I used to imagine a camera crew was following me around, secretly recording every bit of my life like The Truman Show. The crew would follow me to the Laundromat and record for hours as I separated the whites from the coloreds. Sometimes viewers at home would watch me reorganize my bookshelf or agonize over what kind of food to order for dinner on a Saturday night. Chinese or Italian … Chinese or Italian…? It was a pretty boring television show. When you think about it, real life is never as exciting as a movie.
But what if our lives were more like a good film, full of drama, action, romance and victory? What if we lived like we were lead characters in the midst of a compelling plotline, as opposed to bumbling through life in a series of random experiences? We might just find that the elements that make up a good story are the same elements that make for a good life.
When Donald Miller set out to edit his own life for a film based on his bestselling memoir Blue Like Jazz, he realized that by applying the principles of filmmaking he could actually cast himself as the lead in a more meaningful life. In his latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, the popular author takes his personal journey out of what seemed to be a meaningless narrative and transforms it into a new story fit for the big screen.
We recently spoke with Donald Miller about his new book, the new narrative that’s shaping his life, and the status of the Jazz film his fans have been waiting years to see.
URBAN FAITH: In A Million Miles, you say that the elements of a good story are the same as those that make up a good life. What are the qualities of a good story?
DONALD MILLER: A good story is a character who wants something and is willing to overcome conflict to get it. But those are all conditional, so the kind of person that we are matters, and what we want in life actually matters. For instance, if our goals are to pay off the house (which I have nothing against — that’s a great goal) but that’s the whole of our story — all of our conflict and all of our work is about paying off the house — then we shouldn’t expect to feel any more meaning in our lives than if we were to watch a movie about a guy who worked really hard to pay off his house. We’re not going to be crying at the end of that film. It has to be about something more than that.
Now that you’ve discovered a more compelling narrative for your life, has the story of you as a writer come to an end?
The story of becoming a successful writer is a story that a lot of people are living. And once I had done that, I didn’t have a story anymore. If you don’t have a story to live within, life feels meaningless. That happened to me, so I had to figure out what was my next story and it involved The Mentoring Project and providing mentors for kids growing up without fathers. I’m still a writer of course — I will always write books. But I needed something more, and that was my something more.
Christians often feel plagued by the sense that we might not be living the life God has in mind for us. How do you know you’ve chosen the right story to live?
I don’t know that there is a right story. I think there are good stories and many that honestly are subjective. What you say is a good story might not be something I think is a good story. But I think what we’re getting into is as Christians, we feel like there is this thing that God wants me to do. And that may be true for some people, but I don’t think that’s true for all of us. When I pray, “God do you think I should do this?” often I think God is saying, “Well, what do you want to do?” And we would say, no, no, no. God is absolute; it’s black and white; it’s a mathematical system — you read the Bible and you figure this out.
But that’s not the way parents work. That’s sort of taking the life out of God and saying that God is not a being, He’s a computer. I don’t believe that. I think God interacts with us the way a father would interact with a child. In the sense that sometimes it would be a good story and sometimes it wouldn’t. But really God is saying what do you want and then we say what we want and He says well that’s not very wise, but I understand why you want it.
Wow. If that’s true, that is incredibly freeing.
Well, yeah! I think God just says, “What do you want?” And we say, “Well, I want this.” And He says, “Well, no you can’t have that. That’s sin. What else do you want?” And we say, “I want this.” And God says, “Well you know that’s not the best option but why don’t you go for it and figure some things out here.” And that’s exactly how we raise our kids. Why wouldn’t God be doing that with us if He has called Himself our Father?
You mentioned sin. What are some other things that keep us from living a more compelling story?
Fear. Characters do not like to change. They have to be forced to change. Something has to happen to propel them into changing. In story structure, we create something called an inciting incident — it’s something that happens from which the character can never go backward; they can only go forward. The reason we don’t want to change is because of fear. Even if we’re living in a terrible situation, at least we have control over that situation. I know what’s going on in my life, and if I try to do something different it may change and may get worse. So we stay in our terrible situation. In order to live a great story, we have to face our fears.
Throughout your career you’ve openly shared your pain from growing up without a father. Now that you’re embarking on a new story about mentoring young boys, what kinds of fears have you had to face?
I was afraid to mentor a kid. [Laughs.] I was afraid I’d mess this kid’s life up or I wouldn’t be there for something. Of course in the first three minutes of meeting this kid that I mentor, that was all gone out the window. When we were on the way to a baseball game and he asked me how fast my car went. And I just sank the pedal into the floor to show him and that was it–we bonded. We were buddies after that. But before that it was just a lot of fear. Guys don’t like being called into relational stuff. Of course, we love it once we’re in it. So the men and women who live amazing stories just walk into their fear and they make things happen.
Tell us a little bit about The Mentoring Project.
We are resourcing and equipping the church to start mentoring programs within their own walls. The mentoring program actually belongs to the church, but we inspire them, we equip them, we train them, we give them materials that they need. We interact with a key leader in that church and we monitor the success of the program. We have seven programs in Portland. We have about 200 that are waiting to start our program. We’re mentoring 100 kids here, and we think we can mentor about 5,000 in a short period of time and then grow from there.
I see that the infrastructure of the church is already there. The manpower is there to mentor an entire generation of Americans. We could literally shut down a significant percentage of our prisons if the church did this. We could turn back the abortion rate. We could turn back the divorce rate. You know there is so much that could be done if we invest relationally in fatherless boys — not because they are more important than girls, but because boys are the ones who are going to cause trouble. Ninety-four percent of the people in prison are men.
But what’s amazing are the values of the church — the pro-family values of the church, the pro-ethics, pro-morality values. They could all be met with this vision. But it’s a hard vision because it calls us into relational exchanges. It calls us into sacrifice. But if you just grumble and complain about the government or our problems, it’s such a much easier way to focus your energy than to actually get off your butt and do anything. But we believe the church has it in them to actually get off their butts and do something, so we’re challenging the church to mentor the next generation of fatherless boys.
What’s the latest on the Blue Like Jazz film?
We’re probably 50 percent there in terms of having the money we need before we can shoot the film, and they’re actually saying we might have it by the end of the [summer]. But at the same time, that puts us on a weird schedule because we needed to shoot in the summer because we want to shoot on location at a college and obviously colleges have people in them. We wanted to shoot it here at Reed College. That may still happen but it may have to wait until next year. But the script is done. It’s a very fun movie, and I’m looking forward to having it out there.
Win a FREE Copy of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller, compliments of UrbanFaith.com and Thomas Nelson Publishers.
To enter, log in and leave a comment below that responds to the following question: Donald Miller discovered deeper meaning in life by applying the storytelling principles of a good movie to the way he lives. If your life were a movie, which one would it be and why?
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What movie most resembles my life story so far? Probably “The Perfect Storm.” I’m not a fisherman, but the notion that so many different unrelated elements conspired together at the same time (for good and bad) to bring me to where I am today resonates. Now if only I looked like George Clooney.
I would choose a novel over a movie (or maybe compromise and choose a literary film), so here goes: I would be the unnamed narrator of Rebecca (also a Hitchcock film). It has everything–suspense, English countryside, and a dark, mysterious husband she hardly knows!
For some reason I feel this is a really bad Christian answer to this question…
Definitely The Joy Luck Club. I come from a family of strong Asian women. My experience isn’t quite like those of the Chinese women in Joy Luck, but the mother-daughter relationships feel very familiar to me.
That is a difficult question. If I had to come to an answer . . . Finding Forrester. It is not the story so much as the character of Jamal Wallace that I identify with. I have gotta keep thinking though.
I think mine would be Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” I love movies and enjoy people watching, whether at a crowded mall or through the blinds of my apartment window. Call it a guilty pleasure or a bad habit, but people are fascinating! I also secretly wish to be an amateur sleuth dating Grace Kelly (*sigh*).
This question actually turned out to be a great discussion starter between me and my 13-year old son. He answered the question for me, himself, and his older brother (who has a disability). The movie that would be my life-Meet the Browns. His life-August Rush. His brother’s life-Joan of Arcadia (which I know, was a tv show, not a movie, but the character Kevin’s life is definitely similar to my son’s). I’m not sure I would have made these choices, but it was eye-opening to hear my son’s responses, and I thought the UF family might find them interesting as well.
Spike Lee’s movie “Get On the Bus” is one of the first I think of. Both the Million Man March and Promise Keepers conferences were very important in my growth as a Christian man. The conversations and friendships with other men that I had at and in transit to and from those events have influenced me in ways I’m still realizing years later.
if the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes became a film, that would be the one that resembles me. This little boy is introspective yet selfish, philosophical yet practical. And he knows how to have fun with himself and a stuffed tiger that talks. 🙂
I could pick Clueless, because I am a lot of the time, but I will go with Lady Jane starring Helena Bonham Carter. It’s about Lady Jane Grey who was the Queen of England for nine days in the 1500s. She was a Christian and a reformer who tried to turn a corrupt situation into something good. She was only 16 when they executed her. I admire her courage and the stand she took for truth.
Mine would be something like When Harry Met Sally. My husband and I were friends for years before we ever dated and were married. I knew most of his girlfriends and he knew the people I dated. No one was surprised when the friendship turned into something more.
For me, it’s the “Matrix”, though for an unusual reason. When i first saw the commercials, i thought the Morpheus was the villain. But after watching it, while i was volunteering for youth ministry, found my role model / “avatar”.
He’s a great mentor….someone who has more knowledge than Neo, yet he has more faith in Neo than Neo himself.
Dan McAdams, profesor of Psychology at Northwestern University, as early as 1993 had the idea of using stories as a way to explain one’s life (as an alternative/additional tool to other things such as psychoanalysis). Here’s one link about him & his work –> http://www.redemptiveself.northwestern.edu/mcadams/
Waiting to Exhale, because any one of those women could’ve been me before I got saved.
As much as I hate to say it, it reminds me of the beginning of Beauty and the Beast–it’s the closest movie to the story of Psyche and Cupid, although of course Cupid played more of a hero role than the Beast.
As a kid, I used to love being different and not following the crowd, but after that point, it seemed like I was always getting lost searching for ways to find an escape from a lonely, dark life. If it hadn’t been for Christ’s dramatic entrance, I wouldn’t have the purpose, romance, and assurance of overcoming my own demons that I have now. He’s authoring the most epic tale in the world, and I love being a part of his story.
If my life were a movie, it would be the one that I’m working on. The screenplay is entitled “Down” — about a law school dropout who becomes a teacher.
I think that there are many movies or stories that resonate within my soul. However, one movie that I have seen seems to talk about me, albeit indirectly. The movie is the Apostle, with Robert Duvall.
The story of someone who at his core is flawed and broken, but is serving the Lord. During a situation where he is failing to follow and have his character tempered by God’s hands. He flees his current situation after a dreadful happenstance caused by his own hands.
He immediately tries to repent, and work his way back into God’s good graces. Far away from his own life and everything that he knows, he ends up in a small community and helps them with the gifts that God has given him. In the process of starting over, he is redeemed head to toe.
However, we all know that we have repercussions that we must face for our actions, and at the end of the film, the community is going to survive and flourish without him as he is more than likely going to have to serve his time for his previous transgressions. A shift in focus, a shift in purpose, and the glory is God’s, even in the face of sin.
Thanks, everyone, for your great comments. I’m sure many of us now have a new list of movies to remember the next time we hit Blockbuster or Netflix. The giveaway is now closed; we’ll announce the winners soon. But you’re still welcome to share your “life movie” or any other comments about the interview with Donald Miller or his new book. Thanks for reading.
I wanted to invite you to a webinar hosted by Donald Miller next Thursday morning on the subject of his new “Convergence” DVDs for small groups (mostly). Convergence is Miller at his best: doing honest talk about faith. On the first dvd set he talks to Dan Allender, Phyllis Tickle, Lauren Winner. He just recorded the next set with Randy Alcorn, Henry Cloud, John Townsend. You can listen in Thursday, Dec. 17 at (11 am PT, 12 pm MT, 1 pm CT, 2 pm ET). Go to https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/543081489 to RSVP for the webinar & we’ll be sure to send you a reminder.
You can learn more about Convergence at http://www.allthingsconverge.com. If you have any further questions please feel free to email [email protected] Fairchild.com.