Editor’s note: Today I have the privilege of introducing a new contributor here on Fourth & Sycamore. Melinda Guerra, formerly from Chicago and now a Greenville resident, is writing today about Amanda Palmer’s recent best seller The Art of Asking (782.42 Palmer). You can find The Art of Asking in the Greenville Public Library New Books Room. As always you can have a hold placed on the book if it is already checked out and we will call you when it becomes available. Be sure to let your librarian know you heard about this book here on Fourth & Sycamore!
by Melinda Guerra
I used to live in Chicago, where I passed by all manner of people asking me for things: there would be the people with signs asking for money, the tourists asking for directions, the visual artists asking for sales, and the activists asking if I “have a minute for Jesus/gay rights/child sponsorship/environmental change.” Having requests asked of (and sometimes yelled at) me was one of the things that I got used to when I left the suburbs for college in the city. I learned early on that it would be physically (not to mention fiscally) impossible to respond to each request hurled at me, and experimented briefly with my ability to walk right past bitterly cold/artistically gifted/embarrassingly confused fellow human beings. Most days, I failed miserably. There’s something ingrained in me that finds it exceedingly difficult to pass on a potential connection with another human being, and I found myself often stopping for the interaction. It’s the reason for my friendship with Steve (on the streets after a string of bad luck — always good for a story, and always remembered to ask about my family), the reason for my meeting a young genderqueer individual whose stories of positive interactions with religious people gave me much-needed hope on a hard day, and the reason I arrived at Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade a little later than planned — 15 young adults from Indiana needed maps, directions, and tips for the day, and I couldn’t help but laugh with them and set them on their way with what they needed. There is a draw to connecting with a stranger that some of us just can’t pass up — Amanda Palmer, author of The Art of Asking: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, is one of those people.
Despite an assortment of jobs interacting with strangers (she’s been an organizer and hostess of donation-only salons, an actress in experimental films, a waitress in a German bar, a stripper, and– beginning in her latter twenties– one half of the internationally acclaimed punk-cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls), what seems to exemplify the vulnerability in broaching a connection with another is, for her, the five years she spent as a living statue — The Eight Foot Bride — in Harvard Square. Donning a wedding dress, combat boots, long white gloves, and white makeup, she’d stand atop a crate for several hours, holding a bouquet from which she’d deliver a flower to those who would place money in the hat at her feet (yes, all kinds of other things would end up in the hat: thank you notes and gum and rocks, love poems and marriage proposals, etc). She mentions various relationships she had during this time, noting she had a hard time keeping boyfriends, due in part to the reality that while she craved intimacy, she detested commitment: it made those romantic relationships tough, but it also made her job as a statue perfect. She describes the intimacy she felt in her moments with her patrons (even on a slow day, “it sometimes felt like life happened at light speed; thirty little secret love affairs with passersby in just under seventy minutes, and all the heartache that goes along with it.” — page 68), and the running monologue that would go through her head, from,
“The body of Christ, the cup of salvation.
Regard this holy flower, human friend.
Take it, it’s a gift for you. A gift from my heart.
Oh, you want a picture? Okay! We can take a picture.
I’ll just hold this flower and wait while your girlfriend gets out her camera.
The body of Christ, the cup of salvation. The flower of patience.”
“Oh, new human friend, your friend with the camera is drunk, isn’t he? May he find peace. May he find solace. May he find the shutter button.”
“HEY. Why are you walking away? I have a flower for you! A gift! A holy token of love! The body of Christ!! TAKE THE FUCKING FLOWER. For real, dude… you don’t want my flower? Jesus okay fine. I will just hang my head in sorrowful shame for all that is wrong with the world.” (pages 34-35)
As entertaining as her stories about being The Eight Foot Bride are, Palmer uses her living-artist tales to help us understand what it means to step into trust with someone – even if only a stranger and only for a few moments. From there, she takes us on a journey not only through various post-college boyfriends, but also her relationship with fellow author Neil Gaiman (her “I want to live and work alone. If we get married, do I have to live with you?” (page 110) begins just one of their many entertaining conversations she shares), the label she’d signed with (three weeks after Radiohead released In Rainbows, becoming the first well-known band to do a pay-what-you-want album release, she discovered the owner of the label had no idea who Radiohead was; The Dresden Dolls eventually broke with the label after a series of events I’ll leave you to discover), her best friend Anthony (one of their first interactions feature an aged-nine Amanda lobbing snowballs at the windows of the home in which Anthony and his wife were throwing a dinner party), and the band’s fanbase (crashing with fans, signing autographs, giving hugs and holding drinks and basking in the community found in signing lines and ninja gigs – the first: a hundred people in Austin getting together for a massive pillow fight on a few hours’ Twitter notice). Acknowledging the inherent vulnerability in each of these relationships, Palmer writes,
“Asking is in itself, the fundamental building block of any relationship. Constantly and usually indirectly, often wordlessly, we ask each other– our bosses, our spouses, our friends, our employees– in order to build and maintain our friendship with one another. Will you help me? Can I trust you? Are you going to screw me over? Are you suuuuuure I can trust you? And so often, underneath it all, these questions originate in our basic, human longing to know: Do you love me?” (page 3)
One of Palmer’s most endearing traits as an author is what I expect I’d like about her in person: she can not only hit the perfect tone when sharing a funny story, but she can move seamlessly from that story into something that exposes the vulnerability of her humanity, from her fears of marriage choking out her individuality, to the emotional process and aftermath of her abortion, to the helplessness of watching a friend battle cancer. The Art of Asking is a very accessible read, and the chapters – each of which begins with a photo and lyrics to one of her songs – are broken into sections as she moves from one thought to another, which makes it easy to follow and convenient to find spots for breaks. It has something that will appeal to just about everyone: tales from touring, lessons learned as an artist, thoughts on crowdfunding sites and the controversy that can swirl around certain projects (she used Kickstarter to crowd-fund an album, raising over $1 million in one month and setting a record for the most funds ever raised for a musical project on the site; she covers the details of the ensuing controversy over a few chapters in the book), the background for her TED talk (which has received over 6 million views), stories about navigating communication in relationships, fun tidbits about Neil Gaiman, and stories of survival in the wake of widespread social media backlash (a poem she posted after the 2013 Boston marathon bombing started a whole new slew of angry articles and hate mail, just as the Kickstarter fiasco was dying down)… Excusing for the moment that I view street artists as somewhat magical, I loved The Art of Asking, laughed through it, cried through it, and interrupted my husband’s reading so I could quote extensive sections from it (prompting him to turn on The Dresden Dolls as background music, which I share for those of you who can still focus on a book while listening to music). I hope you choose to check it out and share your thoughts with the library staff.
The Art of Asking is available now at Greenville Public Library.