The Art Of Asking: For Writers And Storytellers


I’m in a strange place in my life.

Not a bad place.

Just strange.

I’m at what I consider to be the midpoint of my corporeal existence. Another half my life and I figure I’m going to be shrub-mulch and daisy-food. And that word — “midpoint” — works for me in a lot of ways. I grew up a creative person in a blue-collar household; I wanted to do something with my life that was not roundly considered a “job” and yet that I knew was itself a kind of work. My father busted his ass at a pigment-making plant. My mother cleaned houses. I wanted to invent things in my head and dump them on the page to make them real. I became that thing, a writer, a storyteller, a word-worker, a position that is itself at a crux — the craft of writing, the art of storytelling, the marriage of a certain kind of fuck-off-whimsy and boots-on-the-ground-ethic. All things hang in the balance, at a turning point that never quite turns: I have a son, a family, a house, a dream career, an audience, a blog, and on and on.

And that brings me to this: “The Art of Asking,” the gone-viral TED talk by Amanda Palmer.

I love it. But it hurts me.

It hurts me because my brain keeps going end over end, a tin pail tossed down a bumpy hill. Her talk is empowering, motivating, infuriating, flummoxing, both a confirmation of all that I’ve ever wanted to be and a refutation of it at the very same time. We want to trust our audiences and give away our stories but then my bowels kink and that other side kicks in, the blue-collar work-ethic of the pigment-maker and house-cleaner, can trust pay my bills and can free feed my family — if I fall backward, who would catch me? But the very act of choosing art-as-life is already an act of trust and hope and grabbing dreams out of the ether like leashing a fucking unicorn (not fucking a leashed unicorn because what is wrong with you?), and, and, and —

What does all this mean for writers, for storytellers? Music is a more complicated (and perhaps crueler) beast — an industry so unkind some of its hottest artists have gone poor, an industry ready to sue the tits off of everybody and everything hoping to ensure that someone who steals a song does more time in jail that someone who strangles an old lady for the ten dollars she hides in the foot of her walker. Musicians are visible, public, they go out in to the world, they can be the begging hat, the money cup, but writers are solitary shadows, we don’t see people at all.

Though, that’s not true at all, not today, not with the Internet. Now we gather in our little digital tribes and we connect with people in ways we never did — which AFP points out, of course. Look back and you see how it really has changed. When I read stories as a kid the authors were distant, separate from the tales they were telling, but that’s no longer true. The artists are present, the storytellers are here, practically next to me, able to answer me if I ask them a question. They’re no longer separate entities from their tales — we’ve entered the age not of Art, perhaps, but of the Artist (and once again AFP is there as evidence of this).

Can the Artist be anonymous?

Can the Artist be disconnected?

Is the Author separate from the story and from the audience who receives it?

Is that even possible anymore?

So then I gotta ask — what does this all mean?

For writers and storytellers — those who write books, make comics, present films — what do we do? How do we take this tip-of-the-iceberg talk (for so much of the mountain lurks beneath the water) and make it real? How to put it in practice? Is it about giving things away? Everything? Something? Can that work for people who have no audience to start with? Can you just step out from the shadows of an unseen life and take that leap and hope someone will catch you by way of reading your work and putting a couple-few dollars in your pocket?

Does it mean giving away a novel for free? All novels? Does it mean blogging? Certainly that’s part of what I do here — I blog without promise of return, without certainty of financial gain, hoping and trusting that the readers here will eventually wind their way drunkenly toward my other work, hoping that I’m saying things that connect. Not to increase my brand because fuck my “brand,” I’m not a car company or a fucking soft drink. Nor is it to build a platform; I don’t want to stand above you but among you. I put myself out there maybe just because maybe I like squawking into the void and I hope some of you will squawk back.

I think at the very least it means, to go back to the thing I said so long ago:

If you’re going to be exposed, expose yourself.

Certainly Amanda Fucking Palmer owns that description, doesn’t she? She exposes herself in so many ways, artfully, musically, bodily, intellectually, and all of it an act of trust and wonder in her own control and on her own behalf. She may be the very emblem of exposing oneself.

Naked in all ways.

How do we connect? How do we put ourselves out there?

How do writers and storytellers ask for your attention and your help?

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?

Fuck. I really don’t know. But it continues to bake my noodle.

Which is a good thing, one supposes.

So much to think about. So complex. And wonderfully, mysteriously, maddeningly strange.

What now? What next?

Where are my pants?

Why am I naked?

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