Month: December 2014

Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer is a musician, but that’s not how I know of her. I first heard of her through Neil Gaiman’s online journal. Neil is a writer of strange and glorious tales of gods come to earth and secret doorways to places and beings outside of this world. (Hard to capture his work in a brief sentence, but that’s my stab at it.)

My intro to his work came not through his acclaimed Sandman series, which I have never read, but through his novel American Gods. I’ve read a number of his other books, including Anansi Boys, Coraline, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), Fragile Things, The Graveyard Book, Neverwhere, Stardust, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (The one book of his I’d pinch baby armadillos to have is the one he wrote about Duran Duran prior to the work that made him famous.) I followed his journal closely a few years ago because, as a writer, it was compelling to read how a successful writer conducted himself in a public forum. There were good lessons about how to be productive as a writer and how to deal with public controversy. When Neil announced that he was engaged to Amanda Palmer, who seemed to be just as open online and creative as he was, I had to check out her blog. (Sounds kind of weird, but isn’t this one way we find new artists, writers, and musicians to follow, by taking the recommendation of someone whose work we respect?)

Amanda often begins her blog posts with “hola comrades!” and proceeds to let her thoughts tumble out in a stream-of-consciousness style, with no time for capitalization. She writes Facebook posts much the same way. On all her channels of communication (she adores Twitter, as well), she wants to hear from fans and genuinely engages with them. She sometimes gets embroiled in controversies without meaning to, typically by people making assumptions without knowing the full story. When this happens, she takes to her blog and explains her side of whatever issue has people’s undies in a bunch and bravely invites their feedback. (I’m no stranger to online trolls, but if I had to put up with the hostile crap that has been thrown her way, I’d probably be hiding under a rock by now.)

Amanda was asked to do a TED Talk after her massively successful (and inadvertently controversial) Kickstarter campaign. The talk, which has been viewed over 6 million times, was called The Art of Asking and in it Amanda discusses the power of asking fans for support as an artist. She was then asked to write a book on the same topic, which was released in November 2014. As Amanda does in other avenues of her life, she crowdsourced the book-writing effort, asking her followers to answer questions that helped her work through sections of the book. I jumped in with my two-cents on a couple of questions, including one about the difference between asking and begging.

Investing yourself even a little in someone else’s book (whether by following the process or answering a question or two) makes you want to read that book. When Amanda said that it would soon be available, I went to my local library’s online system and requested the book, which was not yet in the catalog. Someone else had ordered the digital version before me, but I’m an old-fashioned girl who grew up on books with covers and paper pages, so I ordered a hard copy. It is not lost on me that this was an act of asking and that it was the first time I had ever asked my library to acquire a book it did not yet own. (Great power in that, I’d say, and I highly recommend it to those who love libraries, those wonderful socialist institutions of knowledge-sharing. Most library systems make it very easy to request books for the collection.)

When I got the email notice that the book was in and picked it up from the library, I wanted to immediately race home and practice hygge, just get all cozy, ignore the world, and read. Instead, I read it every chance I could over a few days.

The book is written in Amanda’s pell-mell blog style, but gussied up for a book format. Letters are capitalized and there are no “hola comrades!” involved, which was a bit of a bummer. It did make me realize a basic difference between writing for blogs and social media and writing for a book. A book is like a formal speech and blogs and social media are like casual conversation. (For those of you expecting well-polished essays for personal blog posts, please lighten up. Do you expect a formal speech during casual conversation? That scolding includes me, for as a writer, I expect my blog and social media posts to be fully polished.)

Once I became accustomed to Amanda’s book voice, which didn’t take long, I was immediately taken with her story. She discusses being a human statue (The Eight Foot Bride), her Kickstarter campaign, TED Talk, music career, communal living with other artists, and the controversies she has stirred up. She also details her relationships with her husband Neil and her good friend Anthony. The thread running through the book that connects these various parts of her life (other than Amanda herself) is the willingness to ask for what she needs and the graciousness to accept people’s help.

One of her mantras, gleaned through learning that Henry David Thoreau’s mom brought him donuts while he was living at Walden, is “Take the donuts.” As artists, we often have a hellavu time asking for help, but an even harder time accepting it. Scandinavian Minnesotans might be even worse at asking and accepting than artists. Try being a Scandinavian Minnesotan artist. Egads, we’re doomed! But Amanda’s point is that we don’t have to be. We can work through our fear of being denied when we ask for help. Her book is a guide to that. She lays bare all manner of hurt she has dealt with in her quest to crowdsource her artistry. Her efforts are also an example of how to build a following for your work, one fan at a time and with genuineness, by engaging people personally.

Reading the book made me realize that I have never heard Amanda’s music. I became a fan through her writing  and her TED Talk, which goes to show that with the longevity of today’s artists, both artists and fans have to expect that people can become fans at any point in an artist’s career and we all have to be okay with that. Some fans might think I’m a heretic because I haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series or heard Amanda’s Dresden Dolls work. Certainly I’m not a “true” fan if I haven’t been following along since the beginning. What a bunch of hogwash. (Whoa! Memory rings. I wrote an essay about The Late Blooming Fan in 2005 that talks about this phenomenon in a tongue-in-cheek way.)

In any case, Amanda has an amazing sense of ESP because my realization that I hadn’t heard her music came while I was reading and once I got to the end of the book, she has this note: “I am first and foremost, a musician. Writing a book was great, but I desperately want you to hear my music so I don’t lose track of myself.”

I would say she’s much more than a musician … she belongs to the Club of Creative Hyphenates. And now I have some music to listen to.

If you haven’t read The Art of Asking, I highly recommend it. If you’re in the Great River Regional Library system in Minnesota, there’s at least one hard copy to go around. If there are lots of requests for the book, I’m sure the library system will order more.



Finding Meaning in Work

thoughtfodderFast Company is my new favorite business-y blog. The article I’m reading on the site this evening is about finding meaning in your work, indicating that companies that figure out how to make their missions and jobs meaningful to employees will typically see greater productivity and gains in income. If their employees are engaged and feeling full of purpose, companies will do better in general.

While that is useful information, it feels a bit “duh” to me. Certainly, if an employee feels like her life at work has meaning, she will be more productive. But the article is about companies creating missions with meaning that people feel good about contributing to. This shift has been coming for a while, with states adopting a new business structure, the B-Corp (short for Benefit Corporation) that allows private companies to be structured to provide public benefits other than profits for shareholders. (Minnesota passed the its B-Corp legislation in spring of 2014, with it taking effect January 1, 2015.) This is a good thing. Private businesses should feel some larger responsibility to the public than simply making lots of money for themselves.

What I appreciate about the Fast Company article (which is quite long but worth the read) is a new generational term it uses … Generation Flux. I’ve long been irritated by how often Gen X gets skipped over in reports about generations. Boomers and Millennials, along with a few Greatest Generationers, get most of the coverage and most of the props for everything happening in society. As a Gen Xer and historian, seeing Millennials get credit for the “new” trend toward entrepreneurship and expecting purpose in their careers rankles because it’s not as though magic fairy dust was sprinkled over Millennials and suddenly that’s the way things are. These trends were solidly taking root with Gen X and were certainly in evidence with previous generations, even if not experienced by a majority of these generations.

Using the term Generation Flux erases this tension because it’s not about when someone was born in history. According to the article, “Fluxers are defined not by their chronological age but by their willingness and ability to adapt. These are the people who are defining where business and culture are moving. And purpose is at the heart of their actions. ”

Creative hyphenates, a.k.a. multi-hyphenates, fit this definition. I believe most of us are multi-hyphenates but because business has traditionally been about money, not purpose, and has been segregated from our personal lives, we’ve never had to think of ourselves in this way. When we’re at work, we’re one thing; in our personal lives, we’re several other things, and never the twain shall meet, as though the skills and talents we use in our personal lives have no effect whatsoever on work. (Baloney!)

That’s never been the case but we’re only now figuring it out, probably in part because technology keeps us tethered to work after hours, but also because of this move to making sure our personal sense of purpose meshes with our employer’s larger mission. We’re also being told, because of the internet, that we need to cultivate a personal brand and mission statement. Individuals are becoming “businesses” even if they have nothing to sell, simply as a way to preemptively express who they are online before someone else does it for them.

This brings me to another Fast Company article I read recently, “Personal Mission Statements of 5 Famous CEOs (And Why You Should Write One Too)“. It seems to me that if Generation Fluxers are interested in working for companies with compelling missions, having them write personal mission statements would assist in determining whether their own mission works with that of their employer.

After reading the personal mission statement article, I’ve been giving some thought to creating my own and have made a couple of stabs at it. More thinking is needed.

Do you have a personal mission statement? If so, what is it?

Working in Secret

processIn case you haven’t heard, Sony Picture’s computer system has been hacked due to the imminent no longer imminent release of the new movie “The Interview,” which features a plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.

With the hack attack, Snapchat’s emails were leaked, revealing strategic business maneuvers the company was making. Snapchat’s CEO Evan Spiegel was upset about the release of this sensitive information and he released a letter regarding how he felt.

What’s great about the letter, other than giving the public a peek into how a company responds internally to events of significant impact, is what Spiegel says about keeping secrets, specifically, the benefits of a company keeping secrets regarding its work.

“We keep secrets because we get to do our work free from judgment – until we’re ready to share it. We keep secrets because keeping secrets gives you space to change your mind until you’re really sure that you’re right.

“We care about taking the time to get things right. Secrets help us do that.

“Secrets keep the space between our community and the public – space that we need to feel safe in our expression and creativity.” (Evan Spiegel’s letter on Twitter.)

Yes! Exactly! As a writer, I keep quiet about what I’m working on for a couple of reasons. One, until I get to a point where a piece feels finished, it’s still nebulous to me. I don’t know where it’s going until I reach the end and I’ve done an initial polish or two. I will not share a work-in-progress because I don’t want the opinions of other people mid-way through the process. What do they know about what’s in my creative heart? As Spiegel says, I need space to change my mind, but I sure as heck don’t need outside judgment that could fog up my thoughts on a piece.

Two, I find that talking too much about my writing causes me to lose interest in the topic. I’ve read about this in books that give writing advice and it’s true. Too much blabbing makes it feel as though I’ve already written a piece and the passion heads straight out of my mouth only to be lost in the air.

The one person I implicitly trust with work-in-progress is my husband. He listens while I try to talk through the sticky parts, but he doesn’t interject his opinions about where a piece should go. He knows that I mostly need a sounding board so I can work things out myself. He’s also willing to hear me blather on about exciting stuff I find while doing research. And, my husband doesn’t tell others about what I’m working on. He, unlike the Sony hackers, knows how to keep a secret.

Reading Textbooks for Fun

readingYou know you’re long out of college when you read textbooks for fun. It helps when you can choose your own textbooks and when they are particularly attractive.

I’m currently reading “Designing Brand Identity” by Alina Wheeler. It discusses the ins and outs of what it takes to brand and re-brand organizations. What’s great about the book is the spare amount of writing to convey what brand designers need to know. The cover and layout are beautiful. The end sheets are a deep hot pink. The book contains plenty of real-world examples of branding projects.

The other book I’m reading is “100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design” by Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne. Any book about graphic design that isn’t packed with pictures and a wonder to behold ought to be illegal. “100 Ideas” is well within the law in terms of its design. And I’m learning a ton about various graphic design techniques that were so revolutionary when introduced that they’ve become standard for designers today.

If these books aren’t technically textbooks, they certainly should be.

Designing Brand Identity, Fourth Edition, by Alina Wheeler.
Designing Brand Identity, Fourth Edition, by Alina Wheeler.
100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, by Steven Heller & Veronique Vienne.
100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, by Steven Heller & Veronique Vienne.

A New Bone Study

art_designAs I was posting photos of drawings on my portfolio page, it dawned on me that I haven’t done a bone study since college. I love bone studies and rock studies, anything that has me really working with chiaroscuro. So, I printed a few pictures of bones from the internet yesterday and sat down to draw this:

Skull study, pencil, Mary Warner, 12/14/2014.
Skull study, pencil, Mary Warner, 12/14/2014.

If you want to see the pic I used to draw the skull, visit this page.

I think the forehead on mine is a bit short, but considering I drew this in about an hour after having not done a bone study in over two decades, I’d say it’s passable. The teeth were a challenge. Mine look a touch more happy than the original.

World Discovery: The Macro Setting

tipsMy lovin’ spouseful Erik spent some time watching a video today on how to take photos for posting items for sale online. The single most useful piece of information he took away from the video was truly a major world discovery for both of us. If you want to take close-up photos, check to see if your camera has a Macro setting.

We have owned our digital camera for 7 or 8 years and have struggled to take decent close-up photos the entire time. Guess what? It has a Macro setting. Erik tried it and found that he could take a clear photo of small text from about an inch away.

Who knew? Now we do, and you do too. Check your camera for a Macro setting.