Coq au vin. That’s what brought together the meeting of minds from which I stole the idea to write this – it always comes back to the food. A Ghanaian photographer I have long admired for his vivid work is visiting Atlanta. We share a mutual best friend and a predilection for all arts sartorial, so, when he alerted me, via Instagram, of his presence in our little town, I knew I’d have to have him over for one of my dinner-salons. Days of kitchen prep later and hours after borrowing from the culinary prowess of Buvette’s Jody Williams, the coq was cuit and the candles lit, ready for a supper and super conversation.
“Guys, Rodney is one of Ghana’s leading figures in photographic art!” I exclaimed, introducing him to the close coterie that had gathered to partake in dish ideas stolen from culinary artists ranging from Jean-George Vongerichten to Thomas Keller , sprinkled with a few of my own paltry spice. “Am I?” he questioned, with a chuckle.
And a loaded “Am I” it is indeed. Several glasses of Beaujolais noveau into the night, with all the dishes stacked and our brains soaked in fat, Rodney Quarcoo and I sat in my living room to drink more of the bottled spirit of truth that would surely lead to turning and turning in the existential gyre. I soon found out that Rodney was not being facetious or self-deprecating when he responded to my characterization of him with those two pregnant words. I found out that he, like many of us that foray into the artistic realm, feels like downright impostor, especially since he “fell into his art,” as he terms it.
The imposter syndrome: the feeling that one is a fraud, always on the precarious precipice of being found out; the belief that one’s successes are as a result of some concatenation of felicity and the foolishness of everyone else to fall for your farce; the failure to even attempt to partake in one’s craft for fear one’s voice is not of merit. Where had I heard this narrative before? Of course! But of course! It is the story of my own heart; the cacaphony in my own head; the voice often louder than my voice that has drowned out many a blog post and out danced much of the choreography that lives in my head. But where else had I heard this tale? Ah, yes! Years ago, I heard (or read) somewhere that Cary Grant, born Archibald Leach, the gallant star of Hollywood’s golden age, never quite felt he was Cary Grant. The man who embodied the vituperative wit of C.K. Dexter Haven and he who capered his way right into my heart with comedic charm as Mortimer Brewster, never saw himself as more than the boy from Bristol? Unbelievable. In his own private Idaho, even Cary Grant was merely Archie Leach.
How dare I identify myself as a writer when I cannot churn out prose in the poetic hand of Toni Morrison, constructing sentences at once historic and prophetic? How dare I call myself a thinker when Czelsaw Milosz has, more eloquently than I could ever divine, thought of and said everything I could ever have to say? (As I type these words, I fight paralysis by the resonant echo that I am rehashing something that has already been said and doing so with far less sophistication than those before me) How dare I, Peter Quince, depress this clavier with any conviction, when knowing the very little that I do proves to me that I know nothing at all? And worst of all, do I dare to dive into the whole mess of being and doing, for fear that like the emperor in his duds, it will all end in a whimper when I am outed as a charlatan, a lacernist of ideas, a fraud?
We often, conflate being something – and we are many things: “multitudes”, in the words of Whitman – or being successful at doing something with being paid to do that thing. So then, there is the lasagana effect of piling, on top of the a doubt in one’s abilities that is all too universal, the fact that one is not rewarded for– in the currency of notoriety or coinage– what one does. This stratification of distractions yield a pudding of fear that is deep and dense to slice. A congealed fear that leads as back to the eternal, “Am I?” To that question, Austin Kleon, in his book, Steal Like An Artist, which Rodney introduced me to that night offers this:
If I’d waited to know who I was or what was about before I started “being creative,” well, I’d still be waiting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience, it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are”
In other words, just get out there and do “it”, be “it”; that is the only way in which you will become “it”. The becoming is in the being. the more I engage with those people of whose successes I stand in awe, the more I realise that we are all drinking some cocktail of doubt and delirium and certitude and courage, shaken together in varying measure. In fact, as Yeats would have it, ” The best lack of all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” And perhaps just as well, for who knows what would be if we were parted with all of our angst? Stealing from Tennessee Williams, “If we got rid of [our] demons, we might lose [our] angels.” But, even in the presence of the fear, the absence of which is not the confused with courage, by all accounts, what counts is being brave enough to inhabit the life of the fraud you accuse yourself of being. The truth is if we let fear – the fear of being found out, the fear of mockery, the fear that no one is listening, the fear that everyone is listening – if we let that fear metastasize, the cancer will cripple us. Show up! Show up until you delude yourself into believing yourself and believing in yourself. Be your biggest constructive critic but never your own denigrating detractor, there are enough people in the world waiting in the wings to do that work for you.
“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”- Isabel Allende
When President Obama was asked by the blog, Humans of New York, when he felt the most broken in life, his answered not only about that time, but about the “one thing that got [him] through the moment”, and that was “making it about the work” :
“…if you’re worrying about yourself—if you’re thinking: ‘Am I succeeding? Am I in the right position? Am I being appreciated?’ — then you’re going to end up feeling frustrated and stuck. But if you can keep it about the work, you’ll always have a path.”
There is so much in this world we cannot control. When I woke up yesterday it was 12 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Trust me, if I had a direct line to the weather gods, Atlanta would not be the tundra it is right now. But, the things we can control, boy can we control them if we, forgive the Nike-ism, just do it. As a somatic practitioner, the truths I learn through my body are the ones that stick to my bones. Yoga teaches me the power of just showing up and doing doing doing. I only learnt to kick up into handstand by repeatedly throwing my limbs at the wall with reckless abandon. My practice has revealed to me that where I do have agency, fear is a far more mountainous impediment than a lack of strength, flexibility or any other -ility. My practice has revealed to me that practice is the thing. The same is true for the endeavour of art, and frankly, in all matters of being: show up and do it. Keep it about the work.
And as for that fear of authenticity, that panic that one has nothing new to say, that keeps us from “the work”, please don’t make me quote Lauryn Hill here (rhymes with ” my ting done made your kingdom dun run”). In order to create, “steal!” says Kleon. “Pilfer!”, says Jim Jarmusch, the director of that languid beauty of a film, Only Lovers Left Alive. After all, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is Swan Lake, Birdman is just the existential angst of Elsinore of yore transported to modern day New York with a drumline; even Thomas Keller’s Pavé Potatoes are, simply, a gratin. There may be nothing new to say or do, but the one permutation that makes your addition mathematically different from the rest is the inclusion of you and how you do it. Who knows whom and how your how will reach? And because it is you, it will be new.
So, Am I? Am I a valid voice? Do I have a place in conversation about fashion and style, and on the musings of beauty and being? Is Rodney a photographer? Are we, dare I ask it, artists? Whatever the answer to that question, never mind. There are no artists, just people feeling around in the dark, making things, from barista to couturier. Rod and I suited up on a lugubriously rainy day, Rod with his camera and me with a panoply of stripes. We met at a friend of mine’s studio at the Arts Exchange, an achingly decrepit edifice almost romantic in its languishing abandon. Within the cold and wan walls, his mother-in-law and my friend, Tom, present and feeding our frenzy- we laughed, I strutted in the outfit i threw together, he clicked his shutter, we laughed some more. We made…something.
Photo by Rodney Quarcoo
Then, I woke up this morning to find we had been stolen from. Young Ghanaian illustrator, Kobe Adu, as a complete surprise to me, posted his own incarnation of what Rod and I had synthesized a few days ago, with the caption “How ecstatic is your flash?” “It just came to me!” he texted. And so it goes, from conception of idea to the courage to do it, for no reason at all, to transposition through a conduit of graphite and felt-tipped pen, the idea is built upon: the other lasanga effect. Lasagna. That’s how the weekend of creativity in the kitchen ended, in case you were wondering. The Smitten Kitchen’s Lasagna Bolognaise was still bubbling in my belly when we took these pictures.
“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”
What I Wore: Dress: Top Shop, Jacket: Ducie, Shoe: Christian Louboutin, Bag: Céline, Sunglasses: Céline, Bracelets: Hermes, Kenneth Jay Lane