On Authenticity

I’m writing these words from my chaise in my small home office.  Outside my window, leaves are falling.  There’s a chill in the air.  This morning we were awakened by our dog barking at two deer who came so close to the house it seemed they wanted to come in for breakfast.  Autumn has always been my favorite season – all that back-to-school energy in the air – and since moving to New England it has only become more so.

I’m just back from an intense stint of teaching two back-to-back workshops — one large, one small.  On the first evening of the large workshop, I was jittery, not exactly nervous — I’ve done this many times, after all — but on edge.  This is a familiar feeling.  I’m getting up in front of a crowd of people, all of whom have different hopes, dreams, expectations, fears, desires for their time with me.  Some of them have ideas about me.  About what I might be like, who I really am.  They may have read some of my books, stories, essays.  They may have seen me talking with Oprah.  I don’t want to disappoint them.  But I also don’t want to play a part or act in a role.  And so that jittery feeling is one in which I am gathering all the parts of myself and pulling them within me, inside my own outline.  I want to be me…only sharper, smarter, more lucid…better.  Probably much like a professional athlete, or dancer, or musician, I psych myself up to be my best self.

Self being the operative word.  The concept of authenticity is much over-hyped these days, and it seems to me a sad state of affairs that it’s something we need to cultivate — as if being authentic is just another act.  A few weeks ago, I came across a term online that stopped me in my tracks: identity fatigue.  We are getting tired, it seems, of creating and fashioning our personas in a world filled with personas.  We’re confusing persona with personal life.  If I check Instagram and Twitter and Facebook in the morning (and I try not to do this first thing) I see images of perfection.  Just this morning (okay, I checked) I saw photographs of friends in Tuscany, Singapore, Copenhagen, and Hawaii.  I saw kids on horses, people giving speeches, doing yoga, writing by lamplight at dawn.  I read clever tweets and click on links to smart responses to the day’s news. All before coffee!  It’s no wonder that just about everyone I know is plagued by the feeling that other people, elsewhere, are having a better time, or a more meaningful life.

I do the same thing, don’t get me wrong.  I post pictures of pretty places and on the rare occasion I have something clever to say I say it.  There is a thin but very real layer that separates the me that performs publicly from the me that wakes up in the morning with all my usual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, worries.  I suppose I would liken it to one of the differences between writing fiction and memoir.  When we write, we know when we’re inclining ourselves in the direction of imagination — and when we’re hewing to memory.  The feeling is unmistakable.  So when it comes to that overused word authenticity – and the sad concept of identity fatigue — I’d rather err in the direction of being too much myself, rather than too little.  Is that a little scary?  Sometimes it is.  But the alternative feels deadening and untenable.