The daisy, extended.Posted: March 1, 2013
Amanda Palmer’s TED talk is really important to me. Here’s why.
Three years ago, when I was starting my novel and having a hard time finding a day job, I asked my community for help. I was really afraid to. I’ve always prided myself on being independent and self-sufficient—even today, it’s hard for me to ask for and receive help, especially financially. But the novel was trying to burn its way out of me. I had to find a place to rest and give birth. When I went to Ethiopia and India and the South Pacific on fellowship to research the novel, I’d asked who wanted to receive letters on the way, and about two hundred people said yes. Since these people knew about my project, and had responded very warmly to my letters, I figured they’d be worthwhile to approach.
This was before Kickstarter and IndieGogo. So I applied to Fractured Atlas, a well-established fiscal sponsorship organization for artists. Most of their clients are dance companies and theatre groups, but they said it was fine to be sponsored as an individual artist. I spent a lot of time crafting a letter to my mailing list, breaking down my expenses, listing my upcoming publications and productions. I added that in this economy, good wishes were just as welcome as donations. I asked LOTS of veteran fundraiser artist friends for advice. I promised donors “something pretty or weird in the mail,” which is now what Kickstarter does as a matter of course. Here’s a sample:
“No amount is too small. In many ways, I’m lucky to be a writer—compared to other artists, my overhead is blessedly low. All I need is time, space, food and coffee. I just moved into a cozy little apartment in Durham with a gas stove, plenty of sunlight, and a whole room devoted to writing (see the picture!). I’m doing my best to pull in money on my own through freelance and contract work, but the more freedom I have to write, the better.”
I sent it off and felt very nervous.
And then donations started coming in. The first was from an acquaintance I hadn’t spoken to in years (but have now happily reconnected with). There were donations from good friends, and donations from people I barely knew. And I never cared about the amount. It was always just the gesture, the connection. And that included those who took me at my word and replied, “I can’t afford anything right now, but best of luck with writing!” because that meant just as much. Plenty of people didn’t respond at all, and that was fine with me, too.
In this sea of positivity, two friends wrote me otherwise.
“I’m pretty appalled that you would send a mass email to your friends asking them to pay your rent. I would love to write full time too, but I have to work a day job and so do most of my peers. If I were to donate money to help someone with their bills, I certainly wouldn’t choose a privileged woman whose ‘artist’ status makes her exempt from the drudgery of employment.”
“I have to say I was pretty offended by your email. To have sent what is essentially an appeal for personal financial support to people who are themselves going through all sorts of financial and career difficulties seems like an insensitive move to me. It would be one thing to ask for donations toward an organization that was, say, contributing to relief efforts after that giant storm wiped out the place you’d stayed in Samoa, but soliciting personal gifts to subsidize your own living situation is something different. I know artists have worked in patronage-based systems for hundreds of years, but those are usually established crafters of something the public (or at least the cultural elite) has already deemed important, and that’s not really the case here, either.”
These really hurt.
I wrote to an officer at Fractured Atlas about whether responses like this were common. She wrote:
“I guess the reality of the situation is, some people don’t consider supporting an individual artist’s craft as important as say, giving the Metropolitan Museum or the Getty Museum support. It’s unfortunate, I completely disagree with it (for too many reasons to get into here) but, some people don’t understand how this is charitable or beneficial. It’s something many of our individual artists struggle with.”
And eventually I replied to my friend:
“Yes, patronage of the arts is as old as art itself. For example, theater companies and dance companies absolutely rely on patronage from family and friends, not to mention poets and composers and painters throughout history. They use that patronage to pay for their rent and their food. And as a writer, my expenses are more synonymous with living expenses than most other artists’.
For the past five years, I’ve made choices such that making art is at the center of my life. This is why I choose day jobs that don’t drain my creative energy (and yes, I am looking for a day job. I’ve applied for 124 positions at this point with no luck). This is why I live in a city with a low cost of living. This is why I’ve disciplined myself to sit down at a desk for at least two hours every day, unpaid, regardless of my financial situation, whether I like it or not.
If you had approached me to ask for a donation for further your ability to work in the arts, and allowed for the fact that financial times are tough, I would have gladly given what I could. I think it’s interesting that you had such a sharp reaction as a fellow artist/arts educator. Artists may work in isolation, but they live in a community. And they rely on each other. Period.”
She didn’t reply. I ended both friendships because I didn’t see a way forward, and I didn’t see any benefit to trying. I’m still glad I did.
The end result of the whole endeavor is, of course, that with the help of those donors, an awful but steady day job I eventually got at a pharmaceutical company, a residency at the Vermont Studio Center and a grant from the Durham Arts Council, I did finish the novel. It’s called The Girl in the Road. I sent it out and received four offers of representation. This week, I finally chose a fantastic agent who represents Barbara Kingsolver and Adrienne Rich, and who’s already pitching it to editors. (More on him later; he’s wonderful.) And when it gets published, I’m going to send a personalized copy to every single donor if I have to buy all the hardcovers myself.
But on the other hand, I think none of that matters. I think the act of asking, itself, is okay. I also think not giving anything—money or good wishes—is also totally okay, if you don’t have the funds, energy, or are simply not feeling the project. And this is why I love Amanda Palmer’s TED talk so much—she’s signaling a shift to a new creative economy, enabled by new technology.
It was always hurtful to shame someone for even asking. But now it’s also just passé.