Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 87

Hi.

Coffee: Maxwell House Drip, Office Coffee

I read part of an article about Camille Billops, an artist. I only read part because it’s been that kind of day – partial. I’m don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, but what I read left an impression.

Camille Billops was a prominent artist who started her work in the 60’s. She created and advocated for black art through and beyond the civil rights movement. But the point of the article was: at the cusp of her career, she took her four-year-old daughter to a Children’s Home and left her there.

There’s no way to know what someone else is thinking, even if they tell you. We hardly understand ourselves and rarely vocalize the parts we do. But at least publicly, Billops’s choice to give up her daughter was a drive for independence, a rejection of the mandate for motherhood that trapped and continues to trap women, and a choice to give up family in order to freely pursue her art.

It’s the last one that gets me.

I think a lot about balance – work-life, freedom-responsibility, healthy eating-loving chocolate – and in particular about the balance between everything else and art. Because the split really is that big, isn’t it? When you’re in the act of creating something, that’s all you’re doing. It’s all of you – all your life, love, blood and energy. You take people and places that are vividly real and send them through the woodchipper. If your art is going to have power, you have to feed it everything precious in your life for fuel. Billops fed it her daughter. Jury’s out what sorts of things I’m burning for fuel.

I was at the Nasher a few years ago seeing an exhibit on Southern artists. There was a piece, a vivid portrait, abstracted. My friend and guide told me the artist had a sad story. He’d gotten so caught up in his art that he’d withdrawn from his family, gotten depressive, and driven his loved ones away. My friend thought that was awful. I did too, but it made a lot of sense to me.

But maybe it’s all a trick. Maybe that reclusive tendency to sacrifice your friends and family to some myth of ‘genius’ has darker motives. You’ve got to have something in the first place in order to give it up. And if you can give up damn near everything and still survive, that implies you’re living with a modicum of success or comfort backing you. The artistic rejection of the world is always an act of privilege. It’s something that says: “I don’t need you.” You might climb the mountain, but you do so without making room at the summit for anyone else, and with some sense of security that you’ll make it there. The ‘starving artist’ is a myth. No-one has time to both starve and make art.

Anyway, that was all a long and rambling way to say that art and ethics sometimes collide and that’s not easy. Today was also a rambling day.

Currently Reading: NOTHING! Couldn’t get back into Bourdain, no matter how much I tried; will pick a new book soon

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In the nearly 60 years since Camille Billops made the decision to give up her daughter, she has become an internationally recognized artist and filmmaker.

Sasha Bonet, The Artist Who Gave Up Her Daughter, published in Topic Magazine

Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 70

Hi.

Coffee: Cafe Pajaro, Trader Joe’s Brand; waking up an hour late, I barely even tasted it; baggage check at an airport.

I went to CAM Raleigh, a contemporary art museum. All the art was local.

I’ve got mixed feelings about art museums, or at least about urban art museums in up-and-coming techno capitals like Raleigh. They’re a good thing, an outlet, not a lot of ways to show your art. That said, the art they show tends to talk about (and come from) the communities being pushed out by wealthy, techno-global business and the amenities made to serve them – including, of course, contemporary art museums.

I walked around the museum in the mid afternoon. The artwork ranged from oil paints to mixed media. I liked some pieces, disliked others. Much of the art was chasing something about the black American experience. I can’t comment on whether it caught it because that’s not my experience. Behind me, following about six feet away around the entire museum, a dad and mom and two daughters were talking about the pieces. One of the daughters was saying things like ‘chiaroscuro’ and her dad was saying how smart she is. At a different corner, a five year old was crying because she couldn’t touch the paints.

One good moment: downstairs, in the farthest corner, was an installation by Jasmine Best. Best is from Greensboro, near where I grew up. She’d strung a room from floor to ceiling with a facsimile of a southern, screened-in front porch. The porch was made of quilted fabric, and so was the mosquito net, the chairs, the potted plants, everything was quilt. Nearby, a recording played sounds of windchimes. Nostalgic. I stood there as long as I could, letting the families walk in and out. When I left, I felt like I’d remembered something that hadn’t ever happened to me but was vivid and real all the same.

Currently Reading: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain

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Like a mother, a front porch offers protection and tries its best to keep undesired objects out; or more importantly, to keep the child in. But just like a mother there are limits to how much it can actually shield.

Jasmine Best, About her Installation Screened In


Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 12

Hi.

Coffee: Americano, Caribou Coffee; I had a conversation about Caribou Coffee with my coworker. She likes the blonde blends. I tell her I’m stuck on espresso. She describes a calm Sunday morning sipping coffee and pouring juice for her daughter. Sweet and warm. Maybe I’ll try the blonde next time.

2Chainz just dropped his fifth studio album. As such, he’s on an interview tour to promote. I watched his sit-down with The Breakfast Club. He talks about feeling underrated. 2Chainz – multi-millionaire, real estate mogul, syndicated TV personality, worldwide recognizable artist – feels underrated. He feels like people underestimate his art. He might be right. Regardless, that all got me thinking:

How do you define success for yourself?

Six years ago, I was applying to MFA’s at the same time as a close friend. My friend got accepted, I didn’t. I took him out to dinner at a burger joint in Greensboro to celebrate. I told him flat out: “I’m proud for you, but jealous as hell.” We laughed about it, but the envy had gone past green to yellow. I set to writing short stories, ended up with ‘Chessboard and Tequila,’ and submitted it to sixty lit journals until it was published in ‘Prick of the Spindle.’ When I told my friend, he took me out to celebrate. And he told me he was proud for me but terribly jealous.

I read a different article about artists generally. It was in The Atlantic, written by a neuroscientist, and was one of those pieces that pop up every few years trying to link creativity to particular brain activity. It wasn’t terribly successful, but of all the corollaries, the most reliable seemed to be a link between artistic tendency and anxiety. These were people who described great satisfaction in their work but whose brains were constantly wracked with worry. No matter what you create, it won’t match your aspirations.

That’s a negative note to end on, so instead I’ll leave with this: ego’s double-edged – you might build mountains for yourself, but in the same breath you’re building climbing gear to get yourself up them.

Novel Count: 29,630

Currently Reading: Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami; FINISHED!

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Psychedelic flow, I’m the dope and the antidote.

2Chainz, Money in the Way – Rap or Go to The League


Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 10

Hi.

Coffee: Sumatra Medium Dark, Trader Joe’s Brand

I finally finished reading ‘Killing Commendatore.’ I read the last chapter while rain came down outside. The book rushes to a climax then wraps things up with an extended epilogue. It feels unfinished, but I think it’s supposed to feel that way. The book was about art – why you love it, why you make it, what it does to you.

For a couple months, I was convinced I’d eventually cut the Coffee Log down to a weekly blog. This was last year, September and October. Life was hectic at the time. I was applying for a new job. I was sitting on a stack of lit journal rejections. I was trying to work things out with an old lover so we could still be friends. I was drinking tall drinks in the aftermath of learning that – at least for a while – we couldn’t. And there I was writing one of these every day.

It was exhausting.

It still is.

My big fear was that I wouldn’t ever write anything else. Sometimes I’ll sit down and spit one of these logs out in the time it takes to blow out a nose full of pollen. Other times, they take over an hour. That’s a lot of life on the weekdays, and a lot of mental energy besides. I’ve learned to scrutinize my day-to-day for things to say in a way I never had before. It’s an invaluable skill, but draining.

So what room’s left for a novel in all of that?

It was Halloween that did it for me. Some friends were over. We were watching Over the Garden Wall. The night was dark and spooky and magic despite having to work the next morning. Halfway through the show, I stole off to my computer to write the daily Coffee Log. If you remember, that was a long one. It was a narrative. It was fiction. It was creepy. I wrote it on the spot and when it was done I felt full. I was a bunch of warm tossed towels spinning in a drier. The next day, I started working on my second book.

This has all been a long-winded way of saying that effort has consequences: good and bad. I feel drained. Sharing these stories daily has changed the way I live life. But at the same time, there’s a new effortlessness in sitting down to write.

‘Killing Commendatore’ is also Murakami finding a sort of religion. Nothing specific or labeled, but rather just belief. Learning to live life believing in something without any evidence for or against it. A kind of faith. I think you have to have that to be an artist. I think you have to have that to be much of anything. It’s scary walking a bridge alone. Sometimes you need someone to walk with you – whether that’s God, Science, or a simple Idea.

Novel Count: 29,417

Currently Reading: Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami; FINISHED!

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You can have all the desire and ache inside you want, but what you really need is a concrete starting point.

Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore


Coffee Log, Day 356

Hi.

Coffee: Sumatra Medium Dark, Trader Joe’s Brand

I read an article in the News & Observer about an art exhibit at the Cary Senior’s Center. Not exactly the Guggenheim, but no less important.

Anyway, here’s the short of it: Bing Weng is an artist from China. She comes to Cary last October to visit her daughter. While here, she gets a gig to show 38 paintings at the Senior Center. A couple weeks before the show, the center pulls three of the paintings. They display Xi Jinping with a dark hand over Asia. They are political, overtly. The rest of her work is mostly floral. It’s apolitical, overtly. The director says the works weren’t ‘consistent’ with her other pieces. And of course there were two public complaints.

America, right? Land of Freedom. You can say anything as long as it doesn’t say anything. But life’s not all roses. It’s the sun, the soil, the bugs that eat the roses, too. And why would you want to think about that?

It’s a popular line to say we’re too politically correct in 2019. And the opposite’s got some traction too, that our rhetoric is vile. I think those sentiments come from the same place: fear. We’ve been sitting comfortably for some time (those on the fortunate fringes, anyway). No need to worry about crushing poverty or oppression or global war. Those things happen where you can’t see them. And our culture wants to keep them there, because the minute you’re made to see the wretched green animals stalking around your garden, you’re damned with cowardice or apathy if you don’t stand up to do something about them.

But what do I know? I’m just another flower-painter.

Novel Count: 23,930

Currently Reading: Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami

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“When I am in China, I have no freedom of speech, so I couldn’t paint political work,” she said.

Bing Weng, quoted by Joe Johnson, ‘Chinese artist’s exhibit in Cary is missing 3 paintings. The town says they’re too political.’

Coffee Log, Day 335

Hi.

Coffee: Cafe Pajaro Extra Dark, Trader Joe’s Brand; quicker to grind than the Locomotive Blend that A gifted me; I was running late this morning; I’d been caught in a looping dream about running errands for 2Chainz; I enjoyed the coffee, though it made me wistful for celebrity friendships that could have been.

The first day back to work is always an adjustment. Long weekend, short weekend, extended vacation, it doesn’t matter, that day back is like the bathroom lightswitch: the first bright thing you see in the morning, abrasively glamouring as you’re still trying to rub open your eyes.

I don’t have much else to talk about today, so I’ll talk about my progress into ‘Killing Commendatore.’ I’m about 200 pages in out of a 700 total. So far, I’d say it’s one of Murakami’s better later-day novels. You can tell it was written by an aging man. You can also tell it was written by a professional writer. It likes to luxuriate in long passages about putting on a certain opera record, or fixing a cup of coffee. That is, it sits you down in daily doldrums and tells you to like it. I do like it. But I have to say I miss the vitality of some of his earlier works. I wonder if any artist catches fire after his/her first or second time? If you’ve spent all your life waiting to produce something, how can anything beyond that first creation have the same drive behind it?

Who knows. Though I’ve written many short stories and one novel, I’ve only had minor publications, and more importantly I still don’t feel like I’ve captured that initial glow. Each new work gets me closer, and I’m sure its the kind of thing that you know when you have it. Depending on how the current book pans out, maybe that’ll be it.

But this is supposed to be about Murakami. Go read ‘Killing Commendatore.’ It makes uninteresting things interesting. And if you do read it, tell me what you think.

Novel Count: 18,170

Currently Reading: Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami

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From a distance, most things look beautiful.

Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendator

Coffee Log, Day 320

Hi.

Coffee: Cafe Pajaro Extra Dark, Trader Joe’s Brand

My roommate was cooking eg-vocados for dinner and she had two extra so I had eg-vocados for dinner. To those not in the know, an ‘eg-vocado’ is just an egg baked in half an avocado. They were quite good.

Later on, we’re listening to music, a song she likes, and she tells me it sounds like the way you look at Christmas lights. And I think that’s perfect and I tell her. Which gets me thinking about what I love best about humanity, and what makes want to be an artist: simple metaphors.

I think there’s a good chance no-one else will listen to that song and spontaneously imagine it to be like looking at Christmas lights. There’s nothing about the song or about the lights that necessarily imply a connection. And even if you stared at both a long time, both under microscope and from as far away as outer space, you wouldn’t find any bit of the two contained in each other.

So E created a new connection. A tiny word bridge between two previously unrelated things. And it was a beautiful bridge, and now that I’ve been down it I can’t imagine the world without it.

That’s powerful.

When you’re a little kid, you only know your home. Then you get older and your horizons expand. That’s easy. That’s natural. Each new place is another notch of understanding, more knowledge of this large but finite planet. And when you’re good and grown, there’s a lack of magic – for me and I imagine for most people. You’ve already answered the big questions. You know what’s coming around the corner. Nothing in the world can surprise you.

But take two things and push them together and there’s something new. A book, a song, that’s art in a nutshell. It keeps you living long after you’ve burned life out. And it might just be divine – generating completely new, authentic content in a world that once existed without it. Spontaneous creation. A self-caused cause, of sorts.

But anyway, the night was good food and good company. I’m happy and full.

Novel Count: 12,143

Currently Reading: Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami

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Everything you can imagine is real.

Pablo Picasso