A Timeline of Ecstatic Influence: An Addendum to Lethem

Posted on September 27, 2010

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It was inevitable that this ’90s print-schooled editor would wake up with a case of the “I’ve just posted a bum blog” blues. The culprit—“A Beginning from an End: My Origination Story”—attempted to reveal the emotional raison d’être of my novel but got bogged down in, well,  details. Of course, the more I pound out copy in this forum, the more I realize I’m doing exactly what I set out to do: excavate the micro- and macro-motivations that shrink and expand in every writer. That’s going to mean a lot of mediocre posts for every stand-out. Repetition, fuzziness, and fatigue will gate-keep clarity and vision, as always.

In "absorption stance" at the Museum of Modern Art: I have always needed other people to figure out myself

I don’t know if this post will cut through my mental noise—made even stronger by the 80-degree temperatures and lighting on the fall solstice—but here goes. All week long I’ve been wanting to mine ever deeper the concept of having heroes, or if that diction irks you, formative, life-changing influences. When I unknowingly started The Nowhere in the Middle in the spring of 2003, I was playing with the idea of honoring what was a very personal tendency of mine in a short story (because a novel was unwieldy). Progress, however, was impossible owing to my shame at carrying around so much admiration for Joe Strummer, who had died a few months earlier.

For whatever reason, I equated my attraction to him with lacking imagination and being overly emotional and therefore frivolous. From a dark corner of myself, a voice snarled, “Loser! A real artist doesn’t need inspiration to shine a light.” Of course, I came around to evicting this attitude, but not during most of the novel’s composition when it would’ve benefited me most. So that other writers won’t entertain their insecurities like irresistible but ultimately toxic ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends, I offer this addendum to Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” an incredible archaeology of borrowing and remixing in the arts that Cursor publisher Richard Nash brought to my attention.

Our Man reading in smart blazer circa 1978

As Lethem so definitively demonstrates, no one is complete without input—shit tons of the stuff. And yet there’s something in human beings even in the 21st century that insists the things that move us be pure of history, as if charisma was a product only of the womb and not an accumulation of experience. Take romantic love, in which we justify our self-involvement and obsessiveness by arguing that the person we’ve put on that pedestal is absolutely the only one of her or his kind, a new species created for our express enjoyment. This exercise in turn validates our own vanity: I am special, and therefore I anoint special people.

I would never dismiss this rite of passage—it’s essential we luxuriate in its highs and learn to survive the crushing fragility it introduces. But as people who have fallen out of punch-drunk love or been dumped on their mug will tell you, elevating someone to rarefied heights as if they have no connection to the living or dead is thankless. Likewise, extreme narcissism and isolation are anti-thetical to creating narratives of lasting beauty and worth. I’ll grant anyone with an investment in art the solitude required to do her work, but that work must come from somewhere—alive sources—or nine times out of ten, the world she is trying to create will collapse on itself. There will be no door for the reader to open, or close behind her. Just a black hole in a black hole, space before stars, planets, and the first pulse.

The best way I can demonstrate the atomic significance of ecstatic influence is by documenting how it played out between me and Joe Strummer, a man who did not give the impression of ever being a blank slate. Here, then, our biographies by way of an abbreviated, annotated timeline, with key exchanges noted:

I. Birth and Early Childhood

Him: Born Aug. 21, 1952, in Ankara, Turkey, this son of a British diplomat and a housewife had a peripatetic early childhood, with stops in Cairo, Mexico City, and Bonn, Germany, before settling into the purgatory of English boarding school in a London suburb. These experiences, as Chris Salewicz narrates in his excellent Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, gave rise to the future punk’s startling independence and rejection of authority figures.

My sister Erin, a dude I can't really identify without telling a story, and boyish me circa 1985

Me: Came into the world on Sept. 7, 1975,  in Bismarck, North Dakota, likely very bored and pining for cities even in the placenta. Unlike Joe, I had no reason to resent my lovely parents (Dad’s still a professor of Western civilization and Mom a retired sales manager). Public school up the hill from our house and close contact with my parents and four amazing siblings. Good friends and an obsession with Oreos and drawing faces with scented markers.

II. Prepubescence

Him: God save mid-20th-century radio! In the early and middle Sixties, it broke acts like The Rolling Stones, not to mention the tedium of boarding school. The day Joe heard The Stones’ cover of “Not Fade Away” booming out of an old tube unit in the school common room, he decided he would spend his life trying to make music. Obsessions with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddly, and other British bands influenced by American R&B followed. Salewicz notes Joe’s talent as a cartoonist (never my forte as much as portraits), along with the suicide of his older brother, David, at 18.

Me: Looking back, I spent a lot of time beating back demons because of my youngest sister’s brush with death as an infant. Mortality dogged me, and to offset it, I aspired to be funny and craved in-the-moment excitement. Music delivered the latter commodity in the form of heinous Top 40 radio and my dad’s awesome Blondie, ABBA, Beatles, and opera records. Bored, bored, bored and complained constantly. Inhaling books, magazines, and liner notes like a fiend only made it clearer how isolated of a place I lived.

III. Teenage Doldrums

Him: On the strength of his drawing, Joe is accepted into London’s Central School of Art and Design. He begins just weeks after his brother’s death in 1970 and quickly establishes himself as a beloved under-performer, another lost boy in The System, by all accounts. For the first time, he takes a moniker (“Woody” after Woody Guthrie, it is said) and begins acquiring rough strumming skills, first on a ukulele, by busking in the London Underground, then, on the guitar during a two-year stint in Wales.

Me: I was a sickeningly good girl, while Joe dropped acid and smoked dope like a proper psycho-hippie. I thought that by studying my ass off, I could control the world, or at least ward off harm to my loved ones. This, to me, was more rebellious than drinking like most of my peers, and yet I still had so much energy. A late 1980s fascination with Marilyn Monroe transfers to U2 in the early 1990s, whom I draw constantly in high school art class. An editorship on the newspaper gets me wondering if I have a stronger command of expression with words.

Punk on the verge: Joe Strummer in 101ers publicity shot

IV. Early Twenties

Him: Inspired by the outrageousness of The New York Dolls on The Old Grey Whistle Test and the success of underground pub rockers extraordinaire Dr. Feelgood, Joe, back in London, forms the R&B-heavy 101ers with his squatter friends. First flashes of songwriting brilliance come via “The Keys to Your Heart.” In May 1975, he officially renames himself Joe Strummer. Soon after, he sees the future of rock ‘n’ roll in the guise of The Sex Pistols and quits the 101ers to build a new beast in 1976 with Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Tony James. Game on—and over.

Me in my second New York kitchen sporting the famous orange pants

Me: Between 18 and 22, I didn’t see a tenth of what Joe Strummer had seen! At the end of high school especially, I felt sedentary even though my brain was going a million miles an hour. College in Moorhead, Minnesota, brought much-needed stimulation and coincided with my discovery of The Clash on Broadway. If you wanted to find me on weekends, I’d be with my newspaper geek friends at Ralph’s Corner Bar, a sublime dive (R.I.P.) that played host to local, regional, and underground national acts. I loved and hated this era; it was all toil and anticipation. New York happened a few months after graduation in 1998, then…nothing. Not the slightest attempt at Strummeran “reinvention.”

I have to stop here. It’s just too exhausting. You’d be surprised how much you don’t want to find out about yourself by mapping your influences. All of the clichés are true: you seek out those who will reinforce your good and bad behaviors, as well as spark abilities you may never be able to acquire. If anything, though, it just might make you stronger.

Blogging soundtrack:

  • “Long Shadow” by Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros
  • “Strange News from Another Star” by Blur
  • Cat moaning about my putting the toilet lid down
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