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Why Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking is Essential Reading

I highly recommend this book, especially if you're an artist. Read on to find out why.

Highly recommend this book, especially if you’re an artist. Read on to find out why.

 

I am stingy with the word essential.

It and so many similarly strong words, especially in American popular culture today, are wildly overused, and too often leveraged outside the narrow subjectivity with which (in my opinion) they could otherwise more appropriately be applied. I’d call all this an epic bummer, but in honesty it’s an easy thing to shrug off.

Still, I bring up the point to help introduce my recommendation of musician Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking…because rarely have I felt so compelled to “drop the e-word”, with confidence, outside the realm of eating, drinking, sleeping, and luvvvvv-making.

Obviously, not everyone is going to agree with my choice. But, speaking primarily to the aforementioned audience(s) of art-makers and art-lovers, here are my personal reasons for advocating for the book — and Palmer herself, since she’s an interesting personality on her own and identifies first and foremost as a singer (I have been also listening been listening to her music for weeks, which I similarly recommend).

The Art of Asking provides an unparalleled level of context for the contemporary relationship between art and people (or art and life)

liam_sscamp

We raised enough money to shoot The Videoblogs by asking our audience for help. Photo credit: Liam Billingham.

Early in the text, Palmer remarks upon how what we’re witnessing right now, in terms of the relationship between art and artist (especially in tech-equipped indie circles) is in actuality a return to The Way it Used to Be. Artists create, put their work (and themselves) out there, and the audience returns the favor by giving some part of their own selves (be it in the form of money, time, etc.), simply and directly — if and as there’s an authentic connection made in the process.

That’s how it used to go early on, and for a long time, in human history. Various forms of progress and change shifted that relationship, such that several intermediary systems rose to prominence, which weren’t (and aren’t) necessarily bad but, nonetheless, today, can cause complications, introduce impurities, and/or create distance in the otherwise mostly direct artist-audience relationship. Today, now that individuals on the whole are much more broadly and immediately connected than ever before, and now that new (relatively) cheap funding, distribution, and communications systems exist than ever before, it’s not only once again possible for the artist and the audience to remain in a more direct, on-going relationship — it’s also easier to cultivate and keep up that relationship than ever before.

That doesn’t mean that, on the part of both artist and audience, that we aren’t still (on the negative side) facing challenges posed by the still-dominant machinations and gate-keeping fears of the aforementioned intermediaries, or (on the positive side), that there aren’t mutual advantages to those sort of relationships (and plenty of good people working, in various capacities, for intermediaries) — it just means that everyone today can perhaps be kept more honest and more focused on what’s important.

I’m paraphrasing Palmer there, possibly with a little bit of my own beliefs and observations sprinkled in, but the important point is to recognize and accept that, with the right attitude and a lot of work and patience, things can be better — for independent artists and their audiences in particular.

Within this context, Palmer embodies (literally) and carefully guards Authenticity and Trust as the most crucial elements of the artist-audience relationship

This is generally how I feel about everyone who watches our films.

This is generally how I feel about everyone who watches our films. Photo credit: Alexia Adana.

The Art of Asking is mostly written in the style of a memoir. Longer-tenured admirers of Palmer than me probably already know that she doesn’t shy away from getting (literally) naked in front of her fans (given certain conditions that she takes careful pains to point out in the book, while also providing context for such decisions). Such occasions don’t always go well, her courage in this aspect does not come without its share of suffering, and in the text she frequently (and with typical transparency) gives voice to the doubts such “bad” stories spark in her mind.

Still, Palmer does a much better job than I ever could ultimately deconstructing not only why such “setbacks” (I’ll let the book itself substantiate my repeated use of scare quotes) are necessary (and illuminating). She provides much evidence for — and a lot of useful commentary on — the observable truth that, after opportunity, the next thing we all need for this sort of arrangement to work, in the best possible way, is an unyielding commitment to trust not only in the work but each other.

Palmer never claims that things will always go perfectly, even in filling in useful back-story to her successes. But she does do an excellent job consistently reporting on the dialogues she has had both with herself and trusted friends in sourcing out the right thing to do, as often as possible, as she stumbled through especially her early career on the way to a better and more comprehensive understanding and respect for how this all ideally might work on a regular basis. The stories she tells in relaying this process are not only intellectually accessible, but emotionally so as well — which sets Palmer apart especially in today’s unfortunately less-emotionally forthcoming social landscape.

Palmer’s narrative provides an accessible road-map for success

Multiverse Screening and Videoblog kickoff

Hint: It’s about People. Photo credit: Alexia Adana.

Riding off that last point, it can be tempting in this environment (I’ve been tempted myself) to take an honest goal like that of Palmer’s book (which to me seemed to be: “teach and attest to the benefits of trust, kindness, and vulnerability”) and warp it into something more broad and self-serving.

Especially in what sometimes seems to be rounding out into The Age of Tech, advice of the “road-map” sort, nudged towards gathering greater numbers (versus forming real connections), seems to proliferate further every day.

That’s not to say that all the lists and guides out there aren’t without value, or that they’re all guilty of crossing some arbitrary Authenticity Line, or should be faulted for failing to see that most of what provides value to people begins by engaging with them on an honest, emotional level. It just means that, for instance, when Palmer maps out her path as herself, in context, while constantly guarding and respecting The Point — it becomes that much easier for a similarly minded, or near-similarly minded (I’ll probably never get physically naked for you) individual or small group to internalize her journey and absorb her lessons in a much more useful way.

This road-map is revealed to be (and simultaneously evidenced by) the aforementioned Authenticity and Trust

This is indie musician Mike O'Malley -- in real life. After seeing this set, we asked him to appear in The Videoblogs.

This is indie musician Mike O’Malley — in real life. After seeing this set, we asked him to appear in The Videoblogs.

Obviously, I admire Palmer’s approach with the book, and her execution, as much as the content. I bring the sort of cyclical nature of her testimony up as a separate point because of how accurately it mirrors how important both authenticity and trust are to the artistic lifestyle (or to living a fulfilled life in general).

It took me so long to build up the courage to begin sharing more and more of my actual self in my work. As documented here, it’s also been frequently terrifying, sharing more and more of that work, more widely.

I’m eternally grateful for my audience. I hope you know that. I hope you also know how essential you have been (continue to be) to my work and my own growth. We’re in this together. I’ll keep trying to keep it honest.

For anyone still struggling to build up the courage to start down a similar path, or who could use a boost (I needed one) — read The Art of Asking.

Palmer makes it clear that indie success takes not only talent but (a fuck-ton of) hard work

I held at least six separate positions during production of The Videoblogs. Why? Because it had to be done to keep things moving.

I held about six positions on the crew of The Videoblogs. Why? Had to be done in order to keep things moving.

While this definitely isn’t a criticism, Palmer often speeds quickly through commentary about how much work things took, at many different stages in her career. She seems to take it as a given — which really isn’t a bad thing, for the most part, especially since she clearly also “plays hard”.

Most of the useful stuff delivered by the book in this regard arrives while Palmer is monologuing or dialoguing with friends, not in a direct way but more often reflectively, in the wake, for instance, of first sharing an anecdote centered around a particular challenge, or a normally-occurring instance of doubt.

Again, possibly, this is because she’s just that used to the amount of work it takes to succeed in the way she has. Reflection may also be a healthier approach than the more typical American, “process and power-driven” work approach (I can tell you from experience that adopting this approach as an underfunded indie will burn you out). Her attitude appears gentler, more patient, and more directly caring or forgiving of how hard it can be than someone like me, who might allow lingering faulty programming to relay a similar lesson via more a blunt admonition like “you better be ready to work”.

That caution is in fact true, but because Palmer is so forthcoming and thorough in her testimony, she doesn’t have to address the reader so directly in these terms. As I said, she does detail her struggles, and it does become very clear how hard she works — in the book this all just happens in the process of her telling her story.

Especially to today’s entitlement-prone younger generations, her approach provides not only a valuable lesson but a valuable method of delivering that lesson.

The book does not shy away from pain, even in mostly relaying stories of wonder

This is actually just the result of cooking some beets. But it could be BLUD!

This is actually just a result of cutting some beets. BUT IT COULD BE BLUD!

I hinted at this above, but it’s worth mentioning more specifically.

One of my favorite recurring patterns in the book is Palmer’s willingness to share the bad with the good. She utilizes the space provided by her narrative, in addition to whatever she did in the moment (usually talking to a friend), to find a way to come to terms with why pain is part of the artistic process, just as it is part of the process of living.

Again speaking personally, I’d add that this is a hard lesson to learn, and one that arguably never stops asserting itself. Still, I have found in recent years that doing exactly what Palmer does — talking and sharing and avoiding isolation or self-pity as often as possible — works wonders.

I believe it’s particularly important that we exhibit patience throughout each instance/cycle of this process as well.

The pain of others screams at us, every day, from the headlines, in real life, and even on our social media feeds. As artists (and as people), it can be hard to remember that our job isn’t only to absorb and soothe such pain. Neither does it help anyone to focus solely on ourselves, in this respect.

The healing comes from the sharing, and the connection.

The central narrative isn’t just the titular subject, or Palmer herself, but the vulnerability and love that must be shown in order for art, and art-relationships, to work in today’s socioeconomic environment

Laughter without voices.

At the time we made Multiverse, I was struggling to see people — and to feel seen.

Long-time readers of this site are probably used to me harping on the following point — but I’m going to keep repeating it for as long as I feel it still needs to be made.

More than any other crisis we’re facing, here and now in America, the gap or decline in empathy — between any of a number of (sometimes arbitrarily) defined groups, and within and across the individuals that make up those groups — seems to me to be hurting us the most.

Empathy is the basis from which all progress begins. Even when it seems incomplete, even when finding it seems to take forever, any progress on this front, at any level — is good for everyone.

No matter what sort of progress or social change an artist or an individual is compelled to chase, empathy will always be the most powerful vehicle we can “employ”. It is that authenticity, that trust, that connection — all wrapped up into one mysterious-but-essential universal concept.

I use the scare quotes around the word ’employ’ there, because (especially now that I’ve absorbed Palmer’s book), I believe it’s more helpful to think of ourselves as vessels, in this respect, than as an agent.

Conclusion: How The Art of Asking has Affected Me

Things get intense during Margaret (Rebecca De Ornelas) and Vee's (Phoebe Allegra) first meeting.

The Videoblogs is about leaving isolation behind, opening up — and trying to connect.

I’ve written quite a bit, so I’ll wrap up, but in support of that last point I wanted to end with some personal testimony on how The Art of Asking has affected me on a personal level.

First, as I mentioned, it has strengthened and renewed my gratitude towards anyone who has supported one or more of my projects, who has ever visited this site, who has even taken a moment to click through to anything I’ve done and given it a quick glance. As I have said before, I simply would not be here, making art and chugging forward, without all of you.

I also emerged from my read of Palmer’s book with a greater sense of clarity, in regards not only to the worthiness of the path I am on, but also the necessity to continue to be transparent and supportive of the artistic and personal communities to which I belong.

And, finally, I have been acting with more kindness, just in general, as I have gone about my day-to-day life.

I don’t feel more kind, as a result of reading The Art of Asking. I’ve always been a fairly kind person. But reading the book — particularly at this stage in my life, wherein I’ve been putting so much effort into both “cleaning house” and being me — has helped me slow down and act upon feelings of compassion, much more often than I have otherwise done in recent years, without hesitation or judgement.

There have been plenty of available reasons, for me, in the past, to remain guarded, to follow the lead of any of a number of fears, and/or to keep barreling forward in pursuit of The Mission.

It can become especially easy (sometimes, unfortunately, even necessary) to do this while living and working in New York City. There’s just too much going on, everywhere, constantly, to remain vulnerable for too long of a stretch, or in certain environments wherein to do so at all would be potentially too damaging to the self. There are times when you simply need to establish and respecting healthy boundaries to protect your health and general happiness.

But, still, lately, I’ve been realizing (and, to be truthful, finally listening to the pleas of others in this regard) that it’s time to slow down again. The Mission isn’t a career level, or an accomplishment, or even the realization of a specific project. It’s not even the work itself, or the drive to keep doing it and sharing the result.

The Mission is serving others. It’s chasing that empathy, by showing — and showing faith in — the kindnesses we mostly all feel, but might for so many, often understandable reasons, hesitate to show.

So, I’ve been doing what I can. I’m trying to support other artists, more often. I’m trying to keep up on taking care of myself, more consistently, so that it’s easier to approach others without agenda. I’m making eye contact with strangers and asking how they are, and I think they can tell that I actually care about their response.

Mostly, I’m doing little things that take a minimal amount of effort even if they cost me a bit more in terms of vulnerability and trust. I’m realizing, as Palmer’s book and life story definitely sets out to prove, that The Art of Asking is just as much about giving — and meaning it, and being unafraid to keep on meaning it — than anything else.

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Another Battle: Actors vs Writers vs Filmmakers vs Comedians

You guys really enjoy competition. I guess that can be healthy. Sometimes? 🙂

Seriously, thanks for making our Hometown Battle contest (Cranston Rules!) such a success. Over the past few days, we’ve eclipsed 40% funded for The Videoblogs. But we have just a little over a week left to meet our goal.

Today, we have another friendly competition for you.

I apologize in advance, because today is probably going to get out of control. Everyone remember this is all for a good cause 🙂

Today is The Battle for Artistic Supremacy

Game Faces. All around. Bring it.

Game Faces. All around. Bring it.

Actors vs. Writers vs. Filmmakers vs. Comedians

Now. I know what you’re thinking. How does it help to ask a bunch of equally “financially challenged” professionals to contribute?

Valid point. But I have counterpoints…

Outside of friends and family (but often included in that group as well) no group is as supportive of the arts, percentage-wise, than other artists. This is not a knock on non-artists by a stretch. I think it’s just a little easier for artists to understand just how hard creative pursuits can be. Which is fine. We’re all in it because we want to be.

This campaign isn’t just about the 20K we need to shoot the film

It’s about an idea. One we share with Seed and Spark, which is why we’re working with Emily Best and company rather than another platform.

This is about community. It’s about banding together en masse. I don’t expect any fellow artists to able to contribute more than $20 today.

But that amount was carefully selected. So was the $10 and $5 incentive level.

Today, we’d love to bring in 50 contributions between $5 and $25. More would be great, of course 🙂

Every dollar counts!

Every dollar counts!

What we really want people to do here (a lot of people) is take a leap of faith and buy a copy of the movie before it’s made. We’ve tried as much as possible to make that an easy decision for you. And, again, I promise we’ll deliver a great film to you.

Rebecca and I together probably know hundreds of Actors, Writers, Filmmakers and Comedians. Between the rest of our team, I’m sure we know hundreds more.

It’s beyond moving when we get large donations like the one we got this morning that put us over 40% funded (with a little over a week to go). But, last night, we also got one for $5 that moved me in equal measure

Because that person did what they could AND for that I get to send her my book. Which I love to do. A piece of my soul went into that little book. I don’t know how or why it happened but it did. And the feedback I’ve gotten from those who have read it has been heartening.

You too can get a hold on some DREAD.

You too can get a hold on some DREAD.

So, yes, today is a friendly competition. I will be representing The Writers. We’ll probably win. But that’s not what this is about 🙂

This is about making a statement that small movies (and other projects) about difficult issues — have a right to exist.

If even half of the hundreds of fellow artists who read this today pick up a copy of that book and then share this post — that will push the needle on our campaign forward significantly.

The same rules apply as the last competition. Every dollar counts towards the total. The losers have to admit defeat, and declare the supremacy of the winner, in a video.

Take a leap of faith with us?

Why Artists Need to Lead The Charge For Equality and Justice

There’s an ultimate point to most of the posts that I’ve written here so far, apart from what is already outlined on the “What?” and “Why?” pages linked to above. That point? Well…

It should be clear by now to anyone who’s been reading that I am pretty damn fed up with the rampant social injustices that pervade our society here and now. I am even more fed up with the too-major majority of people who refuse to admit just how much is wrong with how we view ourselves, in the face of clear evidence of this injustice (if we do any real viewing at all). And I am completely done remaining silent about all this.

Again, maybe that’s obvious to those of you who have been reading so far. This site offers me, and hopefully you as well, an opportunity to explore some specific examples of what’s wrong with American society, as well as (again, hopefully) some ideas as to what we can do to begin righting what’s wrong. In the same way, though, I’ve also started looking at what I write here as a gauge of where I am at, at any given time in my personal journey to accomplish this as an artist.

Which is all a very long way of saying that I don’t write these missives only as a means of pissing on the fire as the house burns down. Because pissing on a burning house accomplishes nothing. Everything still comes down in the end and if you aren’t careful you might also singe your delicates in the process.

So, why all the hours spent: 1) Identifying the main impediments to social repair and progress (IMHO), 2) Identifying the means and method of delivering what’s needed to initiate such processes, 3) Exploring severe examples of our dysfunction, and, lastly, 4) Advocating a solution.

Well, I’m doing it, as I just said, to check my progress. Also, probably, to keep me sane. Finally, though, I’m injecting myself purposefully into the experiment. I want a record of this to be available, for myself as much as others, in case some part of this works (it will work).

And, when I say “this,” I mean my films, my writing — all of it, from this day forward. I want a trail behind me, as a sort of precaution, for helping me stay honest in a world where honesty is more often avoided and punished than welcomed and appreciated. In a way, ideally (admittedly), I want to keep you honest too.

Sometime soon, I’m going to get around to announcing my next film, which my wife and I are going to drag kicking and screaming into existence, because fuck this.

Two months ago, 20 children were gunned down in an elementary school. Five years before that, the global economy nearly collapsed, due not only to a series of widespread con-jobs perpetrated by immoral power brokers but also the ignorance (however forgivable, in certain respects) on the part of almost everyone, to the delicacy of the increasingly complex (overly complex) connections and compacts that sustain our collective lives. And, since then, and still now, the American cultural dialogue has been overwhelmingly focused on the past and present — even as democracies old and new, worldwide, continue to pass us by in terms of recognizing and advocating equality, securing justice for all citizens, and, quite simply, working to provide a framework for an all-around better life (and a better chance at a good life) for their entire citizenry.

As a person who is still younger than he is old — and a person whose life has already been greatly affected by all of the above — I am not okay with this. Are you?

I’ve struggled to “succeed” over the past ten or so years, partially because it’s what you do when you’re an artist, but partially also because I’ve said no. To the status quo. To doing what you’d otherwise have to do, in terms of compromising the honesty required of any worthwhile artistic career or endeavor, in order to make art and also “make money.” I’ve also said no, more times than I can count, to the voice that lives insides many of our heads that seems to constantly whisper: You can’t do it. Fuck that voice, too, while we’re fucking things.

I’ve also said no, as long as I could (because it’s painful, and I just wasn’t ready) to taking a long hard (full) look at the above sad truths of life in America. Why? Because I am and have been a complicit agent in this mess in many ways. Sometimes this was because it seemed necessary to play by certain rules, so that I could strengthen and prepare myself to the point of being adequate to the task of finally jumping into “the good fight.” Sometimes it was because I was afraid. I’m still afraid.

But it doesn’t matter. I’ve been working hard to hone my skills as a filmmaker and a writer for a long time now. I’ll continue to do that, but now that I’ve also come to terms with what has to be done (what we all have to do), I want to lead by example (with help, of course). In the spirit of sharing everything I’ve shared here so far, I also want to outline why I believe more of our artists (as they often do — and many artists more talented than me are already doing this) need to take the lead in the charge for a better America.

First, I believe artists are (as usual — this is nothing new) uniquely positioned to form creative solutions to the issue of sparking a greater cultural dialogue. Most of us, at least those of us who aren’t born fortunate enough to get started early and easily (and many of this type end up excluded from the discussion, at least initially, simply by virtue of being unable to gain the proper perspective on things like inequality and injustice) — we’re desperate. We’re in the strange position of having a lot to say about what’s wrong but also having, at the same time, too small or insignificant a voice (at least until we put in the time and develop the skills necessary to earn the right to a greater say) to make much of a difference. When the work has been done and the skills are far enough along, then we are (or should be) compelled to seek solutions where there were none before, as much as we are able. Of course, as far as our conscience allows us (and this is sometimes possible), we also have the option of chasing success through proven methods. Far too many of those methods, however, require more of a compromise than we should be ready to make. Again — not all. But too many. This is all changing, in any event, because…

Second, we already are forming creative solutions to the issues of the day — with the assistance and support of some smart and forward-thinking entrepreneurs, particularly in the realm of technology and social networking. I won’t be so bold as to lump myself in with some of the artists who have succeeded in taking more control, for themselves and their careers and their work, by turning to the internet to build and sustain an audience (and to deliver directly to that audience with fewer middle-men edging in on either side of the transaction). But, yes, it’s getting better. I believe that. You’ve always had to be good, and to an extent of course you have to continue “doing the work.” Increasingly, however, if you’re good and do the work on your own, you’re able to remain honest and go after the heart of it at the same time that you’re keeping “their” hands off the heart of it. It’s also worth mentioning that such a trail was blazed by countless relatively nameless experimenters and early-adopters who, yes, did it before that much more famous person who just got more press from his or her success story because he or she is famous — which is fine. Just my way of saying thanks to the unsung heroes of the budding framework for artistic self-actualization that we’re beginning to see hit its crest.

Third, we have perspective. Perspective is expensive. Since things are as bad as they are in America, it becomes necessary for the true artist to repeatedly reject everything (or as much of everything as he or she can handle or is able to handle) that cannot be honestly adhered to as we go about attempting to first wrap our heads around the mess, and then work to change it in a meaningful way. I already talked a little about this, but it bears repeating. You can’t fix what you can’t admit is broken — because you haven’t looked at the pieces to see how they fit back together. Whether the true artistic point of view comes first, or whether it only arrives after it causes you to suffer awhile — that’s a chicken and egg question. Like the chicken and egg question, however, there’s a little-discussed real answer to it: it doesn’t matter. Both need the other, in perpetuity, for the question itself to even have any relevance. And art can only be relevant if its perspective is true. It can only succeed in a widespread way if its filtered perspective is an appropriate tonic to the polluted perspective of the day. Artists, real artists, are uniquely qualified to engage with issues of inequality and injustice because, in repeatedly saying no to all things polluted, they become marginalized. And it’s on the margins of life where we always find the human consequences of our societies’ darkest secrets. If that all sounds romantic, it shouldn’t. Also, a caveat: there are many artists out there much braver than me in terms of exemplifying the necessary perspective. But we all do what we can.

Fourth, we need each other. This last reason may be colored slightly by my “chosen” calling as a filmmaker, but still I think it applies across the board. Especially now, when Americans are so much more isolated than every before — and so mistrusting of each other in the ways that count — it’s worth it to think about the value of cooperation and community. Keeping the example going, however: I just recently completed my third film. It’s my best work to date. Do you know why it’s my best work? Partially, it’s because I took everything I learned over the past five years and put it into the production of a five page script. Partially it’s because I recently began descending into a more honest place as a writer and a person. Mostly, though, it’s because I tamped down my fears and anxieties enough to repeatedly ask for more help, more often. And because I worked hard to collaborate more with talented people. Maybe this example speaks more of my own issues with fear, anxiety, egotism, etc. than anything else. However, if you looked at me for most of my life, in most ways you could call me an average American male. Average height. Average build. Grew up middle class in the suburbs. Did well in school, went to college, got a job (because that’s what people do).

Except much of what I came to believe about myself as an average American male ended up being built upon lies. I will continue to be of average height and average build (hooray?). But the middle class? It’s dying. The suburbs — shining example of American social mobility, land of pretty houses and happy childhoods? Well, a lot of those houses got taken away, or were never “owned” by anyone to begin with. Further, there’s a difference between happiness (which is elusive enough as it is in the most basic of terms) and the illusion of happiness. Real happiness doesn’t cost nearly as much as so many of us pay, in human terms, as we pursue it in increasingly problematic ways, and, in language unfortunately appropriate to the time, in exchange for increasingly meager returns.

Much needs to change. The old ways don’t work anymore. We can’t hide from ourselves any longer. The injustices need to stop. Equality, real equality, in all senses of the word, needs to be our primary goal. But things won’t truly begin to get better until most people take an honest look at the state we’re in and agree that it’s bad.

So. Artists. Let’s get to work.