I used to write plays. But I don’t do that anymore. I used to make theatre happen, make shows on small downtown stages, commune with artists over drinks and late night snacks, talk form, structure, style, meaning, and artistic imagination with all the cool kids who inhabited the indie enclaves of this wild, untamed city, this center of the universe, this neo-Rome, this New York.
There was an incident. It was ideological in nature. And in retrospect it really shouldn’t have been such a big deal. It wasn’t even like I was all that successful. My place was on the fringe indie edge of things. I had my own theatre project, where I mostly worked with women artists, friends, people who I loved.
We worked together, and we worked with other small companies like ours. We spread out, we were a ripple, we were a web of roads all leading back to the central hub of the downtown indie art scene that had made its way into the outer boroughs with a nexus of ideas and little spaces.
We trod the boards, as they say in theatre, we ran our own lights, designed our own sound, built our own props. We crafted theatrics with our hands. Until we didn’t. Or rather, I didn’t.
It turned out I was primarily unpalatable to the little arts community of which I was a part, because I don’t think people can change sex, because I think there is something innate about being female that is not possible to replicate through surgery, lip gloss, or any of the other trappings of femininity.
This turned out to be a problem when I expressed that—not that they didn’t know my feelings, I was bold among girlfriends, had a bit of a reputation for being crass, outspoken. But I wrote it down, published it, pissed people off.
After my article on the undercurrents of transhumanism in western culture was published in Quillette in July 2018, everything changed, but I didn’t know it for a few months. By the time October came around, I was pretty secure that it would all be fine.
There’d been a bit of a kerfuffle in July, people reached out to me on social media to suggest that perhaps I ought to educate myself on transgenderism before making blanket statements such as “transgender activism is not about compassion and dignity.”
But it took a while for the rest of the theatre community to take notice. Downtown kids who are immersed in theatre arts weren’t in the habit of reading Quillette. Go figure. In the end, it was noticed that I was anti-trans, a terf, a woman who wouldn’t be silenced by male definitions of womanhood.
My run as a New York theatre artist was basically over. I was dismissed by other companies, but the real problem was that these people were my audience, and without an audience, there is no theatre. My theatre company pretty well shut down, instantly, did no more work. Our mission was feminist in nature, to tell women’s stories, but because I’d said men can’t turn into women, it was over.
I’d been writing opinion columns on culture, so I decided to put my energy into that.
Here’s what I discovered.
It’s different writing fiction than it is writing reality.
Stories are magic and inventive and they follow a path, each word, each character, each turn in the narrative falls exactly where it should.
When writing a play there are a thousand wrong steps but when you take the right one you know, instantly, like a puzzle, like bones, like I beams fitted together to build a skyscraper, that it’s the right one. It feels solid and real.
But writing down the story of reality as it is unfolding is an entirely different undertaking, and it often feels like it can’t possibly be real.
Reality feels faker than fiction, because fiction makes sense, we make it make sense. Reality is a free-for-all.
Stories are realer than life.
In life, it’s all a concoction. There is no ideal story, no tales told about the hunt around the fire, no great long narrative that we are telling ourselves, the meta story of being human. That doesn’t exist when you tell the story of reality unfolding before you as it’s happening.
That’s what I’m doing now. And for sure it is fascinating, I like it, I even love it.
But there is something of a brutality to life without the artwork in it, without the stories and characters I was making up.
I have lost the certainty that a perfectly flawed story that tells us something real and lasting about love, or mothers, or connection, or how we are all stardust. Because of that the world is less beautiful to me.
Reality it turns out is less beautiful than fantasy. It is less compassionate. It’s a recording of a recording of a recording. It’s like Sam Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape but it’s all of humanity, every year saying, “gawd, I was such an ass last year, I won’t be like that again this year.” Every year. Over and over and over and ever on until it never ends.
It sort of turns out that reality is less real than stories. Reality is faker than made up tales about imaginary people.
There is no meaning unless we decide that there is and the way we decide that there is is through stories, the made up kind, about heroes and dragons, damsels, orphans turned superheroes, gorgons and suffering and crucifixion and beheadings and true love and witches in forests and happily ever afters and St. George turning women into trees and all of that.
Art had rules, the rules were rhythm, line, color, edges of canvases that when crossed were scandalized, fourth walls to break. Reality is lawless. Order is truly a fiction.
Reality can’t give us meaning, can’t provide depth. For that we need to tell ourselves how to move forward with honour, forthrightness, and strength of heart.
What stories tell us is that nothing matters at all except those brief moments with people. Small joys are the pinnacle and everything else is madness, chaos, we are but meat. Narrative tells us that yes, that spark of connection and kindness is the actual real and true meaning of life, please hold it tight and let it go and leave palms upturned so it might alight again.
– Libby Emmons