to talk about her magnificent and culturally necessary new book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (public library | IndieBound) — a beautifully written inquiry into why we have such a hard time accepting compassion in all of its permutations, from love to what it takes to make a living, what lies behind our cynicism in refusing it, and how learning to accept it makes possible the greatest gifts of our shared humanity.
I am partial, perhaps, because my own sustenance depends on accepting help. But I also deeply believe and actively partake in both the yin and the yang of that vitalizing osmosis of giving and receiving that keeps today’s creative economy alive, binding artists and audiences, writers and readers, musicians and fans, into the shared cause of creative culture. “It’s only when we demand that we are hurt,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating the circles of giving and receiving in 1942, but still seem woefully caught in the paradoxical trap of too much entitlement to what we feel we want and too little capacity to accept what we truly need. The unhinging of that trap is what Amanda explores with equal parts deep personal vulnerability, profound insight into the private and public lives of art, and courageous conviction about the future of creative culture.
The most urgent clarion call echoing throughout the book, which builds on Amanda’s terrific TED talk, is for loosening our harsh and narrow criteria for what it means to be an artist, and, most of all, for undoing our punishing ideas about what renders one a not-artist, or — worse yet — a not-artist-enough. Amanda writes of the anguishing Impostor Syndrome epidemic such limiting notions spawn:
People working in the arts engage in street combat with The Fraud Police on a daily basis, because much of our work is new and not readily or conventionally categorized. 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 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 university, 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.
But in the history of creative genius, this pathology appears to be a rather recent development — the struggle to be an artist, of course, is nothing new, but the struggle to believe being one seems to be a uniquely modern malady. In one of the most revelatory passages in the book, Amanda points out a little-known biographical detail about the life of Henry David Thoreau — he who decided to live the self-reliant life by Walden pond and memorably proclaimed: “If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success.” It is a detail that, today, would undoubtedly render Thoreau the target of that automatic privilege narrative as we point a finger and call him a “poser”:
Thoreau wrote in painstaking detail about how he chose to remove himself from society to live “by his own means” in a little 10-foot x 15-foot hand-hewn cabin on the side of a pond. What he left out of Walden, though, was the fact that the land he built on was borrowed from his wealthy neighbor, that his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson had him over for dinner all the time, and that every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought over a basket of freshly-baked goods for him, including donuts.
The idea of Thoreau gazing thoughtfully over the expanse of transcendental Walden Pond, a bluebird alighting onto his threadbare shoe, all the while eating donuts that his mom brought him just doesn’t jibe with most people’s picture of him of a self-reliant, noble, marrow-sucking back-to-the-woods folk-hero.
If Thoreau lived today, steeped in a culture that tells him taking the donuts chips away at his credibility, would he have taken them? And why don’t we? Amanda writes:
Taking the donuts is hard for a lot of people.
It’s not the act of taking that’s so difficult, it’s more the fear of what other people are going to think when they see us slaving away at our manuscript about the pure transcendence of nature and the importance of self-reliance and simplicity. While munching on someone else’s donut.
Maybe it comes back to that same old issue: we just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.
Try to picture getting angry at Einstein devouring a donut brought to him by his assistant, while he sat slaving on the theory of relativity. Try to picture getting angry at Florence Nightingale for snacking on a donut while taking a break from tirelessly helping the sick.
To the artists, creators, scientists, non-profit-runners, librarians, strange-thinkers, start-uppers and inventors, to all people everywhere who are afraid to accept the help, in whatever form it’s appearing,
Please, take the donuts.
To the guy in my opening band who was too ashamed to go out into the crowd and accept money for his band,
Take the donuts.
To the girl who spent her twenties as a street performer and stripper living on less than $700 a month who went on to marry a best-selling author who she loves, unquestioningly, but even that massive love can’t break her unwillingness to accept his financial help, please….
Just take the fucking donuts.
But Thoreau, it turns out, got one thing right in his definition of success, which emanates from Amanda’s words a century and a half later:
The happiest artists I know are generally the ones who can manage to make a reasonable living from their art without having to worry too much about the next paycheck. Not to say that every artist who sits around the campfire, or plays in tiny bars, is “happier” than those singing in stadiums — but more isn’t always better. If feeling the connection between yourself and others is the ultimate goal it can be harder when you are separated from the crowd by a 30-foot barrier. And it can be easier to do — though riskier — when they’re sitting right beside you. The ideal sweet spot is the one in which the artist can freely share their talents and directly feel the reverberations of their artistic gifts to their community. In other words, it works best when everybody feels seen.
As artists, and as humans: If your fear is scarcity, the solution isn’t necessarily abundance.
But here is where it gets hairy. The strange and disorienting thing is that even the best-intentioned of us sometimes deploy the donuts dismissal in its various guises. As I took the above photo of Amanda with her new iPhone — the model released mere days earlier — I, a longtime and vocal proponent of undoing the toxic myth that being a true artist necessarily requires being a starving artist, was suddenly gripped with the anguishing sense that some part of me had instantly, almost automatically put on a Fraud Police hat. But why shouldn’t she, an artist supported directly by her audience, have the latest iPhone? Why should this trigger a twinge of questioning authenticity rather than a celebration of all the earned love from fans that makes it possible?
To think that we all do it is at once terrifying and comforting.
In fact, Amanda herself does it. In one of the most poignant passages in the book, she recalls doing this very thing to her own mother — a hardworking and accomplished freelance computer programmer in an era when women in the field frequently got raised eyebrows and rarely got raises. Amanda relays the conversation, which took place after two glasses of wine twenty years later:
You know, Amanda, one thing always bothered me. Something you said when you were a teenager.
Oh, no. I was a terrible teenager, an angst-fest of hormones and nihilism.
She can do this imitation of me as a teenager that makes me want to crawl under a table. She did it now.
You said: ‘MOM, I’m a REAL ARTIST. You’re NOT.’
Then she added, more kindly: You know you, Amanda, you were being a typical teenager.
I winced, and felt my neck tighten and my teeth grit down into mother-fight-or-flight mode.
She continued, But you know. You would say: ‘I’m an ARTIST…fuck you, mom! What do you know?! You’re just a computer programmer.’
And then my mother said something that absolutely demolished my defensiveness. I don’t think, in all the years I’ve known her, that I’ve ever heard her sound more vulnerable.
You know, Amanda, it always bothered me. You can’t actually see my art, but… I’m one of the best artists I know. It’s just… nobody can ever see the beautiful things I made. Because you can’t hang them in a gallery.
Then there was a pause.
I took in my own deep breath.
God, mom. Sorry.
And she laughed and her voice turned cheerful again.
Oh, don’t worry, sweetie. You were thirteen.
In all my rock-and-roll years of running around, supporting people,advocating for women, giving all these strangers and fans permission to “embrace their inner fucking artist,” to express themselves fully, to look at their work and lives as beautiful, unique creative acts, I’d somehow excluded my own mother.
I thought about her work that I couldn’t possibly comprehend, about the actual creative work she had done. All that delicate, handmade lace-like programming she did into the dead of night… and how insanely proud she felt when it worked, and the true… beauty of that. And the sadness, too, because nobody ever, you know, clapped for her at the end of the night.
The kind of work Amanda’s mother had been doing all those years is what so many artists — by the true, soul-bound definition — do every single day, the kind of work David Foster Wallace found at the heart of heroism as he wrote of the “minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” That a thirteen-year-old girl would dismiss her brilliant mother’s heroism says less about the girl and more about the culture.
This is what we do — we dismiss. And when we ordain ourselves as the Fraud Police, we are always thirteen — especially on the internet, the vast majority of which is inherently thirteen.
In this excerpt from our conversation, the full footage of which you can watch at the bottom, Amanda and I toss the proverbial donut back and forth as we explore how and why we do this — why we deny others the label “artist” and deny ourselves the donuts in order not to detract from our own artistness:
Amanda learned how to get off the nail during her early days working as a living statue in the streets of Boston to scrape together a living — work that was constantly dismissed by strangers and self-appointed Fraud Police officers as not-work, or not-real-enough work. That experience, which she recounts beautifully in her TED talk, gave her vital insight into the deepest trenches of the impulse that finally drives us to get off the nail and take the donuts:
As I moved through my life as a statue and later as a musician, I started to understand:
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.
The magical thing that happens when we choose to give and when we let ourselves receive is that we step into a widening circle of seeing. This, indeed, is what makes the book’s closing pages so powerful as Amanda recounts watching a living statue in the streets of Melbourne:
He was crouched in a gargoyle pose; his body was completely purple, in a costume that clung to his skin. His face was covered with an intricate handmade mask, which revealed just his eyes, and whose little glued-on mirrors made his muzzle look like more like a disco-ball. He was majestic, dragon-like, beautiful. When a stranger put money in his cup, he encouraged people to pat him as he made serpentine movements of pleasure. It was nearly dawn, and I wondered how long he’d been working there.
Jetlagged and tired from touring, she leans on a tree across the street and watches him as groups of drunken young people taunt and jeer at him. And then, she dials back the time machine of her own life-experience — for where else does empathy live? — and shares with him an exquisite moment of humanity:
As I crouched down and put in a two-dollar coin, I looked into his eyes. He stopped for a moment. Then he lowered his head.
It was odd. He froze in that position and I stayed there, on my bent knees, waiting to see what would happen.
Then his whole back started slowly shaking.
He raised his head back up and I looked into his eyes, which were brimming with tears.
We crouched there, for a moment, face to face.
I reached my hand out to touch his cheek, before taking him into my arms.
He buried his head in the crook of my neck, shaking and sobbing without a sound.
I closed my eyes. I tightened my arms around him. He tightened, too.
The drunken crowd who had just been tormenting him stared at us, and went silent.
We stayed, attached, on our knees, for what felt like two or three minutes.
I held him. He held me.
He finally raised his head and looked at me, through the slit in his mirrored mask, with his wet, red eyes. I hugged him, chest to chest, and felt his breath slow down.
I whispered in his ear, Get back to work.
The Art of Asking is an immeasurably heartening read from cover to cover. In this long and wide-ranging conversation, filmed by the wonderful Allan Amato, who also took the book cover photograph, Amanda and I meander across various facets of creative culture, the artist’s journey, and the uncomfortable art of accepting help, from what compassion really means to the soundest psychological strategies for handling self-appointed Fraud Police officers and capital-c Critics to the challenges of sharing a life with another human being, however great the love between the two.
Published November 11, 2014