I wasn’t a joiner when I was in high school. I was a shy boy who for the most part stayed clear of groups. I wasn’t a member of the Pep Club, the Student Council, the Future Farmers of America (I went to a very small high school in a rural part of southeastern Illinois), the baseball team, the track squad, the band, or the chorus. I limited myself to the basketball team and the school newspaper club—the first because I loved the game; the second because I loved to write.
My freshman year in college, I figured out that being a newspaper reporter would require me to talk to people, most of them strangers, and that’s when I decided to change my major to English. I preferred to spend my time with characters in novels and stories and plays—people who would only require my company in my imagination. From there, it was a short step to creating characters and stories of my own, spending a good deal of time alone in a room, pen and paper in hand, or later sitting at a typewriter, and still later facing a computer screen.
In the years that followed high school, I pretty much overcame my shyness, but I’m still not the sort to seek out a group, a clique, a network, an association, a guild, an organization, an alliance, and certainly not a society. How ironic, then, that I now have a society of my own, one I didn’t intend but one I feel responsible for now that it exists. A few years ago, two of my students asked me if they could start a Lee Martin Appreciation Society on Facebook.
“Sure,” I said, not stopping to think what this might require of me if they actually did it. Which they did.
“Do I have to join?” I asked when one of the students emailed to say that the LMAS was up and running. I suppose I subscribed to the Groucho Marx philosophy of not wanting anything to do with a club that would have me as a member. I didn’t even belong to Facebook at the time.
I don’t recall exactly what my student said, but her response made it clear that in order for the LMAS to have any weight, yes, I would have to join.
So I did. I got on Facebook, which I swore I’d never do, and I joined my own fan club. For the first couple of years, it seemed that the LMAS operated under the principle that when you truly appreciate someone you don’t need to call attention to that fact. I posted a few things. Some other people posted a few things. For the most part, though, it was a pretty laid back appreciation society that topped out at seventy-four members, most of them students, past and present, and colleagues. In other words, people who sorta had to join.
The point of all this is to say that the LMAS got me onto Facebook, where I had my own spurts of activity, sometimes posting status updates daily and sometimes not posting any for weeks or months at a time.
I was often content to be a voyeur, keeping tabs on my “friends,” without them being able to keep tabs on me. Just like a fiction writer, wouldn’t you say? Curious as all get-out about the lives of others, but not particularly eager to share the details of his own life. Over the last few years, I’m certain I’ve gone to the grocery store, had lunch, wanted to watch football, went on a trip, thought it was too hot or too cold outside, wished someone happy birthday, taught a class, gone to the dentist, had a splinter in my finger, yadda-yadda-yadda, without any of my Facebook friends knowing.
Soon, though, I began to feel compelled to come up with something interesting, or witty, or else so trivial that it would be both interesting and witty, to say in my status updates. When I did, I was surprised at how anxious I was about the way my friends would respond. Would they post a comment—oh, how I envied those friends who got comments to their statuses—or would they click on “Like” to give their approval? Would they notice me? Would they like me? I couldn’t believe how eager I, the non-joiner, became for affirmation.
Perhaps that’s why I eventually decided to do more with LMAS. At the encouragement of a friend, I began to take a more active role. I posted news of upcoming books, photos that connected to my books, old school photos of the author as a young man, photos from readings, interviews. I even posted an old picture of the Sumner High School Newspaper Club to prove that I had once joined something and was capable of joining groups again if I so wished.
Now here’s a funny thing about me. Shy as I was in high school, whenever we had to sell items to raise money for my class, I became obsessed with selling as many as I could. I hit the streets and peddled candy bars, candles, magazine subscriptions. I hit my own neighborhood, and then I started expanding my territory. I went into other neighborhoods, hoping that my classmates who lived there had been too lazy to get many results. I drove down into the country and stopped at farmhouses. I even drove to neighboring towns and said I was selling something for the junior class, conveniently failing to identify the school. I knocked on doors and intruded on the lives of strangers, and it didn’t bother me a bit. I wanted results.
I don’t know how to reconcile this driven, aggressive part of my nature with my more timid side. I only know the former came from my father and the latter from my mother. I guess at times my father’s side wins out, as it has this summer when I’ve been posting more things to LMAS, and, like the “gotta-close-the-deal” high school salesman I was, I keep a close eye on the bottom line. As sad as it is to say, I keep track of how many people are joining LMAS. We’re up to 294 members now, but only a few days ago, we were at 295. I have to confess that I have a momentary sinking feeling each time I see that we’ve lost a member. I always wonder who that person was and why he or she decided to give me the heave-ho.
If I could only figure out who the defector was. . .
Why didn’t he or she continue to like me? I hope it wasn’t anything I said.
Which leads me to this. Let’s say a novelist begins to write a novel based in fact, a story of a family and a tragic event. And let’s say the novelist changes the story up quite a bit, but still has a curiosity about the real people involved and how they’re either getting on with their lives, or not, in the aftermath of the tragedy. Maybe those people don’t have their Facebook security settings ratcheted down, and, therefore, even if you’re not their friend, you can read the posts on their walls, look at their photos, and otherwise follow their comings and goings via your computer even though you may live hundreds of miles away from their drama.
Let’s say that I’m that novelist. Okay, I’m that novelist. All summer, I’ve been following the twists and turns in this family’s life via Facebook, and I’ve been using that as a way of getting deeper into the characters that I’ve created in this novel. The characters aren’t literal representations of the real people, but there’s no doubt that those real people have provided models for the characters I’m inventing. I’m curious about the real people, primarily because I’m eager to see what they’re saying just in case it proves useful to the book I’m writing. Sometimes I feel creepy about that, and sometimes I don’t. But always, never far from my consciousness, is the question of whether I have a right to do what I’m doing—not a legal right, but an ethical one. I wonder about the nature of privacy and what we have a right to these days. I’m particularly interested in what we writers have a right to once we’re a member of the Facebook family. To be honest, I’ve used very little of what I’ve read from the real family members, but I’ve certainly used what they’ve written to get a flavor of voice and a deeper understanding of what they lived through and how they’re living beyond it.
I was telling a friend about this at lunch today, and I said that I supposed in the days before Facebook and the like (even blogs such as this), I would have relied on gossip for my information. I would have talked to someone who knew someone who knew the family, and I would have listened to their stories. I would have taken all that and used it as I saw fit as I wrote my novel. Is it any different to be a voyeur to these people’s lives via Facebook? Is there a difference between asking for gossip and eavesdropping on the people involved?
I really don’t know how I feel about this. Sometimes I’m fine with it, seeing what I’m doing as just another way of conducting research, but sometimes I feel guilty. My novels (The Bright Forever and the forthcoming Break the Skin, for example) are based in fact, and they usually involve people caught in dire circumstances of their own devising. Those types of stories are abundant in my part of southeastern Illinois, and I’ve often latched on to newspaper reports, interviews, and the such to help me craft their narratives. I tinker with the facts. I create new characters and events that never really happened. Still, when I’m finished, it’s clear to anyone who knows the real story that the center of the novel is indeed that story and the real people involved with it. Sometimes people get incensed. They let me know that they don’t believe I have a right to do such a thing. Why put someone else’s difficulties and sufferings onto the page? I think I know why I do it, and I think it has something to do with why I’ve never been inclined to be a joiner. An only child, I like to stay on the periphery. I like to be the one who documents, the one who tries to understand more than the facts can carry, the one who uses story to think more deeply about how people rub up against one another and what that rubbing means, both for the individuals involved and for the groups to which they belong.
In the end, I suppose we all belong to a common group—that human group that gets all out of whack sometimes, but remains, I truly believe, a noble lot when all is said and done.
The storyteller has always crafted narratives to show us to ourselves. Those storytellers have looked at the people in a community and then represented them either in oral or visual or written form. People in neighborhoods, in cities, on farms. People with their lives on display. Perhaps Facebook is merely a new form of the human community. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
Do I have a right to people’s stories if those people willingly or unwittingly make them available on Facebook? Sometimes I think I do, and sometimes I’m not completely convinced. Perhaps some members of this group—the readers of this blog—will help me think more about the questions I’ve posed and the thoughts I’ve expressed. What’s private and what’s not? Is the novelist who looks in on the lives of real people and then transforms those lives into narrative guilty of a sin against the group? Or has that novelist performed something necessary to the group and its further steps through time?