Primarily known for her music, her success with crowdfunding and recently known for her wildly popular TED talk (and as the wife of Neil Gaiman in some circles), Amanda Palmer has written a book released last week entitled The Art of Asking; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. She graciously answered some questions via email for RomanceBeat about the book and how she approaches life with compassion, trust and love.
How does the process of writing a book differ from the other art you’ve created?
Oh, it was actually very lonely, and I didn’t love that. My pull towards art has always been the stage, the communion, the live experience, and this was a real change in scene that really made me feel isolated from my tribe after a while; but constantly blogging and tweeting has helped me feel like I’m on the virtual road and around the virtual campfire. I was wise enough, however, when I began the process to know that I wanted a wing-man for the editing process, and I spent a chunk of my book advance hiring a good friend of mine, the magician and essayist Jamy Ian Swiss, to be my Book Doula. We literally sat side by side for the last two months of book editing, reading each other passages, shaping my thoughts, deciding what to cut and what to keep. If I had to go through that process alone, I think I might have gone mad with self-absorption and loneliness. One thing to be grateful for, though, is how much this has given me insight into my marriage to Neil. He goes completely AWOL when he writes in earnest and becomes so self-absorbed (or rather, absorbed in whatever world he’s building in his head) that you can’t even get him to answer a simple yes or no question. Having now been that same zombie, I’m guessing I’m going to have much more empathetic tools with which to be a wife around a dude editing a book on a deadline.
If you were to write another book, what would it be about?
Probably all the people I’ve ever been in a bed with. I have some fantastic stories. Don’t worry people; I’ll fictionalize you all.
How do you balance the needs to self-promote and maintain a level of absorption in your creativity against the possibility of burning out?
I balance it like everybody else balances their work/family/relationship lives…with clumsiness and fits and starts and imperfection. On a bad day I spend a lot of energy just forgiving myself for not making enough art, or not promoting enough, or not spending enough time with loved ones. On a good day I stand impressed that I managed to do a variety of things imperfectly, gave it my best shot and sit comfortably with the idea that my best has got to be good enough. I follow some simple rules in life that make things easier: I pretty much never watch TV; I only read the newspapers (online and off) when I’m really caught up with work; I avoid all fried food and try to get in exercise every day even if shit is crazy; I make sure to stay in touch with my inner-circle intimates even if it’s on the fly via text from an airport; I allow myself the time to write down a song idea even if it means an interview is going to get in late; I meditate daily; I do yoga; I try never to bring my phone to bed. I allow myself a wide playing field of mistakes and expect forgiveness from everyone around me. And, of course, I burn out all the time anyway. And then I laugh.
Is empathy necessary to create good art?
That’s a hard question to answer; I know of plenty of great art that was created by souls in real pain who didn’t seem to have an empathic streak whatsoever. But certain kinds of art (fiction, for example, or playwriting), rely on empathy at their very core; we need to be able to “Feel As the Other” in order to “Create the Other.” I’ve found that my art has changed as I’ve spent more and more years practicing compassion with myself and with others; and as an artist, I’ve found that compassion is the most powerful tool not just for making the art, but for allowing the artist inside of me to release whatever darkness might be lurking in there. Making good art doesn’t have to be about “saying nice things,”or preaching kindness, or any of that. That’s for churches and AA meetings. Art is where we get to rip our intestines out and rub them against the white wall…so that we don’t need to do it in real life. It’s a release mechanism, an important one. It’s why censoring the arts is criminal: the darkness needs an outlet. Better fake blood on the white gallery wall than real blood on the bedroom wall at home.
Do you think that empathy as a practicable, teachable skill is a useful framework for creating more peaceful and creative societies?
Absolutely. I discovered Metta practice many years ago at a meditation retreat at IMS in Massachusetts (I’ve done several six-day silent retreats there; it’s a tremendously useful experience that I’d recommend to anyone). Those hours of Metta led me to really understand the connection between empathetic thoughts and the ability to stabilize one’s self and therefore be more useful to the world. When I’m meditating on the road nowadays, I cycle through the people in my immediate life and story: may they be safe from harm and danger, may they be peaceful and happy, may they be compassionate with themselves and others, may they make friends of their bodies, may they have ease of well-being. I start with myself and move outwards, in rings, sometimes letting the roulette of my mind find random people I haven’t encountered in years, and ending on the most difficult, judgmental, angry people in my life. It sends me off into the day reminding how much pain everybody is in, and keeps me kinder.
Marina Abramovic has been discussing and experiencing pure human connections with strangers as a way to facilitate peace recently. You use human connection as a way to see people rather than just look, can you discuss the similarities or differences between your respective artistic goals and processes and the way you both create interactive experiences in art?
I’m a real admirer of Marina’s work. When you look around nowadays, it’s as if there’s an epidemic of fear and disconnection. Authentically seeing and being with one another is, I think, a kind of deep, radical activism that eventually leads to much more specific “things-fixing.” I don’t think you can find a path to peace through simply being an angry activist: I think your way of being, and being with others, is a very, very powerful weapon for change. I think that’s why Marina’s “The Artist is Present” found such a resonance with people. We need it – this real connection to one another – like we need food and air. Artists can create moments like this, but it’s not about art. It’s about how we all are with each other. Art can sometimes just open the door for us to walk through and find each other’s eyes.
How do you rebuild or maintain trust after incidents in which it has been violated?
Time. Attention. A lot of communication. I’ve been having a really insightful last few months, re-assessing where the love in my life should flow. Sometimes, I realize, you’re trying to force a river uphill, where it just isn’t meant to go, and you need to change course and put a relationship in a different box; or accept that some relationships are simply too toxic to allow in your personal ecosystem. I’m known amongst my friends for being almost naively forgiving, to the point of stupidity. Like, I’ll literally forgive the person stealing my wallet while they’re taking it out of my pocket instead of doing what a sane person should do and saying “Hey….that’s my fucking wallet. Here, have a twenty, but I really need the rest of the shit in there”; there’s a line between generosity and stupidity that I sometimes have a hard time finding. Someone, a few days ago, called me a “compassion-seeking missile”. That about sums it up.
The Art of Asking; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help is available for purchase through Amazon now that an agreement with Hachette has been reached, in addition to many independent booksellers. A complete list of supplementary material for the book (including music, photos and blogs) can be found on Amanda’s website. Amanda is also engaged in an ongoing book tour that includes musical performance, thoughtful conversation and guest speakers. Tour destinations are Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Denver, Austin, and Toronto. Dates are November 18-November 25th.