Trying to describe Amanda Palmer in one sentence is like trying to stuff all of your possessions into a sock. Musician, impresario, performance artist, and writer, Palmer was adored for her confessional punk cabaret as part of the Dresden Dolls, and gained mainstream recognition after a TED talk called “The Art of Asking” in which she pinned down the success of her solo’s album’s crowdfunding campaign. This led to a book of the same title, equally as multifaceted as its author. It’s memoir! It’s self-help! It’s crowdfunding advice for artists! It’s Amanda Palmer locked in a room scribbling something she really hopes makes sense! (At least that was the general tone of her Facebook posts about the book—happily she succeeded.)
I saw Amanda Palmer three days after breaking up with a dear friend. The performance was in a gorgeous old venue from the 1800s, down the block from the tiny apartment the friend and I had once shared. Palmer, taking the stage in a pearl-gray gown, started reading from The Art of Asking, and as someone who presents in front of strangers for a living, I was immediately taken by her depicting the artistic exchange she undertook every time she stood on top of a milk crate in Harvard Square wearing a wedding dress and a wig and handing out flowers, silently exhorting her audience to interact with her the way she wanted them to, to take the fucking flower.
Then she played “The Bed Song”, a song about not getting what you want in a relationship because you don’t ask for it, about suffering silently. And I damn near died.
My friend…well, she had a habit of telling me how she was feeling and asking me how I was feeling and I never wanted to tell her. It felt too probing, too raw, and I honestly didn’t trust her enough. Part of this stemmed from a deepening intimacy in our relationship, and part of it…I guess I was socialized to drop the white lie, to say “fine” when asked how I was. Someone asking me why I sounded upset on the phone was stabbing through a line of defense I wanted no one to penetrate. Yet I never told her why I was upset, and this ate away at us until it exploded.
What initially attracted me to Palmer’s music was its exhortation to be whole, while at the same time not being ashamed to admit you weren’t quite there yet. “Sing for the teachers who told you that you couldn’t sing!” she growls in her anthem “Sing”. “The Art of Asking” as a philosophy, taps into that same energy. There’s something empowering about making your needs known. And women, historically do not do that well. We really need a badass lady to tell us that sometimes.
Yes, I’m aware the book purports to be about crowdfunding. That is all well and good, and Palmer’s mastered it—she raised a million dollars, for chrissakes. But what underlies that one tangible success is an attitude towards life that Palmer seems to have never had, that social veneer of saying “fine” when asked how you are. She would not have inspired both the love and level of trust her fans have if she was more guarded, but what makes The Art of Asking so humbling is that even she has a learning curve. She doesn’t want to take her husband—author Neil Gaiman’s— money to cover a tour. She doesn’t know why she can’t. She just can’t. She does, eventually, and we follow her along this reluctant evolution.
Palmer’s writing brims with pithy scenes and anecdotes, often about her trusted confidante Anthony, who does things like tell her stories about a dog who won’t get off a nail even though he’s hollering because it doesn’t hurt enough yet. In a scene that made me bust out crying, Amanda laments that she married a partner who just can’t dance, who sits in the corner at bars, and really doesn’t seem to have anything going for him (poor Neil Gaiman). But as she lists off these insurmountable flaws to Anthony it occurs to her that Neil…sees her…and that this seeing is a form of unconditional love. A few paragraphs later, she writes, “it is really hard to love people unconditionally when they can hurt you.”
It’s these finer details that I think will stick with readers rather than some grandiose thesis tied to an internet activity. They illustrate the art of asking itself in action, an art that is tied to both being able to ask for the space to say how you are and to accept who you are. And it’s a lesson every woman, every person who feels that they have no choice but to accept their marginalization, should hear, even if you think you’ve got it down. Friends have told me that I have no filter, that I am the least passive aggressive person they know, that I say what I mean. That still doesn’t mean I don’t have trouble saying what I need to say.
What if you don’t want to be the brash, confrontational Palmer? I don’t think you have to be. Asking is not confrontational. It’s a right. And look, it doesn’t always work. But it’s a form of nourishment that we shouldn’t deny ourselves just because we don’t know what other people might do. Because, as Amanda Palmer might crow with tremendous affirmation, “I am exactly the person that I want to be.”