Note from Allyson:
Six years ago I had the good fortune to be assigned by Penguin to copy-edit what sounded like an intriguing manuscript by Blanche Howard and her daughter Allison: A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters Between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard. I say good fortune not only because the book was a memorable read, but because Blanche and Allison were delightful to work with — talented writers both, and enthusiastic and committed — and over the course of several weeks I grew to respect and like them. I suppose it’s no accident that I felt I knew Blanche particularly well by the end of our editing stint together; after all, I had read many of her letters as part of that memoir. I’m honoured now to count Blanche and Allison among my friends.
The year we met, Blanche also wrote a thought-provoking essay that resonated because of my interest in memoir writing. “The Stories We Tell,” published in 2007 by the Vanier Institute of the Family, explores the human need to create and share life narratives, to make sense of the past. In it she writes, “They, we, all of us, crave some sort of continuity; we want to know what went before, what the world used to be like, or not so much the world but the backward shadow each of us casts.” Blanche kindly allowed me to reprint the essay on my website, and further, to share it with students in my University of Toronto SCS memoir-writing course, Memories into Story. Since then this lovely essay has been read and enjoyed, and the concepts in it discussed, by hundreds of emerging and published writers of memoir.
It seems a fitting tribute to reprint this essay today, on Blanche’s 89th birthday.
As you’ll see from her bio below, she’s still telling stories. And how lucky readers are that she is.
Happy birthday, Blanche.
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The Stories We Tell
Lately my adult children have been suggesting that I write my memoirs. This was rather unexpected; up until now their eyes had glazed over whenever I began to tell stories of the Great Depression or repeated my father’s funny sayings (the zany lines over which I had once groaned but now found myself repeating), not to mention the mild embarrassment of any mention of their own precocity and unusual cuteness as babies. Now they actually wanted to hear my stories. I dug out my ancient five-year diary, one of those little red leather-bound books ruled off into days and years, five lines to an entry, complete with a tiny key that locked it for privacy. “Cold today. Went to school. Mama made rhubarb pies.” These were truly the small daily episodes of my childhood. Why didn’t they suffice?
I put memoir-writing on hold and signed up for a history course at our local community college and there I found the answer. I thought I knew what history was, a recounting of the events of long ago, but our instructor said no, that wasn’t it at all. A recounting of the daily events in the early seventeenth century at the time of the Thirty Years War might read something like my dairy: “Cold today. Fetched water from the well and saw a rough-looking group of men in the distance. Someone said there was fighting,” and then no more talk of fighting for another month.
This isn’t history. History was born when, much later, scholars examined the times and saw that the fighting had gone on at first sporadically and then with more determination for thirty years, following a rebellion by a few hotheads in the Evangelistic Union of Calvanists against the Catholic Hapsburg rulers. A local skirmish ballooned and enveloped most of Europe. After thirty years the fighting ended with a prostrate Germany and the Holy Roman Empire reduced to an empty shell. Now we had history: a story with a beginning, a muddled middle and an end.
So history, like memoirs, is not a matter of congruent fact. History is the making of stories based on a choosing of the facts. The scholars who determined that the Thirty Years War was the defining movement of the early seventeenth century were not interested in the little lives of individuals, the mini-stories of men who avoided the fighting, the women who managed to keep on baking bread and raising children. History is interested in the grander scheme, the patterns that emerge when discrete events are stitched together, the big story.
Why this human imperative to arrange the facts into stories? I think it is to give our brains something we can work with, a bite-sized digestible portion. One episode after another is something we can’t process, an information overload that needs some mechanism to sort it out and store manageable bytes where they can be taken out and pondered and arranged in such a way that we can look back and say, “This is where it started, this is where it ends.”
Over the years historians have grappled with reducing the major events that shaped governments and economies and all the big things into historical narrative, but that isn’t enough to satiate our curiosity. What seems to linger alongside the grander scheme is a hunger for the forgotten interstices of history, the minor events that my children were after in their requests for a memoir. And in talking with other seniors I realized that it wasn’t just my children; other ageing parents were finding the same thing. By the time children are in their forties and fifties their parents are failing, bracing themselves against a distant coldness, a glacial foretelling that chills the skin and seeps into the bloodstream and sends shivers down the spine of both parent and child.
These middle-aged children must now face, four-square, the finiteness of human life. It is no longer possible to hide behind the curtain of denial that has, since adolescence, protected them; they no longer believe in their own imperviousness. They, we, all of us, crave some sort of continuity; we want to know what went before, what the world used to be like, or not so much the world but the backward shadow each of us casts. The shadow that stretches back to grandparents, great-grandparents, and sometimes into the mire of genealogical research. Not a daily fact sheet; what we want are mini-histories — a grouping of the facts so that stories take shape, stories that have some sort of beginning, middle and end. Stories that connect us, that will stave off, or lessen, the abyss of aloneness. We need memoirs and we need them now before a parent dies and family history is lost.
Not long ago my daughter Allison and I edited the letters that Carol Shields and I wrote to each other over the thirty years we knew one another. The raw materials were letters much like more sophisticated diary entries. We talked of daily events, the books we read, our families that we nurtured, our failures and then our successes as writers. Taken separately they didn’t make a story. It was only after my daughter and I had pondered and worked over the letters that patterns began to emerge, that we could see that an event marked the beginning of a new phase of our friendship. An early impulse had been to separate the material by years, but patterns are not defined by the calendar. And so we began to group the phases we could see emerging. We arranged it so that each chapter made a story with a story’s defining boundaries, and in the end we had a memoir: a series of stories that transcended the individual smaller stories and told a larger story of the belonging that friendship brings.
Is this human desire for stories encoded in our genes? Something that evolved in homo sapiens along with thumbs? Why is it important for me to know that my paternal grandfather was an early surveyor in the wilderness from which Canada was carved? And why was it important enough to one of my nieces that she retrieved the material from the Glenbow Museum, photocopied the journal, and distributed it to us? The diary itself is a somewhat battered black notebook inscribed on the title page in the beautiful copperplate writing that was then in use, “George Machon Winnipeg Manitoba Dec. 23, 1876.” It tells the story of a motley group of young, untrained men who left Sarnia on May 4th, 1876, made their way to the Lakehead and on to Winnipeg and endured blackflies and mosquitoes and illness and frostbite in travelling across the frozen prairies. Eventually the ones who were left (some of the group had succumbed to the cold) arrived at the Battle River and officially named the town of North Battleford, Saskatchewan.
This is the sort of thing we who are alive today want, a story of our forebears with a beginning, middle and end, and we don’t care what happened the day after the journey was finished. The journey has become a separate entity, a history, something we can hold on to out of a past we weren’t there for.
So maybe it is in the genes. Perhaps this seemingly-universal desire to relate through stories goes back to hunting and gathering, the pride of the tribe when one of their own killed the biggest bison or found a new way to preserve the precious fruits of foraging.
Over the years the centrality of tribal life has given way to the centrality of extended family life and then of the nuclear family. Our Judeo-Christian heritage with its Old Testament stories about the way the world was created was an attempt to make sense of an infinity our brains aren’t equipped to understand. The New Testament stories about the birth of Christ and his teachings gave us a new way to perceive our friends and forgive our enemies. The Haida Indians of the Northwest explained creation with totems that told the stories of the animals that brought the world into being, and an animal became a marker of individual tribal families. Islam shares part of our Old Testament and builds on that with the stories of the prophet Mohammed. All the world’s peoples sought their own explanations for the state of our being and passed them on as stories.
So it goes back a long way, this need. Before the invention of the printing press and the advent of widespread literacy we told and re-told our stories orally. This in itself fashioned our brains with skills that have now fallen into disuse, in that the ability to memorize long and complicated events and shape them into coherent patterns was a particular talent and one that was revered. Storytellers drifted from one small village to the next and recounted tales of what was happening outside their own domains and the locals added to the length with their own stories of the goings-on in their own villages.
After Gutenberg’s momentous invention we began to read our stories and then we began to invent them. Fiction became a means of telling a story whose essence was not of one or even a group of particular living individuals but a way to search out something universal. In the hands of an accomplished teller these fictional stories could be far more focused on the things that make us human than were the rather messy doings of real-life individuals who don’t always stick to the script but tend to wander off into byways that muddle the beginning, middle and end. Shakespeare was a master at pinpointing human foibles through fiction; who since has despaired so volubly as Hamlet? manoeuvred a weakling spouse as deftly as Lady Macbeth? raged so terribly against the final folly of his old age as King Lear? In Shakespeare both the hero and villain are, as he put it, “hoist by his own petard.” Fictional stories took us out of the fenced-in boundaries of coherent fact and brought us into an arena where we were able to examine something deeper about the human psyche, where we were invited to ponder not just what happened but what in our humanity impelled it to happen. These stories said to us, you aren’t just an unwilling pawn of fate or of the gods, you are a contributor and shaper.
But this doesn’t completely answer why it is that we want to bring our stories to the level of the personal, of the familial. There is something else operating here. We grow up loving our parents, or rejecting them, or forgiving them, or doing all three at once, emotions that may be bewildering. We need to solve the puzzle, to try to look at their lives and understand what is was that impelled them to actions that we may applaud or deride as the case may be. We want to peek inside the hidden aspects of their lives and through that to shed light on our own.
Then what of family stories that reach further back, like the story of my grandfather’s journey? Other than the fact that it makes for a good story, the beginning, middle and end of an adventure, that is. Why do such family stories beckon, intrigue, acquire significance? Partly, I suppose, because they are the source of at least some of the genetic material that provides the broad outline for what we have or may become. It helps us to understand. It is the clay from which we sprung and perhaps it is a mould into which we can fit a portion of our own lives, or at least understand from whence the impulses arises.
But beyond and above all this is the need to belong. We are like other animals in our need to belong to our own group, or tribe, or family. If we don’t belong, if we are outcasts, we are outcasts because we have no stories to bring us into the fold. As humans we differ from animals in that we can reach back into a forgotten past, find where we belong, weave that belonging into the fabric of our existence. Stories locate us in the chaos of a boundless universe. They give us a place where we can live.
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BLANCHE HOWARD has published four novels, co-authored a fifth with Carol Shields, A Celibate Season, and edited, with her daughter Allison, A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters Between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard. She has also published numerous short stories and essays, mostly in literary journals. A full-length play adapted from A Celibate Season was a finalist in the 1989 Canadian National Theatre Playwriting Competition and was produced in Vancouver in 1990. Blanche published an e-novel in 2010, and has recently completed another work of fiction. A chapter she submitted on a call for submissions has been chosen for a multi-author novel, At the Edge, being developed by Marjorie Anderson (who conceived of and edited, along with Carol Shields, the Dropped Threads series).
Blanche Howard was born Blanche Machon. She earned a BSc at the University of Alberta and married Bruce Howard in 1945. She taught chemistry at the University of Toronto while he was overseas, then they moved to the Okanagan Valley of B.C., where they raised their three children. She dabbled in writing until poverty struck, then articled with a firm of chartered accountants and earned a CA degree in 1962. When her husband was elected with the Trudeau gang in 1968, she moved to Ottawa and began to write in earnest. She moved to North Vancouver in 1973, where she wrote and taught, and practised accounting for money. She eventually retired from accounting — but never from writing.