Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"And both will be exalted"

"The Art of Asking." It's the title of the TED talk that Amanda Palmer gave, talking about the relationship between musician and fan. It's a great talk, and Amanda says a lot of things that are well worth listening to and thinking about.

(Watch it. Really.)

One of the things that really resonated with me in her talk was the idea that there is a connection between the artist and the fan, that when that connection is made, it's a way of seeing each other. It kept calling to mind this quote from the novel Howards End, by E. M. Forster:

"Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer."

Here is Forster himself, talking about writing novels. Two things from this brief excerpt stuck out for me. When he explains why he stopped writing, he says that part of the reason was "the social aspect of the world changed very much." And when he talks about what is in his writing, he says, "and anyone who has read my books will see what I high value I attach to personal relationships."

Here is one more thing I want to add to this mix of things that I am thinking about, in terms of art and connection. It's Chuck Wendig's post in response to Amanda's talk, where he ponders whether the philosophy she's set out can work for writers as well:

"The audience is empowered. The artist is among them, not outside them.
We must make the connection easy. The bridge must be a short walk from audience to artist, from creator to collaborator. We all have to be a simple tweet away. A digital handshake, an invisible high-five. Stories that are not scarce or hidden but set on the box in the town square for all to see. Is that enough? Too much? Is that right for everybody? Wrong for too many?"
If you're reading this hoping I'm going to tie all these things up together and give you an easy answer, probably you should stop now. There aren't any easy, one-size-funds-all, answers here.
Part of why I make art is to connect with people. I sit down at my desk and write because I believe that I have a story that is worth telling, and that only I can tell that story in that particular way. I publish my writing because I want to share those stories, because I feel that in them, I can make some sort of connection with the people who read them. I believe that, because that is how art affected me, how art continues to affect me. I have been moved to tears - of sorrow and of joy - by book and film and painting and sculpture and dance and music. Art matters deeply to me. It is a thing that helps me reach outside of myself, to be bigger and better than I was before.
The social aspect of the world has changed. The artist is among the audience. I see you. You see me.
When I had my first signing, I had been a published author for less than 24 hours. And it wasn't for a novel. It was for a short story, "A Life in Fictions," in the anthology Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. The event was at Columbia University, and it was a reading with Neil, and Joe Hill, and Jeffrey Ford, and Walter Mosley, and Larry Block. And me. When the reading was over, I was so sure no one would want me to sign the book (as one of my friends said, "Kat, you're the only one in here I've never heard of."), I went straight back to the green room to thank the organizers. Except there was a woman (Teresa Jusino, who I will always remember as being the first person I ever signed a book for) waiting for me in the hall. And someone else who stopped me later. And a man on the stairs, who said, "I thought maybe you didn't want to talk to anyone."
I did. I just didn't know anyone wanted to listen. The social aspect of the world has changed. 
The thing about asking, is that by asking, you're saying what you do has worth. I have never doubted that art matters, matters a lot, can honestly save a life, but it is hard for me to say that  my art matters when saying that it matters is attached to saying, "give me money or other non-monetary support, and help me make it." It's not that I don't believe artists should get paid - I do! Believe me. I don't send my work to markets that don't pay professional rates, and I believe those stories are worth the checks I deposit. But saying "here is this thing, and I wrote it, and it's on my blog, and if you like it, maybe you could pay me so I can eat and have coffee and also an apartment and health insurance? Or even if you can't pay me now, maybe later? Or send cookies, or a nice letter?" that's a scarier kind of asking. That's saying, "this matters because it matters."
I don't know if the kind of asking that Amanda talks about translates for a writer, is the other thing. Maybe it does - the social aspect of the world has changed. The artist is among the audience. Maybe there should be a traveling group of writers who go from city to city and tell stories, like musicians on tour. I'd sign up. I use social media all the time to tell people their work has mattered to me. I buy music direct from the artists. I've donated to writers who have been going through difficult times.
And yes, I know I could self-publish. I know I could crowdfund. But I don't want to be my own publisher (and editor, and cover designer, and copy editor, and pr person, and and and). And those things don't solve all the problems. Not everyone is online (most of my work is, and my Mom prints out copies of my stories to send to my grandparents, who want to read me, and can't unless they have physical copies.) Not everyone can afford an ereader. Self-publishing and crowdfunding don't get my work into bookstores, into libraries. I want to write. I want to connect.
Which I guess brings me back to the question Chuck asked: How do writers and storytellers ask for your attention and your help?
How can we better connect? How can we see each other?


  1. I have to say that it's easier for an artist/creator of any type to "ask" rather than name a price for a product when her family net worth is already millions of dollars. Aside from my disagreement with Amanda's financial approach, I agree with connecting. Reaching to Chuck over Twitter, attending a book signing, and having him on my podcast a couple of times are all points which impacted me greatly as a fan and fellow creator. I long to see my favorite creators "top of the chart" successful but I don't want to see them behind velvet ropes and bodyguards where the interaction is limited to a few seconds, handshakes that will be forgotten, and a sea of anonymity.

    1. The thing is, Amanda's talk makes clear that she's been asking in some form or other since her living statue days. Might things feel less fraught for someone who has a support system? Sure, but I think it's important to remember that support comes in ways that aren't simply financial. I also think that we ought to be careful not to say that a system for making art can only be available to certain kinds of artists - that there is some kind of cut off where someone would have to say, no keep your support, I'm too successful. I wouldn't say that Stephen King should have to give his books away for free, or that he couldn't crowdfund his next project.

  2. My answer is make the reader feel like they have a view into your process and your life. Share your frustrations, victories and silly photos of your dog. Be willing to expose yourself a bit in order to bring readers into your circle. Virtual high-fives are as meaningful as book tours. If I have met you online or in the basement of a bookstore, that is a kind of relationship and if it's a healthy one, I will support you happily. Pet peeve: Please tell me on your twitter feed when you're in town. Don't just post the link to the publisher's book tour page. Ask me to come. Let me know that it matters to you that you have 101 people in the room instead of just 100.

    I think you do this naturally and I worry about writers who don't want to engage in this way. Looking at the books I've read in the past year, there are few (living!) authors I haven't interacted with in some way. I've almost come to expect it.

    1. Thank you for being so specific - both about what you like and what you don't. It's always interesting to see what means something to people. Much appreciated!

  3. Today I've been thinking about the fact that the artist is part of the audience as well. That I bet if you took a survey of those 24k people who donated to Amanda's kickstarter, a sizable proportion of them would be artists themselves, whether full or part-time or hobbyist. That you buy music direct and give to struggling creatives. That I do.

    And I'm also thinking about the hat. When you're standing silent on a box, you can't just put the hat in everyone's face and say "kickstarter deadline! coming soon! fund or else!" One of the things that worries me is giving fatigue, and artists needing to ask in a way that looks more like SEO/Content Marketing/copyblogging blurghhhh. (Technical term, there) How do we ALLOW people to support us? How do we, in Amanda's terms, create trust that it will happen, when we're not busy trying to push it in people's faces?

    Just more questions. I don't have any good tie-together answers either.

    1. Exactly! how do you balance getting the word out, so that people who want to support (or buy your album, or read your story) know it's there, without feeling like you're yelling all the time? (I like your technical term, btw.)

      And yes. I bought her WKAP album, and supported her kickstarter, so I was in that oddly symmetrical set of people both times. As an artist, I try to support other artists when I can.

  4. No answers here, just a thought or two. I watched Amanda's talk (you're right, it's amazing and so worth the time), and I've read a few responses. And one author made clear for me something that I think Amanda suggested without stating explicitly, that we're very vulnerable when we ask for help. That concept resonated with me, and it's a lot of why it's so scary to ask for help, because we open ourselves up to being criticized or challenged or hurt. And for those of us who have been badly hurt before when asking for help, that fear can be very difficult to overcome. Amanda seems pretty fearless, but not all of us are that strong or that lucky.

    But I do like the connection that Twitter and Facebook and other digital media offers. I like that we can share our good days and our bad days and connect as people, not just as writers or artists. I like that we recognize each other, that each person's voice matters. We aren't just talking into the void. And we aren't alone.

    1. "Connect as people." That, I think, is the key. Thank you.

  5. I mostly agree with rivervox. I understand some older authors/artists who can't adapt to this whole "connect" thing, and I keep buying their books, but I feel really disappointed when a young author, who is still struggling for success, simply ignores the readers.

    About the "tiptoeing on a tight rope" thing, I believe the short answer is that there is no answer.
    Some people will always think you're too pushy.
    Some people will always think you're too distant.
    Some people will always think you're too noisy.
    Some people will always think you're too shy.
    Some people will say you already have so many fans, then you're probably too mainstream.
    Some people will say you don't have enough fans, then you're probably too niche.
    Most people will change their minds about all that over time.

    Trying to discover the golden rule is probably the same as trying to teach someone how to make friends. Or how to be loved. In fact, this *is* all about how to be loved.

    And, to quote rivervox, "I think you do this naturally".


    1. Thank you so much. "Most people will change their minds about all that over time." - this strikes me as so true, and also a good reminder to me to keep thinking, keep considering, keep adjusting.

  6. "Maybe there should be a traveling group of writers who go from city to city and tell stories, like musicians on tour."

    That struck me as totally interesting. One thing about signings is that they give you a moment to connect with the reader. I've seen writers on Twitter mention some heartbreaking and/or uplifting effects that their works have had on readers, and I think that's sort of the core of the point, anyway. It's not the signature on the book, it's the connection, the experience.

    I've always wanted to go to a signing for my favorite authors, and I've never been able to afford it--usually because they always happen so far away from me. But I would totally attend a gathering sort of like John Green's Tour de Nerdfighting--friends going out, performing a little, signing, having conversations with the readers.

    I think a lot of Amanda Palmer's success comes from throwing aside her fears and discomforts and making herself available. She opens herself up to these experiences and these connections, and that's what people show up for and give her their money for.

    1. Great comment - thank you. That settles it - if I ever get sent on book tour, I'm inviting friends.