I found this out in a very real way about a month ago when I got a weird vaguely disturbing message from one of my five hundred friends on facebook. I like facebook. As a writer, who sits alone most of the day talking to imaginary friends, it makes me feel like I’m having a normal conversation with people who are out there living actual lives. It’s important that fiction writers think of ourselves as normal, because writing fiction isn’t normal, and of course even the idea that all my 500 hundred friends are actually real friends is a fiction.
For example,/ the mayor of the city of Allentown is my friend and when I respond to one of his posts with “go, Ed!” or “got my vote!” I notice that my comments are immediately deleted so I’m pretty sure we’re not friends. Maybe he didn’t like the story I wrote for the New York Times about buying a gun to protect myself from what I perceived at the time to be desperate drug dealers in downtown Allentown creeping towards my house. This is my story: My husband was traveling a lot at the time and I didn’t feel safe alone in our big old house that has lots of doors and windows, most of which my cat can open. The mayor’s story at the time was that crime was going down in Allentown/ so my story didn’t feed into his narrative and vice versa.
I live in Allentown’s West End where Muhlenberg College is/ and when the president of Muhlenberg started getting phone calls from hysterical parents who had read the same story asking if it was safe for their children to go off campus, the president responded with his story in a memo that someone happily forwarded to me said: the most dangerous thing in the West End is a crazy lady writer with a gun.
You are the story you tell about yourself.
Anyway, I like facebook because I can control my story. I’m always having a good hair day on facebook, I always look five years younger, and I can wait an hour before I respond to a provocative remark. I post only about the good times, the times when I’m having a professional success, when my relatives have beautiful babies, when my three dimensional friends have published books or are having art exhibits. On face book I like non-controversial things: cute cats, organic food, yoga posts, anti-Monsanto posts, even though in what I think of as my authentic reality, /the reality of me in my robe drinking coffee with my husband in the morning/ and arguing about the world,/ I have more nuanced opinions about all of these things.
I created the Bathsheba Monk you see on facebook, so why was I surprised to receive this weird, vaguely disturbing message that said “Bathsheba, I like you A LOT and think we can be good friends. Would you come to South Carolina so we can find out?” Of course, who wouldn’t want to be friends with the facebook Bathsheba? I found it disturbing because I knew it isn’t the authentic me.
In a canned reality like facebook, it’s impossible to be authentic. But I think it’s even impossible to be authentic in the 3 dimensional world.
I lived for a while in an old building which was cut up for condos on Beacon Hill in Boston which has a very active historical commission. The building, a large one family mansion, was built in 1850 by a Boston big wig for one of his daughters and her husband as a wedding present. When our condo association wanted to paint the outside shutters, we had to take our paint chips to the Boston Preservation Society and the color we wanted had to pass scrutiny under all different kinds of light so it would look like the correct shade of green black that they used in 1850. This made sense in a way, except when you consider that the actual building itself was no longer a single family mansion—five families lived there so it’s original intent was no longer authentic. The paint itself wasn’t actually authentic either because they didn’t have Glidden’s Weatherproof latex in 1850.
We cherished our authenticity on Beacon Hill and we were going to preserve it. It wasn’t called the Preservation Society for nothing. But preservation is the least authentic thing there is because once you freeze something, it dies.
Things change and if a thing isn’t changing, it’s already dead.
Change was on my mind when I had officially moved back to the Lehigh Valley where I was born and raised and as all writers know, you write about the stuff the universe gives you and the universe gave me Bethlehem. This city, Bethlehem used to be a powerhouse. At one time, in the sixties I think, the executives of Bethlehem Steel were the highest paid executives in the country. The Ioaccoa Center on the hill which is now part of Lehigh University was the Bethlehem Steel Research Center and was state of the art—beautiful modernist design, redundant systems. It was like the castle on the hill, lit up at night, BUT….. a little to the right on the same mountain was the Moravian Christmas Star, competing for dominance. And I always felt that tension: was the true identify of this city the Moravians who founded the city on Christmas Eve or Bethlehem Steel that swooped in and claimed it.
So,what’s the authentic identity of a town like this? And what happens when the past is past and the present is up for grabs?
Of course, once I actually started to write about this, I couldn’t escape the fact that neither the Moravians nor the industrialists were actually the first people here. Weren’t Natives here first? Natives are always here first. That’s why they’re called Natives. Our natives were the Leni Lenaahpes. And then I found out that there are even stories in Lenaaahpe mythology about people who were here before they were, the First People they called them, a shadow people who became extinct because of—well, because times changed and their survival system no longer worked. Or their luck just ran out. It all depends on who’s telling the story.
Which is another thing I was thinking about: in these changing times, who is the protagonist: Who gets to tell the tale?. And I was already obsessed with the fact that the story I wanted to tell, the story of change, has many points of view. In fact, that is the story.
But how could I write this story and get it right from every point of view? Stories make us uncomfortable when the story features us in a supporting role. Think of the indignation you feel when someone reports gossip about you or even describes you to a third party in a way you find unflattering. When I was doing research for my murder mysteries, the Swanson Herbinko Mystery Series, I talked with a police chief who told me that the/ most/ unreliable evidence is eye-witness evidence because people literally see only what they want to see and people will always see themselves as the hero of the story.
You can see where the trouble starts with all this story telling. Your story and mine can’t both be true. Is there such a thing as a subjectively authentic story?
Especially now that gatekeepers are irrelevant. If you can write a book, make a movie or a record, you don’t need the official blessing of cultural gatekeepers. You can produce your own book, movie, magazine, whatever. You have a megaphone. We all have our own megaphones and we’re all shouting our stories into them as loudly as possible. It doesn’t matter what story you’re telling. I’m the star of my own show, and you are a secondary character in my story.
And vice versa.
A million stories being shouted into the universe, trying to be heard.
I like it.
But how is that ever going to work?
Who has the true authentic story? Maybe everyone does.
The only clear resolution I came to is: if your story isn’t changing it means you’re dead, and if you can’t find a way to integrate your changing story with all the other stories out there, your story will be muted forever, because the new story is the story of the collective us. In 2014, the story of who we are becoming is the only story worth telling.
Taken from a talk I gave at Lehigh University, November 2013.