The Importance of Story: The Hunger for Personal Narrative

Article excerpt

I'm writing my memoir for Penguin. I'm almost 60: that sounds like the right time to be writing a memoir. But it is an odd time for me.

Being 60 is at the other end of the rainbow. I'm not complaining, because at that end you begin to understand the start of the rainbow. I realize, however - and wouldn't you know it? - I'm also losing my memory.

So I fall back then upon the importance of story. We need to know that story-telling is powerful: many of us discover through narrative the meaning of our own lives. Narrative is how one joins events together, like joining dots to discover the larger picture, the greater meaning.

I've struggled for months to understand what I would do with something called "a memoir." For example, should I tell you something about my youth, and all the "hot bits" that make up a Best Seller? (I'll have to make some of that up.) Being an English teacher, I know my students actually have all the hot bits. I simply witness them. But I need to tell you that one discovers the meaning of life by understanding narrative and story. This is the subject of my talk tonight, a sampling of what I have started out with, even struggled with, finally, to arrive at an opening for my memoir.

Our human brains appear destined to operate a certain way. My friend, Dennis, tells me that our brains are probably hardwired to create meaning. Thus, many of us - if not all of us - connect and reassemble the events in our lives to see if the result adds up to something we call meaning. Without that ability - that human tendency "to join the dots" of the events in our lives - our lives are not so meaningful. Our emotional brain, for most of us, craves emotional meaning.

Consequently, if you want meaning, if you want possible answers to these questions: "Who am I?" "Who are we?" "Where am I going?" "Where have I been?" - then you soon have to say to yourself, "Once upon a time..."

When you say, Once upon a time, you start to join the dots. You discover that you are a story teller.

After my first novel, The Jade Peony, happened to have the success it has had, I realized how important it is that, as Canadians, we tell our stories to other people. I don't mean that you have to be as lucky as some of us who wrote a book and had it read by others. But, simply, be someone who writes down in a journal or in papers kept at home, "This is what happened to me. This is how it happened from the way I lived my life. This is how I perceive life." Tap into this universal need: write down your stories.

I think the importance of those stories is that they remind us, each of us, that we have survived. We've made our way here. Most of us are actually sitting by our neighbours in peace and in goodwill. Many of us have emerged from that great Canadian theme, survival, with a sense of community. Whatever our background, our history, we have a real achievement in being Canadians.

I wish I didn't have to sound nationalistic. I wish we could say we are human beings within a single community of people. I'd rather be a world citizen. But, the truth is, Canadians are among the few who have arrived at a point where we can still learn to live together because enough of us respect the differences of others, and because there are enough of us attempting to understand each other's stories.

Your stories are important.

When you tell your stories, I trust you will understand that they only have to be truthful, at least from your point of view. Truth. As I go about my research for this memoir that I'm writing, I'm also struggling with the idea of truth. The book is going to be an impression of a 1940s childhood, my vision of what it was like to grow up in Vancouver's Chinatown during the war and post-war years.

When I started my research, I began by asking my aunts and relatives, my friends and neighbours of that time, how they saw me when I was young. …