Fair Warning to Writers, Romantics, and Cranks
We had just got done hiding from one glossy magazine’s freelance journalist when another called with plans to harass Matinicus. OK, everybody, back behind the bushes.
I am only half-kidding. Matinicus Island has had so much press coverage over the last couple of years that many here are genuinely burned out on the whole thing. The problem is we are so often depicted as one bizarre extreme or the other; either we are portrayed as violent lunatics who all ought to be locked up, or we inhabit some sort of romantic escapist Brigadoon out in the fog. Honestly, I don’t know which is worse. Both are disrespectful to the majority of the islanders.
Last week we entertained a photographer from one of the newer magazines which seeks to highlight some of the more enjoyable aspects of Maine life. Next week, a writer is coming with an assignment for a venerable old regional magazine, the name of which most would undoubtedly recognize. I imagine he’ll want scenery and sunrise over the lobstering harbor and dories and children and funky old trucks. Maybe he’ll be here while the apple trees are in bloom, or he’ll stand outdoors in the dark and stare into brilliant starry skies, or catch the Baltimore orioles on their brief annual visit. Maybe he’ll notice the ring of the bell buoy. I hope so.
I hope he has a wonderful time while he’s here. I hope he spends enough time at it to get past the clichés. More importantly, I hope he writes his story within at least a decade of his actual visit. We’ve run into some rough territory lately with at least three writers who offer the readership their peculiar memories of this place from years ago. It hasn’t always been pretty.
A lot of people think Matinicus is some sort of a time capsule. Nothing here ever changes. Everything is still just like the old days. That’s got to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.
Oh, by the way, you’re wrong (and you know who you are). We don’t all toss our trash overboard. I personally hauled about fourteen tons of it to Rockland last year alone. The county never sent any live-in law out here to straighten us out, and I’ve never been married to a lobsterman. That’s OK, say some of the writers; nobody will know the difference.
In amongst our recent cluster of more well-meaning (if benighted) journalistic encounters, we found ourselves all over the local news because a couple of young yahoos who aren’t even from here beat up this other dude and the papers were overflowing with how evil we of this island all must be.
Like I said, two extremes.
So, as someone who has written a word or two about this place myself from time to time, allow me to offer a few suggestions. Forget the idea that making us all look like knuckle-dragging apes is entertaining to the rest of the world. It’s been done. As for interviewing me, if you want my opinion about Matinicus, read my columns. If you expect me to have a quick, succinct, and short answer to any question about this island, you don’t know me very well.
Year-round life on Matinicus is not “the simple life,” we are not “protected from the stresses of the modern day,” and if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times, this is the real world.
Even “How many people live on Matinicus?” cannot be satisfied with a short answer, and that’s the god’s-honest truth.
My own propensity for long-winded descriptions aside, there is no way for anybody to answer the vague, broad, nebulous questions so commonly asked: “Do you love it here? Why?” “What makes you want to live on an island?” “What makes life here so unique?” and perhaps the sorriest example, “What is it about Matinicus?”
One of my newspaper heroes before she died, Molly Ivins, told a story about reporters asking her that kind of unanswerable question: “So, Miss Ivvins,” (pronouncing her name wrong, just like you guys so often pronounce Matinicus wrong,) “what is it about Texas?”
So, here’s the deal. Here, to you who want to write about Matinicus Island, are the ground rules. Ignore them at your own risk.
If you write about me, I get to write about you back.
If you are patronizing, we will make fun of you. If you do anything that embarrasses or annoys us while you are visiting the island, be advised that it will end up in the paper somewhere. You are entirely fair game. This is reasonable, because as a general rule, you don’t ask us if we’d like to be photographed, if we’d care to be interviewed, or most significantly, if we’d enjoy being written up in a local or a national publication entirely without our knowledge or input. It happens more than you might think.
If you journey out here quietly pretending to be an innocuous tourist and then later publish an article which purports to speak with authority about why we are what we are, you have set yourself up. You will explain that you are simply noting your observations; fair enough, so am I.
If you stand in the middle of the airstrip to take a photograph while the airplane is trying to land, you are not only fair game, you are an idiot and a menace to public safety. If you insist on calling this community “quaint,” I will call you a pencil monkey (or worse, “another reporter.”) If you write about us like an anthropologist, from a distant, academic, analytical perspective as if we have bones in our noses and live in mud huts, I will fix your wagon with ten-syllable words, and I know how.
Most hurtful, if you have lived here, and been one of us, and then years later broadcast only your recollections of our failures as a supposedly objective image — well, we have to wonder what happened.
There have been dozens like you before; many of you think you are the first one to ever write a feature piece about Matinicus, but the fact is, everybody does it. It seems that every publication this side of Proctologist’s Weekly has done a story on Matinicus. There ain’t nothing new under the sun. Most of the stories are strikingly similar to one another, too. Yeah yeah, Ebenezer Hall; yeah yeah, the independent spirit of lobstermen; yeah yeah, no law; yeah yeah, isolation, sand beaches, junk cars. I write about that stuff, too, occasionally. We all do. Big deal.
If you think the islanders will never see what you write because we are too provincial and isolated to have access to your publication, be advised that when the Washington Post took their turn with us, at least six copies were faxed, e-mailed, postal-mailed and read over the phone to us the same day it hit the newsstands.
You will say this comment is merely a case of sour grapes, and that I am simply fending off my competition. That is true to a certain extent. In some cases I would rather be hired to write the piece myself than to help somebody else do it. I also work on some small acts of “damage control” and write about constructive efforts in this small town, in hopes that doing so might offset the mean-spirited and insulting comments made about us by those who know nothing about life here, which surface as responses to the constant stream of Matinicus crime reporting and the ridiculous “telephone game” which arises from all the online re-hashing.
We will have the last word. I will see to that.
Eva Murray writes about other things besides Matinicus -- from her home on Matinicus.