I sometimes think about compiling the soundtrack to an imaginary movie about my life.
A collection of songs is usually quite easy to piece together, because music naturally carries meanings and feelings that we can (almost instantly) identify. I heard a ‘roadtrip’ song the other day on the radio that suddenly perked up an otherwise cold and gloomy winter’s day. Among the more unusual types of songs that I have include a ‘badass’ song that I occasionally pull out when I’ve done something badass-worthy (although I have to confess that my threshold for badass-ness is not very high!), and a ‘silly dance’ song for when I’m feeling like, well, a silly dance.
Narrating your life story, however, is a completely different experience. It requires you to not only describe the feelings of the more significant moments of your life, but to then explain that moment and it’s significance in the context of your entire life. Finding a golden trail that connects all the dots.
It’s a bit like how I imagine the constellations might have been first discovered: some person, thousands of years ago, looked up at the vast sky and decided that he would group certain stars together in order to tell a particular story. Without these stories, the night sky – although beautiful – would be rather meaningless.
It is the stories – the answers to ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘how’, and most importantly, ‘why’ – that remain with us and endure.
The last few weeks have been a (rather painful) journey of uncovering the narrative of my life, through a process of drafting and redrafting personal statements for the Rhodes Scholarship application. It’s a surprisingly difficult task – putting together pieces of your life as if they were a part of a grander jigsaw puzzle – in an attempt to paint an authentic yet coherent picture of my life to date. It involves digging deep to answer difficult questions like: Who is Alice? What is Alice about? What is Alice’s big hairy audacious goal?
Being forced to articulate who you are is definitely a special experience. It means that you can’t hide behind titles and relationships (“Hi, I’m Alice, and I’m a student at/friends with/employee of [insert name here]”) and it requires doing the opposite of what is natural in storytelling, which is to start with an idea rather than to end up with one.
The most difficult aspect of the narrative is defining what makes you unique and set apart. There is no truly unique life event – we each pass through experiences of joy and loss – and no unique achievements (unless you’re an Olympian astrophysicist ninja!). But somewhere in the process of weaving together the fabric of our biographies is an extraordinary story is waiting to be born.