What does it mean to tell a good story with your life? Why would you want to? At what point do you realize that you’re not telling a good story, or really any story at all? These are all questions that Donald Miller addresses in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.
I used to identify with Don (and still do, to an extent). There’s a point, very early on in the book, when Don says, “You get the feeling that life means something, but you’re not sure what,” (p. 5). I mean, I believe my life has a purpose, but it’s really easy to lose sight of that fact in the day-to-day grind of what it is that I fill my days with. I’ve often asked myself that same question.
You see, Don had written a New York Times Best-Seller, his memoir Blue Like Jazz. By the time (a couple years later) when he was approached by a movie producer to turn the book into a screenplay, Don had lost his confidence. He’d written some other things that hadn’t sold nearly as well, and he was feeling pretty insecure about his abilities as a writer. He didn’t know what to do with himself, now that he could no longer identify with that label he’d had thrust on him of “Best-selling Author”. Kind of a tough title to live down, right?
The process of transforming Blue Like Jazz into a screenplay required Don to take a clinical look at his life and edit it down to the most important parts. Life, as you know, doesn’t really have a plot if you’re just living it. It takes an intentional decision to script a plot; the author has to engineer certain events to occur in a certain order so that the story is told properly. “I felt defensive,” Don says, “as though the scenes in my life weren’t going anywhere. I mean, I knew they weren’t going anywhere, but it didn’t seem okay for anyone else to say it” (p.25).
In the process of writing this screenplay, Don begins to look at Story (with a capital “S”) and how it’s created. He begins to wonder “whether a person could plan a story for his life and live it intentionally” (p.39). Seems like a worthy experiment, right? After all, if the alternative is drifting through days at the office and nights watching TV, what does a person have to lose?
Don decides that, “A Story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it” (p.48). Let’s look at that definition of Story, shall we? What are the component pieces?
1. A character. That’s you. The story is the character. It doesn’t exist without them. Oh sure, someone else could come along and take the place of a given character, but then the story would change. It wouldn’t be the same as it would have been. And that’s the point. You have something unique and special within you that needs to come out, and if you don’t, there’s no way in the world to replace or replicate it. There’s a void that wouldn’t have been there if you (or me, or anyone else) would have stepped up to tell the story we were born to tell.
2. A character who wants something. You have to want something. And it has to be something interesting. If your goal is to make enough money during the day shuffling papers so you can pay for cable to watch at night, that’s a want. However, it’s not an interesting want. You have to want something cool in order for your story to be interesting.
Why should you want it to be interesting, anyway? That seems to be a valid question, especially if you think that this life is all there is, right? Leaving aside my personal reason (I believe God put me here to do more than shuffle papers and pay for cable), wouldn’t you just rather live an interesting life? If this really is all there is, then why waste time doing something that’s boring? Shouldn’t you spend the 70 or 80 years that you have doing something enjoyable, that’s relevant and really means something to you?
3. A character who wants something and overcomes conflict. Overcoming conflict is what makes getting to your goals interesting in and of itself. The journey’s the thing. For any of you nerds out there who’ve read The Lord of the Rings (I’m a total nerd; don’t think I’m mocking), you know that the book hardly gets going before Frodo finds himself flung headlong into conflict and starts out on a journey. The journey comprises the vast majority of the book, and the end result (in this case) is almost secondary. I mean, throwing the One Ring into Mt. Doom was sort of the point of all the suffering and conflict, but to me it always seemed almost anti-climactic. All the cool stuff happened on the way there.
Struggling through conflict in order to get something you want is what causes growth and change. That’s really what it’s all about. It’s not so much the achieving of a goal or obtaining what you set out to do; it’s more about how you get there and what you become. How do I know that? Because, as soon as you achieve what you’ve sought after for so long, you have to set a new goal. And you have to go through conflict again to achieve it. If you don’t, you’ll end up just as stagnant as you were before you started with the first goal.
4. A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. Now, as much as I just talked about the journey being the important thing, you have to achieve the goals. We humans are motivated by rewards, just like dogs. Sure, our rewards are a little more complex than the ones you would offer a dog, but it’s the same principle. In order to go through the crap that builds character, you have to have a reason to do so. Suffering for suffering’s sake isn’t worthwhile, and no one I know who isn’t mentally ill will put up with pointless suffering for very long. In order to become better, you need to have something driving you to become better. That is what you get, after you’ve gotten the lesson you were supposed to get from the journey.
I am excited about this book. I know I always preach about being intentional on this site, but to hear Don’s journey told from the perspective of trying to tell a good story was a new way to look at it. It reached me differently than the concept has before. You can’t drift through life and hope that contentment happens to you. It has to be intentional, it has to be consistent, and it has to be something you focus your attention on all the time. Keep telling the story that only you can tell. It’s why you’re here.
What kind of story are you telling? Have you ever considered your life in those terms? Does it make you think about what you do differently? Let us know in the comments…