Tell Me a Story… Explain Yourself!

hinksonToday is the first of our guest author posts!  Jake Hinkson is a film noir connoisseur and scholar who happens to also be great at writing crime fiction stories.  Jake blogs about film, writes essays for various publications, and teaches online workshops on storytelling. He’s a fellow southern transplant who loves cats, gently handles my ignorance of film, and loves to eat as much as I do.

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First a story: in England, nearly a hundred years ago, there was a small boy living in London. One day his mother gave him a folded note and told him to walk down the street to the police station and deliver it to the man at the front desk. The boy did as he was told and went down to the station and gave the note to the burly, red-faced officer behind the front desk. The officer read the note grimly and said, “Follow me.” He led the boy to a small, gray cell in the back of the station, and said, “Get in.” Already shaking, the boy got in and the officer locked the door and left. For two hours the boy was left alone and crying. Finally, at the end of the two hours, the officer reappeared and let him out with the warning, “This is what happens to bad little boys.” The boy was ten years old. His name was Alfr540px-Hitchcock,_Alfred_02ed Hitchcock, and he would go on to direct such landmark films as Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window and The Birds, each, in their way, dealing with themes of unexplained terror, guilt and loneliness.

Hitchcock’s famous story about his two hours in jail—a story which he told many times in his life—is a simple illustration of the importance of certain events in our lives, but it also points to the important of stories themselves. After all, did this event really happen? Hmm…maybe. Maybe not. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t particularly care whether the story is true or not because it does the thing that story is supposed to do: it illustrates an idea.

This why we have stories, after all. We turn everything into narrative—we pick events and isolate details, all in an attempt to explain and illuminate. When you get home from work and your special someone asks you how your day went, you probably end up telling a story. If you’re trying to explain why you’re in a good mood, or a bad mood, or why you’re worried, or why you’re feeling whatever it is that you’re feeling, you probably end up turning all of that into a narrative that involves what you did and who you saw and what it all adds up to.

There was far more to Hitchcock’s long life than his visit to the police station, yet that was the story he choose to tell to explain his fear of wrongful persecution and to explain his complicated relationship with his mother. If the story was simply made up, or greatly exaggerated for effect, then that tells us even more. (I recall a creative writing professor telling me once that we learn more from the lies someone tells than the truths they tell. The lies, after all, reveal what they want to be true.) Hitchcock’s story was shorthand for the trauma of his childhood, a simple way to illustrate how one of our greatest storytellers developed his own particular obsessions.

We tell ourselves stories, it seems to me, to explain ourselves. We are, all of us, mysteries. The stories we tell are a way to organize it, to make it all make some kind of sense.

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