Living the Story
Interview with Donald Miller
By: Catherine Larson|Published: September 22, 2009 8:29 PM
I talked with author Donald Miller about his new book, entitled A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life.
The heart of the book, and of the interview, is about what the elements of a good story have to do with living our own lives well.
Catherine Larson: The press release for your new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, says that years after writing your best-selling memoir Blue Like Jazz—which made the New York Times paperback bestseller list 45 times, selling more than one million copies, you fell into a funk and spent months sleeping in and avoiding the publisher. Is that right? And can you tell our readers about how some movie producers knocking on your door started to change things?
Donald Miller: It’s fairly accurate. I think one story had ended—a story I’d been working on for a long time. And by story, I mean real-life story. I had wanted to become a successful writer, and having done so, I was kind of waking up and not knowing what was supposed to come next because I’d finally done what I’d been trying to do for so long.
Like a lot of people when that happens, I just kind of went into a funk. I was working on a novel that really wasn’t very good. The publisher really wanted it and it was obviously not coming, so I began to avoid the publisher a little bit. And then Steve and Ben, these two filmmakers, said they wanted to make a movie out of [Blue Like Jazz], the memoir I’d written. And so we began working on a screenplay, and I’m very thankful for that because it taught me the elements of a story and how to tell an interesting story. And these were things I didn’t know before I began working with them. And then of course I began trying to apply those same elements to my life.
CL: So what would you say the elements of a good story are, and how do they also make elements for a good life?
DM: The elements of an actual story are fairly complicated, but in its simplest terms, it’s a character who wants something and who is willing to overcome conflict to get it. If we live that, even in a day of our lives, we’ll feel more clarity. I don’t know how else to explain it except that story is a sense-making device. When we’re living within a story, our lives feel like they make sense. By living in those elements, by wanting something in our lives, by having a good attitude toward the conflict that is inevitable, then our lives feel more meaningful. I’ve found that to be true. If I want something that is compelling, that keeps my interest, the conflict doesn’t become a burden any more; it’s part of the process, if that makes sense?
CL: That does make sense. One of the things that you talked about was how so many of these stories involve an element of conflict and of risk. How do you think risk works in writing or living a good story? And do you think God rewards us when we take risks that are for His glory?
DM: You’d have to define reward. In the way that most people think of reward, no, I don’t think that at all. That’s much more of a consumer, wish-fulfillment kind of thinking. If God rewarded Stephen, then his reward was being stoned to death. If God rewarded Peter, then his reward was being crucified upside down. We tend to take these elements of Scripture and try to turn them so that they can piggy-back on the elements of the free-market culture. And that’s not how story works.
You can invest everything and you can lose everything—that’s called a tragedy. And yet at the end of the tragedy of Stephen’s life, his story is incredibly beautiful and meaningful. At the end of the tragedy of Peter’s life, if you want to look at it that way, it’s incredibly beautiful and meaningful. And of course, there’s an afterlife. So if we’re interested in beauty and meaning and purpose, the elements of story can really help us find a fulfilling existence. If we’re interested in being rewarded materially or socially, the elements of story really aren’t very interested in that.
CL: One of the parts of your book I liked best was when you talk about character development. Can you explain what character transformation has to do with living a good story?
DM: Well most stories—maybe I should say many stories—are about the arc of the character. You know Dickens’ A Christmas Carol would be the best example. You see Scrooge at the beginning and he’s a bitter old man, and by the end he’s a generous person who’s been changed by conflict, by encountering what’s at the heart of who he is. And that’s by design. That’s something that God has designed. It’s the way that He changes us. We are people who are constantly changing, and that’s by design. We’re becoming something different all the time and hopefully we’re becoming something better.
Even before the Fall of man, you see the elements of story. You see Adam being lonely, not being complete....Adam walks with God, knows God intimately, has not sinned and yet is lacking. God knows what he’s lacking because he created Adam to lack and he needed a woman, so instead of giving Adam a woman, God tells Adam to name the animals, which probably took many, many years.
And so here [Adam] is in conflict, feeling negative emotions for years, and then when Eve is finally created he says this first bit of Hebrew parallelism: “Bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” Essentially what happens there is the narrative breaks into music. It breaks into song.
And the point of that story for Adam was that he would feel this inner turmoil, and he would name the animals as a way of not finding what he was looking for. And then what he was looking for would be delivered to him, and he would appreciate it because of the conflict. And if it weren’t for the conflict he wouldn’t value Eve, or he certainly wouldn’t value her as much.
Well, that’s God’s design and it’s His design before the Fall of man and not after the Fall of man. So story exists before the Fall. Now conflict really got hijacked after the Fall. It’s very different than it was because there are all sorts of other painful realities that we deal with because of the Fall of man, but God intended to change our character from the beginning. And so that’s one of the reasons in Scripture it talks about, “Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing the testing of your faith is producing perseverance.” That conflict is by design, it’s something that God wants and we’re supposed to engage it with a positive attitude because it changes our character. It changes who we are.
CL: And that then makes sense of something you talk about in the book which is that a general rule of thumb is that characters do not want to change. They have to be forced to change. I really love the quote that you had from Robert McGee who teaches the Story Workshop. He says, “You put your characters through hell—that’s the only way that they change.”
DM: Yeah, we don’t change through happy moments. Happy moments don’t change our characters. They’re great. But they don’t change our characters.
CL: Has that changed how you see God at all—those difficult things that He brings into our lives?
DM: Well, for some reason, I know it’s difficult to explain, it makes me love and trust God all the more because I’m convinced that there’s no amount of hardship I can experience that won’t return an amount of character change that really won’t bless me in the end. So I see God as much more of a story-teller than I used to, but it’s not like He’s sitting beside your bed as you fall asleep. You are actively involved in the story that He is also involved in telling. So I suppose so, yes.
The other part of this process is that when growing up, God used to exist to me on pages of Scripture and really no where else. And now he exists for me everywhere, do you know what I mean? The pages of Scripture explain to me what God is saying through life, where it used to be the pages of Scripture explained to me what God was saying. What I’m not saying is that God speaks to me through trees or whatever, but He did make the trees, and I see Him in the trees. I see His handiwork as the psalmist said. And so I think my life became much more embedded in the identity of God than it was before.
CL: That’s a great way of putting it. In the book, you share some sometimes humorous and sometimes poignant stories about how God really began to do that work of character transformation in you as you began throwing yourself into these new real-life stories. It may be a tough question to ask, but are there character qualities that you see growing in yourself as a result of some of the new conflicts and new risks in your life?
DM: Well, you know I’m at a point now where some stories have ended. I rode my bike across America and that story ended. And I finished the book which is harder than riding a bike across America, and that story has ended. So I’m really in a place of almost rest (although there’s no rest when you’re promoting a book—it’s actually harder than writing a book).
And so I think I’m just enjoying God right now; it’s the bit of the campfire on the beach when you’re finished riding the bike across America. You just enjoy what you’ve done and celebrate. And of course there will be more stories, but that’s kind of the phase that I’m in.
You can’t stay there. You have to eventually get up and move into the next story or you’ll die inside. But I think I’m there. I’m literally just so enjoying getting up and taking a walk at sunrise along the river and praying and talking to God about some of the stuff that he’s brought me through, and at the same time of course, I’m involved with The Mentoring Project, and these kinds of things which are stories that will never end.
CL: You don’t get much into The Mentoring Project in this book, maybe you could tell us a little bit about that, about the genesis of it, and how that’s doing today.
DM: You know I grew up without a dad. And I met him a couple years ago for the first time in not having seen him in 30 years. I had mentors as I grew up, really great men who took me under their wing. I didn’t realize—I’m ashamed to say—until I was in my 30s, that I should have been in prison. I should have been a statistic. And indeed was breaking into houses before the first mentor took me under his wings.
So I wrote a book, [To Own a Dragon], for guys growing up without dads that will be reprinted in April. So when I finished that book I realized that I could help provide mentors for kids growing up without fathers. And that was the genesis of The Mentoring Project.
So we realized that we could resource and equip churches to run mentoring programs within their four walls. We would provide training and guidance, step-by-step, here’s how you do this. And I’m convinced that within 20 years the Church could provide mentors to over a million kids growing up without fathers. You guys obviously know the statistics of what happens when men grow up without dads. About 85 percent of prisoners grow up without fathers and so it’s an important issue. It’s the big domino at the front of the stack that knocks over a lot of other stuff.
CL: Mentoring is something we’ve definitely had a lot of focus on at Prison Fellowship. And I just believe mentoring is so, so crucial both to the children of prisoners and also with the prisoners themselves as they are returning back into society. So that’s terrific. So how many years has that been going on?
DM: We are three years old. We’re mentoring about 100 kids in Portland, but we have a goal of 5,000, even as soon as next year. We’ve developed our program. We’ve created our program. And now we have about 200 churches which are waiting to start our program.
CL: That’s tremendous. Well, getting back to the book a little bit, you mentioned at one point that you were talking with one of the film-makers and were asking him if the film that they were making about your memoir was going to win an Academy Award. They laughed and they said it’s not really an epic. What exactly are the elements of an epic story and what do you think those elements have to do with our own story?
DM: Well, a really great story involves laying down your life for the betterment of humanity. That’s one of the reasons that the Christian story is really so beautiful. Because that’s what Christ has done—sacrificed Himself for our benefit and for all the world’s benefit. And then there’s also an epic love story involved in the Christian story in that the whole of what motivates this incredible action of Jesus is His love for His own creation and the rescue of His children, as it were. And then of course, there’s an antagonist. All of the elements of story come from what we think of as the Christian story. The Christian story really is not so much a story—it’s life. This is our whole existence and because of the Christian story the elements of story exist. All of our little stories, everything from the teen comedy that you go see, to Lord of the Rings, is all just a parable where you can exchange those elements and you will get to the Gospel, very, very quickly.
CL: That begs a question that came to me often as I was reading the book and that is how do you see those small stories as relating to the grand story? Are we the hero of the story or is someone else the hero of the story?
DM: Well, it depends. I think of my own particular story as a subplot. There are subplots in most stories. I think all of our personal stories are just subplots in a grander epic and they’re very tiny subplots. But we can say something with our stories. Now I prefer a saint to a hero. A hero is the center of his story and a saint sacrifices himself for the other character who is the hero of the story. I like that model better in my own life. Because ultimately people can watch a story about me and I would be the hero of it, they could trust in me and have faith in me, and it would make no difference. It has to point to Christ. As a believer, my story has to point to Jesus. And He is our hope. He is the hero...
CL: One thing I wanted to cover that we haven’t talked about is how we in America get caught up in living in some very small stories. Could you talk about what some of those familiar smaller stories are?
DM: Well, the elements of story are continually hijacked by the bait of marketing and advertising. I don’t have a problem with driving a nice car—I drive a nice car—but if our story is about getting a car and driving a nice car, then we shouldn’t expect our lives to feel any more meaningful than they would if we were to watch a movie about a person who worked for years to get a nice car. We wouldn’t cry at the end of that movie. Or tell our friends that we saw an amazing movie. And we won’t feel any different about our lives if that’s all we want out of life. I think we are suckered into those sorts of stories all the time and we do have to be really careful.
CL: Reading your book has really made me want to live a better story. And I think it has also helped me better understand why sometimes we have to face such hard things—God cares about changing us. So I wanted to thank you for writing it and thank you for being willing to share it with us.
DM: Well, thank you for giving me this chance to talk with you today and to your readers.
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