Let's take notes about our lives

We will leave stories for our children and have a surer sense of our past to think about the future

Sometimes other people see you in ways that can be surprising.

A comment made by a friend I'd met shortly after we moved to Chapel Hill in North Carolina 10 years ago still comes up in my mind every now and then.

We were discussing a mutual friend with upper-crust antecedents, who would make our eyes very round with her talk about, oh, the family villa in Europe, the annual Christmas holidays in Wyoming, the exclusive private school her son was transferring to that his father and grandfather had attended and so on.

She herself was not snobbish. She had quit her job with a prestigious investment bank and started a non-governmental organisation helping children in poorer countries and she would speak of her privileged background disparagingly, but the fact remained that we heard a lot about it.

"The thing is," my friend exclaimed, "your background is just as exotic and you should play it up, but you don't."

Whatever do you mean, I asked? Apparently, she thought my coming from Singapore and being a journalist was something I could parlay into a lifestyle of the hip and happening for sheltered Americans, only it had never occurred to me that my life was anything but conventional.

So there went my chance to be the cool new kid. Parlay I did not.

ST Illustration: Manny Francisco

It's probably a good thing I'm not a 17-year-old who has to burnish her image to get into a top school.

I've had a close-up look over the last two years at the marketing tactics that are sometimes required and I think I would be left in the dust.

As one private school guidance counsellor told a family member's son, think of a college application as applying for a job.

This is the savvy thing to do because an elite school will accept fewer than 10 candidates out of every 100, who are already highly qualified.

You have to stand out from a crowd of top students with impeccable extra-curriculars and one way to do that is through your so-called personal statement, an essay that gives college admission folks an idea of who you are.

Given the nature of my job, I've been asked to read a few essays for my feedback.

Perhaps I am susceptible to inspiring stories, but I was struck by how thoughtful and insightful some were, with their young writers able to glean self-awareness from their experiences, which they then crafted into engaging, yet authentic, narratives.

There was the young woman who wrote about how she had to learn to cook out of necessity when her mother became too ill with cancer to make meals for the family and how she found surprising solace in an arena which offered her a measure of control over life. In contrast with the devastating and frightening prospect of her mother's future, a recipe, if followed, could be relied on to yield the same dish every time, a dish which would nourish her family and allow them to spend precious time together.

A similar theme was sounded in an essay by a young man whose father had walked out on the family some years ago. He wrote about how he was drawn to rock climbing because a cliff wall invariably offered a course, however challenging, that he could chart to the top.

In contrast, there was no clear path through life and he struggled to come to terms with the absence of his father as a guide. He had to accept that he would have to find his own way and that, in fact, it would be he who would have to fill some of that void for his mother and younger brother.

What struck me was how these young storytellers managed to avoid navel-gazing. Quite the opposite, in fact, and their concern for others besides themselves spoke reams of their characters.

Of course, it takes more than a story to get you into college. But a compelling story would make sure people don't forget you easily.

The nature of the plugged-in world, with the dominance of social media platforms, is such that individual stories can be shared and widely disseminated now. Projects such as Humans of New York demonstrate how every person has a unique experience which, when crafted and polished with skill, can become minor gems that provide a quick uplift to our day.

They also put the lie to how only people with dramatic stories - who've overcome unbelievable odds, triumphed in the face of adversity, displayed indomitable spirit despite tragedy - have tales worth telling.

Everyone, believe it or not, has one, if only because all our days are unique. One needs only imagination and creativity, and desire, to see the narrative threads in a life that can be woven into a piece.

Though most of us are unlikely to have many occasions or need to tell our stories, I believe, especially as I get older, that we should cultivate them for our own sake.

There are good reasons.

One is to leave something for your children and the generations to come (hopefully). It haunts me that there are only two people in the world now who have actual memories of my maternal grandfather - my mother and her older sister, his two surviving children out of the original five.

My grandfather died many years ago, leaving behind a young family and the only things we grandchildren had of him were some stories and a few photographs. To my knowledge, there are no letters or writing, or any memorabilia that carries his actual touch, so he who was essential to my existence will eventually cease to exist, even in memory.

Another reason - for the more optimistic and practical among us - perhaps, is that taking stock of our lives can help us navigate the future better. One looks back on the past to learn from mistakes, says the husband, who believes in repair jobs of all kinds.

I agree, but from a slightly different perspective, which is admittedly still evolving. Paradoxically, thinking about the future becomes easier when you have a surer sense of your past. And the older I get, the more I seem to crave knowing who I am and where I have come from.

Perhaps it's a thing that happens when you realise more and more people will look past you and relegate your voice to the margins. You realise you are in danger of becoming irrelevant and, eventually, invisible.

In a world drawn to the magnetism of youth, especially if you are a woman, your sense of self can become debased if care is not taken to give it its due and affirm its worth.

My chosen form of catharsis has been to resume writing a daily journal. Anyone who has kept a diary can attest that it's a drug of sorts. It's hard to quit it once you've started. I don't always have the discipline, but I'm trying to write every day.

For sure, being one's own narrator comes with the pitfalls of fallibility - you don't see yourself or view events of the past with an objective eye, after all - but then it is the nature of storytelling to be seeing the world through a particular lens.

Who am I and how do I want to be remembered?

Maybe you don't hear me, but I have a voice. I have a story that is like no other. And knowing it makes me believe the autumn years can still hold the promise of breaking new ground.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 11, 2018, with the headline 'Let's take notes about our lives'. Print Edition | Subscribe