Of all the musicians, authors and various public figures I’ve admired over the years, few have been as alluringly intimidating as Amanda Palmer. As half of the punk cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls and now a solo act, Palmer can come across as so fantastically self confident—clad in ass-kicking boots and dark clothes, her eyebrows drawn on and her hair perfectly messy—that you can’t help but be a little inspired by and a little scared of her. It was an impression driven home for me when I first saw her perform in Chicago, her hair flying as she pounded on her keyboard and wailed into the microphone.
But it was an impression shattered by her Ted Talk, titled “The Art of Asking.” In 2013, Palmer gave a touching speech on the power of asking for help from your community, and it left me in tears. Her 13 minute talk, delivered with a slight tremble in her voice and a few nervous laughs, was a personal and inspiring story of human connection. This was a totally different Amanda Palmer from the one I had built up in my mind—vulnerable, but ultimately warm and loving rather than cold and aloof.
Now, Palmer has written a memoir of the same name, published by Grand Central and being released on November 11. The primary thesis of the book is that, when we truly need them, our friends and family will be there to help us if we can find the strength to ask. To illustrate this point, Palmer uses examples from her own life, beginning with her days as the living statue “The Eight Foot Bride” and running through her career. She also explores the help she’s received from friends and family, including her husband Neil Gaiman, which provides intimate looks at universal fears of needing too much from the people we love.
“The Art of Asking” is an incredibly uninhibited look at a public figure. Palmer doesn’t hold back, laying bare all her own dark corners and deep fears. But being authentically herself in front of her audience is nothing new to Palmer. Her career has largely been built on a close relationship with her fans; she controversially broke ground by using crowdsourcing to fund her first solo album, and continues to crowdsource her work today. She routinely sleeps on fans’ couches and puts out calls for props or instruments for her “ninja shows,” during which she puts on a spontaneous and organically-flowing performance for free. Amanda Palmer is someone who has never felt the need for barriers between herself and her fanbase.
Despite being a celebrity and acclaimed musician who tours the globe, Amanda Palmer feels relatable throughout the book. As I read it, I tried to pinpoint the moment in her timeline when I would have first discovered The Dresden Dolls, and it was difficult. It seemed impossible that this amazing, warm, very human woman could be the same person I thought was so above it all, so unattainably perfect. “The Art of Asking” lifts that curtain and pulls back that veneer of other-worldliness that so often obscures celebrities, revealing the actual person beneath.
Palmer’s story is, however, incredible. Whether it’s handing out flowers on Boston Commons as “The Eight Foot Bride” or painting murals on the walls of fans’ houses with Neil, there is an energy about Palmer that communicates well through the page. Even if she isn’t the cooler-than-cool punk rocker a casual fan may mistake her for, there is something raw in her creativity that draws the attention.
But “The Art of Asking” is bigger than Palmer. The book leaves readers with one, simple request: Ask for help when you need it. As Palmer points out, in so many cases we affix power or weakness to requests for assistance, making the entire exchange feel demeaning and stressful. We may feel guilty asking for financial assistance, as Palmer herself felt when accepting money from her husband. We may feel that we don’t deserve help, or that people will think less of us when they learn we can’t do it all on our own. We worry that the ties that bind us together won’t hold up to the perceived strain of a favor, and thus think we must bear our burdens along.
Palmer’s career and life is held up as an example of what asking and receiving looks like at its most pure, and the argument is compelling. Palmer doesn’t suggest it’s ever easy to lean on our communities or to believe that people want to help. It’s a struggle to overcome our own doubt, but it ultimately brings us closer to one another by sharing the burden. Even though few will be in the position of asking for funding for an album or a couch to crash on during a European tour, we can all benefit from learning how to ask.
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