“connecting the dots, dealing with criticism & the essence of crowdfunding” (full text from my last talk)
a lot of people asked for this, so here it be: the text from my talk at Grub Street’s 2013 “The Muse and the Marketplace” conference.
they’d invited me about 6 months before the conference to give the keynote address, and they wanted me to talk about “the internet”.
i was going to give a very “rah-rah blogging!”, “rah-rah free content!”, “rah-rah whatever works for you, weirdo writer!” talk.
but then, about two weeks before i was due to give the talk, poem-gate happened.
i’d already written a response blog about the poem…but addressing a room of 800 writers about the internet, art, messiness, and “where we go from here” forced me to think deeper, work harder, and explain in a way that i probably wouldn’t have done if not given the platform. for that, i’m incredibly grateful to the grub street writers. they had no idea what dots they were accidentally connecting when they invited me to speak at their event.
here is the speech in its entirety, with a few little fixes, since i changed some things on the fly when i got up to the podium.
(i left it more or less as i wrote it, and it was written to be spoken, not read. but whatever. art.)
if you like it, please pass it along.
i love you.
KEYNOTE ADDRESS @ THE GRUB STREET WRITER’S 2013 “MUSE AND THE MARKETPLACE” CONFERENCE
if you’re a writer, or any kind of artist, this may be a familiar story:
do you remember when, as a kid, being outside on a field trip, perhaps even in a literal field, let’s say, on a day-long journey with teachers and students, outside of the usual rhythms of school life and recess and familiar spaces – and you found yourself straying from the topics and the tasks at hand?
and you made discoveries.
and connections, wandering off with your own imagination.
and you were excited with your discoveries of the moment, in a new space, and maybe you held them up proudly saying:
did you ever notice that
the shapes on this leaf look like the cracks in this puddle of ice, look like the veins on the back of my hand, look like the pattern on the back of her sweater…
connecting the dots between things.
maybe you thought it.
maybe you had the impulse to say it out loud.
and if you said it, you may have been encouraged. you may have delighted and amused those around you.
or you may have been discouraged.
you may have been told, calmly: this is not the time for that.
today isn’t “looking for patterns” day!
today is science day.
this is the time for collecting data.
to fill in your worksheet, this is the time to get back in line and answer the correct questions.
but your urge was to connect the dots, because that’s what interested you.
and maybe you saw the lights go on in the eyes of your friend, as you shared your discovery, and you took a kind of a pride in this.
and if you were sent to the back of the line, and told to “shape up”…
this may have been the moment where you decided that being an artist was an embarrassing PAIN IN THE ASS and not worth the trouble.
(and this was when you decided you were going to be an astronaut. up there, where you could eat delicious powdered ice cream all day and be ALONE.)
but the impulse, to connect the dots, and to share what you’ve connected:
this urge is what makes you an artist.
the formats are infinite; fiction, fantasy, poetry, blogging, tweeting – doesn’t matter:
if you’re putting down words to connect the dots, you’re a writer.
picasso said something along the lines that “every child is an artist. the problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.”
i think, when we were young, when we envisioned our future selves as artists, we pictured ourselves somehow being hauled (or hauling ourselves) over that mythical fence where we’d leave behind the ranks of amateurs, hacks and other wannabes and bask in the glow of the arrival on the other side, where those waiting titles start to sound almost erotic: “published” (for the musician, “signed”) …legitimate! recognized as authentic!
ah…to be introduced at a grown-up cocktail party by a famous artist twice your age as “the real deal”.
so who does that? where does it come from?
or maybe: who used to do it, and who does it now?
does it have to come from above, or can it come from each other?
….because, in the wise words of bob dylan, more or less: shit is changing, and it’s changing FAST.
it’s changing at the speed of the internet.
i remember the first time i realized that my blog was actually a place for “real” art, and not just some semi-artistic smart-sounding rendering of what was happening with my band and in my life.
it was november 2005 and the dresden dolls were off tour, recording some music at home here in boston.
i went for a walk in the public garden, right here, reflecting on everything that was going on around me, with a song by casey dienel in my headphones and i saw something unusual. bobbing there, in the murky waters of the swan boat pond, surrounded by dying fall vegetation, there was an green empty bottle of miracle-gro. i thought this was the saddest and most hilarious thing i’d ever seen. the dots started to connect.
if i hadn’t had a blog, it would have been a song. if i hadn’t learned piano, it might have just been a poem. the format, doesn’t matter so much.
i went home, wrote a blog that was sort of a poem and sort of not, remember reading back what i’d written and thinking: this is art. it’s “writing”. the dots connected, i shared.
and back then, i had a small blog readership, and the heads nodded in the distance at what i wrote.
that’s all i needed. it never occurred to me to try to “publish” anything i’d written. as far as i was concerned, i had “published” it…on my blog.
and back then, the chances that ANYONE would read my little dot-connection/blog/poem/whatever-you-wanna-call-it other than my small fanbase, were slim.
hyper-speed-linking-content barely existed. twitter and facebook and tumblr weren’t rampant. i was just reaching ahead of me in line, in that distant field, to my schoolfriends, saying LOOK. THIS looks like THIS. and my friends – through the internet – nodded and smiled.
so: the title of this conference is “muse and the marketplace”. and while i was musing to myself about this speech, and what to share, another image struck me, and it was this:
the one in the attic.
i’ve thought about it before when asked about the music business.
the garrett belongs to that set of romantic notions we all had or have, painters, writers, musicians, and how they work.
with a pen, a paintbrush, a piano. by candlelight. alone. the space is isolated and fraught with artistic tension. drunk. chainsmoking. agonizing. creating. up here. in the garrett. separate.
down to the ground floor, out the front door: you have the marketplace. loud. the stalls of exchange. the sound of bargaining and bartering and changing cash registers. it’s crass.
literally mundane compared to the garrett. it’s on and of the earth.
i give you goats, you give me bread.
i give you a handful of coins, you give me a paperback.
i give you an amex, you give me a best buy giftcard.
the marketplace is NOT “artistic”. it’s “commerce”.
but the building that supports the garret – let’s call it “the machine between”, “the middlemen”, “the translator between the art-maker and the audience” – is collapsing, changing, into a level digital playing field where anyone can connect with anyone.
artists are now empowered to distribute their work THEMSELVES. THEIR writing, THEIR music, infinitely and at their own will – without printing presses, without record manufacturing.
from your lips and pen to the readers ears and eyes…via their internet connection.
but in order to do that, to share directly, you have to leave the garret and go down to the bustling marketplace, where you have to deal with PEOPLE. dealing with PEOPLE sucks.
in the age of the independent “social artist” (as i believe this age is becoming), the question echoes again and again everywhere i go: what about PJ Harvey, what about elliott smith, what about the introverted or anti-social artists who have no desire to leave the garrett and enter the marketplace?
it is the WILD WEST down there in the marketplace of the internet.
carrying your fragile newborn work wrapped in a blanket through the stalls can be agonizing. the marketplace is dangerous. it’s dirty, it’s loud and filled with disease and pickpockets and naysayers and critics. it’s easier NOT to do it.
but there is another option, which is:
to YELL from your window.
to call to your friends below, your comrades in art and metaphor, and invite them up to a private party in your garrett.
this is the essence of crowdfunding.
finding your people, your listeners, your readers, and making art for and with them. not for the masses, not for the marketplace or the critics, but for your hopefully ever-widening circle of friends. and you aren’t totally protected from criticism. the minute you lean out that window and try to find your friends, you might get hit with a rock, and if you look down, you’ll see a lot of this from down there (*raises middle finger up to the sky*). you’ve got to learn to ignore that.
but you’ll also see people quietly heading to your door and knocking.
let them in. and tell them to bring their friends up.
and if possible: provide wine.
if you’re not social (and a lot of writers are NOT) you’ll have a harder time doing this.
connection always comes with risk.
art and commerce have never, ever been easy bedfellows, and the problems inherent in mashing together artistic expression and money don’t go away, they just…change form.
nowadays the harshest middle fingers are the ones that scream to artists who try to get help and funding:
“stop self-promoting. it’s shameless!!”
no writer wants to hear this.
these are the words we fear when we think twice about giving our work to ANYBODY, and asking them to read it, or help us.
but the problems of our age are just these.
the doors and windows are wide open due to the internet having come along as a tool, and you can choose how to use it. you will find an audience if your work is good and you put it out there, but with every wonderful connection you make online, there’s more potential for criticism.
and the criticism on the internet can be NASTY.
for every bridge you build with your community, there’s a new set of trolls who squat underneath it.
i asked my twitter feed last night if there were any writers out there, and, it being a friday night, there were thousands ready and waiting.
and i asked: WHAT makes you feel like an actual writer? was there a moment. answer however you want. and hundreds of responses flooded in, and i looked for themes. some people said”
“when i first got paid”
“when i first got published”
“when i got my first real review”
…but a LOT of people said:
“when somebody told me that my writing moved them. that was the moment.”
some of these people wrote blogs, some wrote books, all different styles…the format didn’t matter.
what mattered is that they’d moved another human being. nobody said they felt authenticated when they got their first negative blog comment, or bad review. (well there was one girl who said that her boyfriend insulted her for calling herself a writer because she never spent any time writing. so she quit her job and started writing. that was a happy ending, more or less….)
but mostly: we’re strengthened by those who nod at the dots that we connect.
a few weeks ago, we experienced a tragedy here.
the marathon bombing.
it was terrifying for everybody.
i spent the day on twitter, talking with people near and far about what was happening, what to do, how we were feeling, we coped, as a group.
and three mornings later, i woke up in cambridge to catch a train to new york, i turned on the radio and was told to stay in my house.
i left anyway, on the drive to new york i listened to the news with neil, my husband, for four hours, i cried a lot, i spent a strange and surreal weekend in new york.
i came home to boston on monday with a head full of tragic news reports, mashed up with a hard set of personal decisions i had to make with neil, and a haunting idea floating in my brain of a 19-year old boy, who, having inflicted terrible pain and death on a lot of people, having watched his brother die, and holding the enormity of his actions of the last few days in his own head, was hiding in the bottom of a boat.
i cannot deny i didn’t wonder how that felt.
that’s what i do. i wonder. i try to connect the dots. and i can only connect the dots that i see.
so back in boston, right before leaving for a lunch with some friends in a cafe bookstore in cambridge, i wrote a 10-minute stream of consciousness poem/blog about those connections, about that wondering, over a cup of coffee, posted it, and went to lunch with neil.
i checked in, and my readers read it and it got some nice comments.
heads nodded in the garrett.
but by the end of the day, i’d been called a terrorist-lover.
and soon, i was getting death threats.
for posting a blog, in which i dared to wonder how another human being felt?
and this WAS the general theme of the criticism: how dare you? how dare you empathize?
and worse: how dare you shamelessly self-promote and write a poem about this?
a slew of press has come out in the last week or so, not about me, but about everybody wondering if this “trend of empathy has gone too far”.
i think that’s fucked up.
to erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the act of art. to imagine how another human being feels, to connect the dots?
shakespeare. fiction. horror. sci-fi. poetry: this is what you’re doing.
imagining yourself into an unimaginable place.
the format is irrelevant.
you’re connecting the dots.
something really weird happened in those next few days….political extremists who hated my blog post started writing haikus and limericks in response.
some were really well-thought out, parodies of my own poem, and some were more along the lines of:
roses are red
violets are blue
fuck you fuck you
fuck you fuck you
and my own readers started to write their own poems. everybody was posting poetry in my blog comments.
then i found out that it national poetry month.
my first-thought-best-thought-whatever 10 minute poem had 250,000 views. it was so weird, and…embarrassing.
man, if i’d known that 250,000 people were going to read what i’d written i’d have written something SO. MUCH. BETTER.
but if i’d written something so much better, i wouldn’t have written it, if you get what i mean.
first thought, best thought, out. it belonged to its moment.
with the internet – you don’t get to choose.
when you open the door to your garret, or you walk around down in the market, all bets are off.
how do you put your work out on the net and find an audience, knowing how messy it can get, how open to criticism it can leave you?
a few days after this blew up, i posted a blog deconstructing my own poem and talking about the ingredients that went into it. in other words, explaining the dots i’d been connecting. a lot of people weighed in to the conversation and talked about their own take on the poem, on art, on writing, on the internet.
a boston globe writer wrote an article titled: “the problem with amanda palmer’s poem was that….it was about amanda palmer”.
well, it’s true. of course.
we can only write about what we can see.
we can only connect the dots we collect.
which makes everything you write about you.
what you write is you. what i write is me.
my neighbors, my thoughts, my paranoia, the frightened conversations i overhear, what i read in the news, my childhood drama, my understanding of shakespeare, and odysseus and the wine dark sea, and of the brady bunch, and bukowski. MY connections all go into the stew. that’s all you ever have. you can disguise it in any style, but it’s still you.
kerouac said: “the only thing i had to offer was my own confusion”.
your connections are the threads you weave into the cloth that is the story only you can share.
so back to the marketplace and the garrett.
the door is unlocked.
people may enter without knocking.
they may crash your party and drink your wine.
let them in.
let them drink.
you may meet somebody interesting.
i wrote an email to the boston globe journalist after that article was published, since i knew him from around town and had his address, and we talked. and i found out that he was shaken, as i was, by the events of the last few weeks. he’d had friends at the bomb site. we connected. it was okay.
these are scary times.
and when the world around you is in a moment of panic and chaos
and parents are hanging onto their kids
and people are falling to their knees and praying
and people are gathered around screens in bars and saying OH MY GOD
and the noises overhead are either threateningly loud or deafeningly silent
and the fingers start pointing in every direction
and some are shaking in fear
and some are stabbing in anger
may find yourself ….
doing what you did as a child
have you ever noticed
and you may tie those two ideas together with a metaphor
of gauze, a bandage,
and people might shout:
THIS IS NOT THE TIME FOR ART
THIS IS NOT THE TIME FOR METAPHOR
THIS IS CERTAINLY NOT THE TIME FOR ART ABOUT YOU
once you’ve shared your art and it’s resonated with a single person, it’s no longer about you.
once you share it, it is about US.
and if your art is found by a single soul, and shared with a friend, who links it to a friend….
in the response, you start to see how art becomes about everybody, just through the act of being shared.
(this is the way the internet is beautiful.)
but you, as the writer, have to weather the critics.
you have stay in the field.
to still wake up
and take up your pen
and connect the dots
because they need connecting
we need people willing to wonder and risk the embarrassment of asking, in the newspaper, in a book published by penguin, or on tumblr, or in a tweet…
“have you ever noticed….
this is your job.
why would you want to do this?
why would you want to risk the pain?
the evil of blog comments,
and if you’re lucky:
a bad review in the new york times?
self-publishing, without “authentication”, without the wand of legitimacy brushing your shoulder, it’s scary.
and there’s self-publishing a BOOK (which at least RESEMBLES something REAL)….and then there’s “posting your shit to the internet”.
but i’ve found:
what resonates, resonates.
so are you willing – in this new era, where you might never get authentication from a publisher, or a newspaper, or something big and legit – are you willing to accept that a party in a garrett with a bunch of groovy people helping you pay your rent (and buy your ink, and keep your fridge stocked) is ENOUGH? because this is what it’s coming to.
when you go directly to the internet, and publish something: it is your words, unfiltered, no fancy artwork and title, no marketing campaign, no autotune, no praise.
your voice, to the world. nothing to hide behind.
had i jotted down my poem in my journal and typed it up a few weeks later and then decided, a few years later, to maybe include it in an anthology of random amanda-palmer writings, would it have gotten read?
probably. by some benevolent friends in my garret.
now i’m not suggesting in the slightest, that you forsake your painstakingly edited work, your protected, hidden, well-groomed and agonized-over treasures, and post them to the fucking internet tomorrow.
but you can, if you want, find a crowd. an audience that will resonate with you….without the permission from “on high”.
because anything you write can change somebody.
can change an opinion, open an eye, scratch an opening in a scarred-up heart of a human being.
and it doesn’t matter how you do it.
if your writing is good, if it resonates.
if it connects the dots for ANYBODY out there…the lovers will come. the haters will come.
support will come, sometimes in the form of money, sometimes in the form of something less expected.
it balances out.
no amount of criticism that i’ve gotten in the past few weeks, could defeat the experience i had on thursday night in san francisco:
i was at the fillmore, playing at a tribute concert of a great songwriter robyn hitchcock, and while colin meloy was on stage singing one of robyn’s songs i weaved my way onto the floor among the hundreds of people gathered there, and was watching, with total joy, a musician i respected playing songs i loved.
and a woman with long grey hair turned around between two songs, and she grabbed my arm and she said to me:
“thank you for writing a poem”.
and i thought “oh, the fucking drama, it wasn’t even a great poem”.
but the squeeze of her hand on my arm and the way she looked at me said:
“doesn’t matter. doesn’t matter.
thank you for connecting the dots, for trying.”
these are crazy times
whether they aren’t ever aren’t crazy times, i don’t know, i doubt it.
but i do know
this IS the time for metaphor.
this IS the time for art.
this IS the time for art about you.
because you, and them, and me….we’re all the same.
we all feel pain, we all bleed red.
and if nobody else will say it to you….
thank you for writing.
thank you for connecting the dots, for trying.
pick a format, any format….and i hope to see you out there, in the field.
p.s. here’s the blog that eve bridburg, the founder of grub street, wrote about this speech. it’s beautiful, and connects even more dots: bit.ly/WhoDecidesBlog
p.p.s. here’s a link to that old miracle-gro blog. it’s a good one: bit.ly/blog111905