A Beginning from an End: My Origination Story

Posted on September 17, 2010

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A tornado walloped Brooklyn last night, and on the bus ride home it hit me that for the first time in my adult life, I’m having fun writing. This realization sprang not from the electrical currents in the air but from the simple fact I’m reliving the most painful moments of my creative expression from a safe distance. My last post ended with my learning about Joe Strummer’s death in December 2002; this entry must flashback there again for the purposes of exploring my core motivation for writing The Nowhere in the Middle.

My beloved Miss Cleo, with Strummer smoldering away in the background

I don’t know that many writers anymore, but I think it’s fair to say we all hold beginnings dear. As much as I wish my stories came pre-structured–beginning, middle, end, BOOM!–I love their initial shapelessness. I deal in moments so passing and yet important I want to pin them down like butterflies under glass for later observation. Take that hot-cold minute after I swallowed the news about Strummer. I could hear my parents buzzing upstairs, happy to have their city daughter back home in North Dakota. I could smell my mom’s home-cooked leftovers, timed for my late arrival. I should’ve been happy to be encased in a familial love bubble, but I was heart-smashed.

A middle-aged stranger had keeled over in England, yet there I was crying furtively like a teenager from hell at 27. My sadness, I reprimanded myself repeatedly that Christmas, was unwarranted. I did not know Joe Strummer. He was not a brother, boyfriend, husband, friend, or father. He was an icon, a cathedral-sized composite of thousands of people’s projections, and how ridiculous of me to mourn, face down on my old trundle bed.

A few months passed. The Clash was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in March 2003, and before I knew it, my graduation from The New School had crept up on me like James Bond wrapped in Harry Potter’s invisi-blanket. I needed to flesh out my portfolio and beat back the insomnia and depression that were still dogging me from the spring before.

With my ancient mini ghetto blaster cranked to eleven, I began writing a short story about a sister obsessed with her older brother who leaves their North Dakota town at a young age, drawing, I think, on my latest rereading of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and, moreover, my grief over Strummer that I refused to acknowledge. After graduation, the story got so long that I called for an intervention with myself:

What are you doing, McCormack? You can’t write a novel, certainly not about punk rock and fandom! No one’s going to take you seriously. Remember what Elvis Costello said and do your best Jonathan Franzen impression.”

Only in New York; Chelsea, to be exact, on a Sunday afternoon

I have New York to thank for helping me shake off my insecurities and pull one foot out of the grave. Enveloped as she was in gloom, doom, and paranoia, I never for a second thought about leaving after 9/11. Underneath the howling of ghosts was the march of life, and to amplify that sound, I spent a lot of time walking around Kew Gardens, Queens, at night making mental lists of the people and ideas that made being alive wonderful.

At the top of those lists, always Joe Strummer. Lesson: Having heroes is important and grounding, not simply teenage, desperate, and hysterical. Strummer, I reminded myself upon reviewing more film footage, had put himself in the public eye not merely to be seen but to remind people of their humanity, a big job that deserved the honor of fiction.

Something in me started making the sound of Sammy Davis Jr. tap dancing. I experienced the beginnings of a calling, and it scared me shitless. Inspired, I took the feelings I experienced upon learning of Strummer’s death and envisioned a party scene, a classic Midwestern rager, with drunk kids spread over old couches and armchairs. A 1960s sunburst wall clock hanging crookedly over the head of our hero, Jilly Kilroy, who gets the news about Strummer from a nubile punkette:

Since I’d never lost an icon before, I didn’t know how to react or if I was allowed. The worst teeny-bopper clichés bubbled in my head, first and foremost, “But I loved him…,” as if I’d known Joe Strummer. But I did love him, and as true as it was, I couldn’t justify the emotion.

Two dozen eyes bored holes in me, willing the superfan to have a supermeltdown. That’s exactly what I gave them—tears streaming in rivers, rivulets, and tributaries; mascara and snot cascading.

Confession: this was the second hardest scene to write after the ending. I still don’t like it, and I will probably edit it again over the weekend. But it was my beginning, and I’ll always be grateful for it.

Blogging soundtrack:

  • Silence mostly, but some post-tornado rain and Blur’s “This Is a Low”
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