The Stories that We Tell

On Monday, I went to see Life of Pi, the film.  As I haven’t yet read the book, I didn’t know what to expect.

But from the opening scene to the end, I was drawn in to a beautiful, magical tale about the art of storytelling itself.  About our place within a grander narrative – that space where the line between fiction and reality is blurred.

Following on from last week’s theme, I can’t seem to let it go.

In 2003, I had my first attempt at visual storytelling.  My mother and her twin were turning sixty.  And along with organising a weekend getaway for both our families, I decided I would make a video.

The timing was terrible.  I’d just handed in the final assessment for the Bachelor of Arts I took too seriously.  Negotiating with my long lost cousins had turned into a circus.  And my personal relationships were a mess.

On the drive down, my mind was anywhere but on the drive.  Somehow I had turned off the main highway on a road to who-knows-where and was collected by a car through a roundabout.

It could have been fatal.  But apart from a bit of whiplash, luckily neither of us were hurt.

The weekend was a train wreck, as far as I was concerned.

While the family carried on as though nothing had happened, the best I could manage was to tremble absentmindedly behind camera.

Back home, as I trawled through hours of shaky footage, a story started to take shape.


Mum (right) and her twin sister

Two sisters, separated by a stretch of sea between Melbourne and Tasmania, reunited with their families for the first time in years.

Slowly the sequence of events started to be rearranged.  Hours reduced to moments, obscuring memory.

Awkward empty laughter became witty repartee.

The disgruntled old fellas turned kindly and ineffectual.

Some things were left out.

The part where no one prepared their speeches.

The pained expression on my mother’s face upon hearing how her sister is the “Mum away from Mum.”

Activities and chores that in reality dragged now speed by to the “Flight of the Bumblebee“.

Rare moments of affection, old photos and a child’s lopsided grin slow to the sound of a collective heartfelt tune.

“My island home, my island home
My island home, is waiting for me…”

Neil Murray
covered by Christine Anu

Somehow, a melange of a family reunion is turned into a nostalgic longing for our place of origin – for home and belonging.

By the end of the edit, even I am moved!

What I didn’t expect was that ten years on, the video would become the stuff of family legend.  Apparently, my little cousins (even the new ones) still watch it every time they visit their gran.

Little surprise, then, that they want to do it all over again for the impending 70th.

I’m a little worried about their expectations.  I feel like I made a propaganda film.  Will they be disappointed when they see our family for what it truly is?

But what is that, exactly?

At the end of Life of Pi, we are presented with two possibilities for the story that was told – a realist version, and the magical tale.  In either case, the essential elements of the story remain the same.  So we are left with a choice.

Reality, or the story that elevates reality to a place of understanding?

Surely this is the point – to understand each other from the stories that we tell…

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?

Doesn’t that make life a story?”

– Pi Patel, Life of Pi by Yann Martel

What do you prefer? Fact or fiction? Should we write grand narratives, or are they all a lie?


  1. says

    Hi, Alarna,
    Readers bring themselves, their hopes, and losses to stories and may find more than the author intended. That’s part of the magic of stories and why so many of them give us what we need at a particular time. You made a videotaped story about your family reunion and allowed family members to see their best selves. At the 70th, they’ll look for witty repartee and kindly old fellas–and will find what they expect to see.

    What a wonderful thing you created with that video–shaky footage and all.

    • says

      Oh, thank you! It was fun to make 🙂

      You’re so right about what readers bring to the story. We really do see what we want to… or, in part, what we’re going through in the stories that we read. Maybe it’s the same for how we see others too… Interesting. I hope you’re right, and the family have a blast together!

  2. 최다해 gongjumonica says

    Wow. Beautiful post for Life of Pi. I have read the novel last January and I have yet to watch the movie. It is too moving that I stopped a lot of times while reading to digest and think what the author said. It is now one of my favorite books.

  3. says

    Love this topic! I have too many thoughts to squeeze into this little comment box. All I can say is that it feels an awful lot to me, and the feeling intensifies with age, that the day to day “reality” that we experience with our physical eyes and ears is a mere shadow of deeper realities. The stories we tell and the music we make and the dances we dance and the pictures we create – they speak to that deeper existence. To remain some semblance of healthy, I think we need one foot in “reality” and one in story.
    But one may argue that stories make one crazy. I was recently accused of such. 🙂
    Glad you’re ok after the car accident, dear.

  4. liz says

    What a great post. Really got me thinking about the stories we have to tell. I am a big believer in the idea that our lives are a story, and that we all have something to contribute to the bigger story of life, whatever that may be. So so so beautiful.

    As for the movie, I’m planning to see it this weekend – and now I’m even more excited 🙂


    • says

      Hey Liz! With you on the need to believe there is a bigger story to life. Something bigger than ourselves, even if that is just a collective sense of ourselves. Who knows. But I’m loving that we have a vehicle for sharing these stories 🙂

      Hope you enjoy the movie! I found it breathtaking 🙂

  5. says

    No narrative starts out with grand intentions, the characters (or each person, animal, plant, etc) with their various traits and intentions, discover their own interactive narrative from each perspective. Taking them to unfamiliar locations will help uncover the facts of each participant, while also presenting an old story in a fresh way as time transitions for what ever period.

    The facts are when did we listen or act, why did we change our minds, what we are, where we come from, how we got there, who we met along the way. The story is how we live, what different people and elements speak and listen to us, Whose stories share in our life, love, and travels. I could go on, but…

    I think I am saying, facts are those elements our mind deals with day to day, the story is our heart to live out beyond just the data and information, to make our way in the wilds of our worlds. The best way, might be to let them find their own feet, then a few good tales and legends just may evolve in their own time, in the surrounds of unfamiliar places (or maybe that should read, familiar places, as that’s the kind of stories neutral ground might just uncover).

    Then again, I’m just a dreamer…

    • says

      Dreaming is what it’s all about 🙂

      Love that you say “the characters…discover their own interactive narrative from each perspective”… The beauty of story is that we each have our perspective – endless possibilities to reshape ourselves and our stories. And yet, through all that, there are those threads that overlap and speak to the common experience.

      Happy dreaming to you 🙂

  6. says

    Wonderful post. Thought provoking. Love how Pi presented two endings. The story teller knows that the listener brings with him his own perceptions and reality…often different from the author’s perceptions and reality.

  7. says

    Lovely words, Alarna. I’m sure your film was as thoughtful and moving as this post. (I am going to listen to the unabridged CD of the Life of Pi with my daughter before we see the film. Fun!)

  8. says

    Dearest Alarna:
    I always feel such a treat in being able to read your blog and share with you moments that have now touched me, too. I want to go see Life of Pi and if I could have one wish granted, it would be to have you join me, seated in a darkened theatre, experiences this movie together… i would probably need to hold your hand just to make sure it was all real.
    Thank you as always for words & love…
    xxx Rain

    • says

      There is a magic moment in the film where Pi realises the role that Richard Parker (the tiger) has played in his own survival on the lifeboat. That says what life is all about for me.

      However far away, know you’ll always have a friend here. That’s real. *hugs*

  9. says

    Hi Alarna…great post. I read the book, Life of Pi, before seeing the movie, and loved both. The movie was really a beautiful adaptation of the book. It is strange…I never thought for a moment that the tiger story was NOT the true story while you, my hubby, and my sister all thought the shorter, more sordid story, was the true story. I went to see the movie for a second time last night and came away unconvinced of my earlier position. I love how the author has made the story a metaphor for people’s views on religion and spirituality. I really like your story about the family movie you made; how you feel you made the family look more loving and close than they really are; and how that raises the whole question about our perceptions, reality and the truth. Kim

    • says

      I’m amazed that the movie lived up to what I’ve heard about the book – I was skeptical. But it really did deliver, and now I want to read the book even more.

      The fact that you didn’t let the more realist version disrupt the magic of the story that was told says a lot about you! I love that 🙂 I’m usually too cynical for my own good – but in this instance, what sold the magic for me was Patel’s summing up. Simply sublime.

      Thanks for your kind words 🙂

  10. says

    “Surely this is the point – to understand each other from the stories that we tell…” Truly Alarna, isn’t that why we pass on stories from one generation to another? And to capture our stories or in this case, a family reunion through film is an art and gift. You may not have felt that you made an impact, but obviously others in your family found your film work important. Sounds like fun Alarna. Enjoy the moments and let them happen as they’re meant to be. 🙂

    • says

      You raise an interesting point about passing on stories through generations. The funny thing is, here in Oz, many stories don’t seem to get passed on through generations. Much of our history is lost, and with it, understanding – which I think is sad. I’m not sure what will happen at this year’s reunion, but I’m sure there will be a story or two… 😉

  11. says

    Oh, I haven’t read the book nor seen the movie, but I love tales like that. This is one of the reasons I still love fairy tales, because I think there is a lot of truth in the magic.

    I think the greatest compliment you could receive is that your family wants you to do it again. Obviously you did right by them.

    • says

      Fairy tales – yes! I love them too for that reason. In fact, I think that’s shaping up to be the next blog topic…

      The thing about telling stories – home videos, or any other – is they always take you somewhere unexpected. Certainly true in this case 🙂

  12. says

    Well now I want to see Life of Pi! I really like that quote about understanding. I know that when i pick a blog topic I feel like I have to find the nugget of truth that applies to me. So even if it’s someone else’s topic, as in a blog fest, it will get filtered through the things that I believe to be true right now. But then I agree with Pat too, the reader filters the post too, bringing their own understanding to the story. 🙂

    • says

      Yes – I love the way we are able to bounce ideas off one another in the blogosphere.. and always a slightly new perspective on a theme. I’m like you, I need to filter it through my own lens.. maybe we’re all like that? Hope you get to see the movie – it’s well worth the ride 🙂

  13. says

    thoroughly enjoyed this post! I want to see Life of Pi now! It is true though, There are so many masks one can view things with, each person will see something different and quite typically the original vision comes across differently! kind of funny as we’ve just begun examining this (kind-of) in my Sociology class!

    • says

      Oh, you must be enjoying Sociology?! These concepts, about the way we see things, and the whole notion of ‘truth’ – are fascinating study. Also, I would imagine, it would interest you as a photographer. Hope it’s all going well for you 🙂

  14. says

    hello… this is a wonderful story, a take on why and how we tell our stories. i guess, that’s the challenge – do we stick to the facts as we know them or do we embellish the story and usher a new point of view? oh, well… 😉 thanks for the post, Alarna. thanks as well for the visit, have a pleasant week. 🙂

    • says

      Perhaps there’s room for both styles… I’m a sucker for seeing through ‘rose coloured glasses’, but there is a place for cold hard facts. Hope you also have a pleasant week 🙂

    • says

      The weird thing is thinking how my cousins have grown up over the years – the eldest is just starting uni and got her license! Ten years ago she was still a child.. How time flies 🙂

  15. WordsFallFromMyEyes says

    Daniel & me are planning to see Life of Pi. I reckon it will be wonderful.

    Love reading about your mum & her twin. Love how you developed it from the awkward to the witty repartee. This is precious. 🙂

  16. says

    Oh heaven, for all your imposed longings and supposed giftings of magical things: your center, from within us, all majesty the magic brings; turn us — paupers — into Kings.

    Albert Einstein once said (in a 1947 publication of Newsweek, regarding his many successes — and specifically, his (then) recent assistance in the development of the atomic bomb): “When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

    Later in life he had this wisdom to share, reflecting on what he found to be at the center of all human experience: “This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion. Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.”

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that every one man/woman’s life is merely a propaganda film. The moral of each story comes down to how authentically you live it. In my humble opinion. 😉

    Great post!

    • says

      Wow. Thank you for those profound words from AE. It certainly takes me places in the mind…

      I like that you say we are all a propaganda film. How authentically we live it. Yes. Perhaps also how much we believe it our own fantasy, too 😉

  17. says

    Interesting stuff, Alarna. It occurs to me that, from one point of view, everyone’s experience or perspective is a “lie” because it doesn’t represent the complete, objective truth. Or, we could just think of my experience as “my truth,” and a piece of art that I create as a facet of that truth.

  18. says

    Wow! Great post, Alarna. Glad to know about your cousins too, dear one. 🙂 Telling about the life of pie, “A pakka example which shows, how far extent the creativity of a man could go on”. Hope you know that most of the locations of that awesome flick was here in India. 🙂


  19. says

    I think there’s something exciting about seeing one of these big stories on the screen without having read the book. I was so jealous of my husband while we watched Hunger Games that he did NOT know what would happen. Life of Pi’s ending . . . so tough. I think I had to read the ending like five times. Still not sure how I feel about it . . .

    • says

      I agree! When I’m taken to a movie, I prefer to know as little about it as possible.. and enjoy the surprise. I remember you saying you were ambivalent about Life of Pi. It definitely makes one ponder 🙂

  20. Manu Kurup says

    Life of Pi was thrusted upon us by the college syllabus, the year it got Booker Prize. We all hated it because of the boring narration. I was amazed at how Ang Lee converted the novel into a visual spectacle. Great to read about your family and loved the question of possibilities at the end. Nice post.

    • says

      Oh, that gives the whole experience of Life of Pi a different perspective! I haven’t yet read the book, but I will keep your words in mind – I’m not a fan of lengthy narration, myself. Ang Lee has indeed done a wonderful job – the narration in the movie was tastefully done, I thought. And yes – truly a visual spectacle 🙂


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