Listen to the story:
“The past is just a story we tell ourselves.”– Spike Jonze, Her
The last time we talked, we talked about James Bond.
Grandpa was a born storyteller. The best one I’ve ever met. As he told his story, I was transported back to the drive-in theatre in 1964, where he went with my grandma to see Goldfinger.
They rolled down the window and mounted the radio. They ate popcorn and watched James Bond smoke his cigarettes. They watched as he escaped a laser destined to kill him. They saw Bond beat the bad guy.
We talked about Sean Connery as Bond — he was sexy and timeless and charming; one of the all-time great movie stars. He had the x-factor, the feeling that you knew him, just by looking at him.
I always feel like I know movie stars too. I’m drawn to them. I can’t help but want to be like them. I want to smoke cigarettes the way Sean Connery does.
We each have people who are the “movie stars” of our life. These are the people we watch and adore. The ones we love more than our bodies can understand or reckon with.
In my life, Grandpa was a movie star. He had these hands and arms with so much experience imprinted on them — like the grooves of a giant old tree. His aging skin was like a film strip — precious, damaged, and filled with grain.
He was never a secret agent. He didn’t save the world.
But Grandpa was my James Bond.
Chances are, at some point in your life, someone has said that a moment “felt like a movie.”
It could’ve been a car crash. An out-of-body experience at a concert. A too-honest conversation in a parked car, windows fogging.
But for me, that feeling — the shaking, deep in your marrow — it’s every second. My whole life, I’ve been picking my moments: every kiss, every breathless summer night, and spinning it into a timeline of character development, making my memories into a film.
If you want to get to know me, ask me about movies. Because movies are me. They’re my blood. They’re my heart.
I had bad asthma when I was a kid, and I would have coughing fits at night. It felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest, forcing rash gasps out of me. To stop it, my mom would run a hot shower and let me breathe in the steam. Then we would go outside and sit on our front step in the cool night air.
My lungs loosened as we looked at the stars and she asked me about the one thing that would calm me down: movies.
She knew I was in love with them because every time she would pull out our home video camera, I would beg and beg her to see how she was shooting it. I would sprawl out on our living room floor, with all of our family DVDs on the floor in front of me. The Matrix and The Godfather and The Lord of the Rings series. I would look at the boxes and study them as if preparing for an exam.
As I got older, I wanted to buy my own DVDs. I’d go look at the movie section of Walmart while my mom shopped — at first picking out movies about Indiana Jones or Harry Potter.
By the time I was in middle school, I was more interested in seeing grown-up movies like Her and Dallas Buyers Club than I ever was in seeing the latest Marvel movie. There were many hard-fought battles about which movies 13-year-old me was and wasn’t allowed to watch.
Now, I see the world through films. They’re how I understand the world. I only talk about them with the people I’m closest with. Films are intimate to me like lying in bed with someone, completely silent. They’re always there for me, no matter what.
And that’s why I’ve been putting my memories into an editing machine. An editing machine that takes it, reshapes it, and spits it into a movie that plays admission-free in my head.
My life isn’t just dedicated to movies. My life is a movie.
The Inciting Incident
Grandpa had been fighting his second round with cancer for a while now. He was getting skinnier and losing hair. But he never seemed to lose his spirit.
I’m watching Raging Bull when my dad interrupts to tell me that Grandpa just had a stroke. I can already feel the grief like a monster on my back. In my head, I’m spinning this into the plot twist of my movie. I’m preparing for how it’s going to change my narrative.
Grandpa was a fighter, up there with Rocky and Apollo Creed. He had already gone more rounds than most. He had cancer when I was young, but after a remission of about 10 years, it came back. This stroke would be his knockout blow.
They rushed him to the hospital and got him stabilized.
But there was no going back from this. //Cut.
So, what’s the movie playing in your head?
This isn’t just my question, but the primary question of an entire section of psychology called narrative psychology.
Even if you haven’t thought of your “life story,” (or as I call it, your “movie”) storytelling is heavily intertwined with our life events.
Narrative psychology deals with the idea that the vision of our own lives are not Wikipedia entries saying everything that ever happened to us, but structured stories that cherry-pick the best (and worst) moments and put them on a plot graph. Memories are not objective events, but an autobiography that you write.
“A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next” says Julie Beck in her feature article on narrative psychology in The Atlantic.
Together, all of your memories don’t form just one movie — but “libraries,” worth of films, as Beck puts it. These movies intertwine, creating a cinematic universe comprised entirely of you.
You’re making your own movie. You’re picking the moments that matter. You’re deciding where they belong in the timeline — and what that means for the next scene. I often get lost overthinking my past, trying to construe meaning from it.
As we know, life does not come pre-packaged as a movie. We’re awkward, we go for long drives, and spend hours just listening to the same songs over and over. So, we use elements from storytelling to create movies out of our memories — to tighten the objective world into something tighter, ordered, and meaningful.
You make a movie about work experiences. One about a love story. Another for your sports underdog story.
And one to show the devastation left by someone you lost.
Selkirk Steelers hockey games. Green seats. The same old guys smoking menthols outside in leather jackets. I loved the smell of cigarettes in winter air.
First period — a bottle of Sprite and a small popcorn. Dad’s treat.
Third period — hot chocolate and licorice. Grandpa’s treat.
The three of us — me, my dad, and Grandpa — watched countless games in that barn. But the one I’ll never forget is game seven of the Anavet Cup, a do-or-die for the Steelers. I was six years old. The place was packed and reeked like popcorn and cigarettes.
The game was incredibly close: a climactic battle that went to overtime, then overtime again.
Then overtime again.
It was approaching midnight on a Tuesday. People with work and school the next day started walking out. Was this game ever going to end?
But we didn’t leave. I stayed there with Dad and Grandpa. Stayed until the Steelers finally scored in the fourth overtime, winning the cup. The players threw all their equipment into the air, perfectly orchestrated and co-ordinated, like a musical number.
Dad and Grandpa definitely got the shaft from my mom for keeping me out until one in the morning on a school night.
But it was worth it.
Grandpa loved hockey. He would come to all my games equipped in garbage mitts and his Canada Goose jacket — even if it was only minus one. No matter what, he brought his famous steam engine horn that came from a literal train. It was this bronze cylindrical pipe with a mouthpiece at the end — heavy, like a lightsaber. He would blow into it whenever my team scored.
The sound of his horn plays through my life; it’s sewn into my memories by a sound editor, like a musical cue.
I’m five, six, seven: it’s playing. I’m a Timbit. I can barely skate. I can’t raise the puck.
Eight, nine, ten: It’s playing the first time Grandpa got cancer. I remember my dad going to the hospital to sit with him at chemo. I was growing. He was fading. I could finally skate. He could barely walk. I was raising the puck. He wasn’t raising anything heavier than his coffee.
Eleven, twelve, thirteen: He’s beaten it. He’s gone into remission. The blow into the horn is stronger than ever. Now I’m starting to figure out who I am. I’m moving on to middle school. I’m making friends. Losing friends. But he’s always there. He’s a fighter. He’s my fighter.
Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen: He’s at all my games — volleyball, basketball, hockey. I start to notice how everyone reacts to his presence. His presence isn’t just electric to me, it’s electric to everyone. He’s talking, telling stories. “See you in the funny papers.” Making everyone laugh. “Touched you last!” He attracts people like a celebrity, like a movie star.
Seventeen, eighteen: I graduate high school. I feel like I hear it as they call my name — Maclaren — his name. In my head, I hear a train. I hear his horn. But it’s not there. He didn’t bring it.
When I graduated, I started a new story. I was moving on to adulthood. But for him, it wouldn’t be long before he got diagnosed with cancer again. It wouldn’t be long before the stroke sent him to the hospital for good.
I wish I knew then. How close his story was to ending.
What aspects of story do we use to create our movies?
In his foundational book The Stories We Live By, Dan P. McAdams explores how myths inform how we express and think of our memories as stories.
One of McAdams’ central ideas is that character is the most important aspect of everyone’s story. The people you surround yourself with, your closest family and friends, have significant impact on your narrative, and often fit into character types — like the comic relief, or the wise old man.
McAdams writes: “We come to understand ourselves better by a comprehensive understanding of the main characters that dominate the plot of our story, and push the narrative forward.”
You are the main character of your movies, and typically, in each individual movie of our life, we see ourselves based more on character types — like the lover, the underdog, or the survivor — rather than the complex, all-encompassing people we really are.
In my movie, Grandpa towers over everything. He’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, with his lightsaber and wisdom. As I got older, I realized he was like the rest of us: human. But I choose to ignore that. Sometimes reality isn’t as good as the movie.
In the end, the type of main character you are, and the types of characters you’re surrounded by create the themes, conflicts and story beats important to the narrative you’re telling yourself.
If you’re an underdog, your narrative is about finding agency to triumph. If you’re a survivor, your narrative is about finding enough to get through each day.
We use these stories to make us feel comfortable. If our story is structured like a common one, we feel as if we can predict our future — and that helps us give meaning to our lives.
Most satisfying stories have already been told countless times. We know where their inciting incidents are. We know where their climaxes and peaks are. And most importantly, we know their endings.
When we fall in love, we assume that the story ends with marriage. An underdog will eventually prove themselves, and the survivor will find salvation.
Narrative psychology teaches us that life has its own cinematic qualities and cliches. But just as a filmmaker will set up expectations in order to mislead you, our lives teach us again and again: life is not predictable.
I was taught in a screenwriting class that a phone call is the least dramatic scene you can write. But I disagree. Two of my life’s most dramatic events happened over the phone.
One was while Grandpa was in the hospital. It had to be on FaceTime, my aunt holding the phone up for him.
It couldn’t be a regular phone call because Grandpa couldn’t speak anymore.
He used to light up when he told a story. He had an inventory of them. Classics included: fitting clothes for mental health patients in the 70s (a man with no legs would yell at him “Dave, where’s my shoes?”); my cousins’ late-night farting competitions (Mark beat Iain most of the time); and where he was at major historical events — like JFK’s assassination (he was hunting and heard it on the radio).
But that day I saw him without his bellowing, room-filling voice. The voice that made him seem like a giant.
He held his thumbs up to our questions. We weren’t sure if he even understood what we were saying. His eyes were somewhere else. His face was drained like the melting faces at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Dad had been visiting him. The rest of us weren’t allowed because of the pandemic. That was devastating enough, but worse was watching my dad come home from the hospital every night a bit more heartbroken. One night he came home and said Grandpa couldn’t see or speak anymore. I’ll never forget what he said: “I just sat beside him, and he grabbed my hand and held it really tight.”
But the whole call Grandpa held his thumb up. He just held it there, willing it to do something that his body couldn’t: say one of his classic lines.
“See you in the funny papers.”
“Touched you last.”
The second dramatic phone call comes a few days later. I see there’s a missed call on my phone from my dad. I’m at work and don’t answer. But then I see his text. “Call me.”
I know exactly what’s happening. I don’t want to call because that means my grandpa will be dead. But I do anyway. Dad’s voice is scratchy. He doesn’t sound like himself.
You know how this story ends. //Cut.
If your memories become a movie, does that mean our lives as we know them are fiction?
Jonathan Gotschall writes in his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human that the human mind “is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence.”
In other words, most people want to believe everything happens for a reason. Stories allow us to create order out of chaos. That means creating metaphors out of coincidence. Creating things that weren’t said or done for dramatic effect. The way we see our lives isn’t the truth — but the movie version.
Not a true story — but based on one.
Considering how much meaning these stories create, is it problematic that our movies — and our identities that are built through them — are essentially lies?
Christopher Nolan’s Memento asks that question. It’s one of my favourite films, one that helped me understand the meanings of our life stories.
The crux of the crime film is that for the majority of the movie, the protagonist — who has a form of amnesia — has been living a lie unbeknownst to the audience. He’s intentionally chasing after an innocent man, dressed in someone else’s clothes.
The protagonist, Leonard Shelby, is telling himself a story that isn’t true — he’s bending reality. In his final narration, he reflects on how lies have given him a reason to live.
“I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning. […] We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different”
He tells himself a false story, a fictional movie, so that he can pretend his life still has a purpose. That he’s doing something in this world. That he has an identity.
Just like I do.
Climax and Resolution
I wore green to Grandpa’s funeral.
There were COVID restrictions: meet outside, no more than 20 people. Then there were our restrictions: wear something sports-related, don’t dress too fancy.
So I wore the brightest, biggest hockey jersey I had — my jersey from my city-champs winning team, the Rebels.
The establishing shot: it’s a grey September day, almost too good to be true — like this day was what the screenwriter had in mind. When we got there, we had arranged for someone to play the bagpipes — a score tributing Grandpa’s Scottish origins. It was enough to make me shake.
As members of my family went up and spoke, it started to feel more grim. My Uncle Scott mentioned a few of the all-time great stories. The farting competitions came up again. The stories induced painful laughs I didn’t know I had in me.
Then there was this wind. This wind felt like it would blow all of us out of our folding chairs at the cemetery. It felt so supernatural, almost as if it were a practical effect.
Then, Grandpa’s framed picture, which had been sitting on his headstone, ate shit and fell face first, with the loudest, most cartoony clank I’ve ever heard.
I didn’t know what it meant. Nobody laughed. But in the darkest, weirdest way, it was so funny. For me, it broke the tension. It broke the grimness of it all.
As I went to put a rose in his grave, all alone, I realized what the resolution to this story was.
Grandpa had lived his life to the fullest. He would want us to be fighters, but not to take life too seriously.
I went up to my mom. She was wearing sunglasses, even on this grey day. I wasn’t. My eyes were filled with tears — they were outrageously red and sore. It was bad even for a funeral. But hers were hidden. She had immense respect for Grandpa, even though he wasn’t her dad.
I gave her a big bear hug. As we embraced, I said, “You were smart to wear sunglasses.”
“You’ll go to lots of funerals in your life — you’ll learn,” she said back. We laughed, painfully. A perfect moment that lives in my memory, almost too perfect. Like it was scripted.
The resolution to this story, how I’ve created meaning out of it, is contained in one word: succession.
My favourite movie is The Godfather. In my movie, I’m Michael Corleone. I’m Pacino — a man who has to form an identity that can stand up to the legacy of his singular father figure. And Grandpa is Vito Corleone. You can’t take your eyes off him. He’s Brando.
Grandpa was electric, magnetic, a tidal wave. Like the rest of us, he wasn’t perfect, but he enjoyed life on the highest level.
I have taken those qualities and tried to integrate them into who I am. His dedication and patience with family and relationships inspires me. His story guides me to be a memorable, resilient, and funny.
I’m 22 now and life has never felt this confusing. Most of the time, I feel lost.
So maybe it’s self-destructive to rely on fictionalized memories to guide my life, to guide my personality and my decisions. Maybe I’m just funnelling my grief into something else — something more positive. Maybe I’m lying to myself.
Moments I barely remember are now plot points. I don’t think my grandpa had his train horn until I was in my teens. I didn’t include the mundane moments. Most of the time I spent with Grandpa was spent watching American Pickers on afternoon TV. We would go on long, seemingly aimless drives and let the radio do the talking.
This movie, the one I just showed you, it didn’t happen like this. The way it lives in my memory isn’t the absolute truth, but it’s not a lie. It’s my truth. It’s my life, romanticized. It’s a love letter to Grandpa.
Say it’s a coping mechanism, say it’s my grief doing the talking. This is my movie. I’m in control and so are you. The world doesn’t happen to you — you happen to the world. Reality is your story. It’s what you make it.
So tell your stories. Make movie stars. Make story beats. Ignore your reality. Lie to yourself to find the truth, or don’t.
It’s your life. Don’t regret it. Don’t think twice. Don’t fade away.
See you in the funny papers. //Cut.