Monday, February 22, 2010

Living the story

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, storytelling

Don Miller wrote a book, mainly about his own experiences, which was well written and was published. Some time later he heard from two guys, Steve and Ben, who wanted to make a movie based on the book. Once Don had been induced to collaborate, the three began to write the screenplay. Don was surprised to learn that his life was actually boring, and needed quite a bit of "punching up" to make a movie people would want to see. He began to learn about Story. An early turning point was the day he realized, "My entire life had been designed to make myself more comfortable, to insulate myself from the interruption of my daydreams." (p 77)

So what is the trouble with daydreams? Nobody can see them. They cannot be filmed. Though dream sequences have made it into celluloid, a whole film of dream sequences simply won't sell. The impresarios convinced Don that the story line of his book needed a lot of work to become a Story. Don began his pursuit of understanding, what is Story?

Along the way, he realized how boring and pointless his life was. He was living a bad story. How to live a good story? He began to live with more intentionality. As he edited his memoir to make a better story, he began to edit his life. The process makes up the meat of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. In the book's five parts, he moves from being a non-character in a non-story to A Character Who Wants Something and Overcomes Conflict to Get It. That phrase embodies Story.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? At the root, there are only four stories: the character succeeding and liking the result; the character succeeding and not liking the result; the character failing but growing up; and the character failing and going into oblivion. What underlies all of them, like the turtle under the four elephants of Hindu cosmology, is the transformation of the character. Without that transformation, there is no Story. The big "conflict" for Don was riding a bicycle with 15 companions from the Pacific to the Atlantic, but that is not his full Story, it is but one story making up a part of the whole.

Two things changed for Donald Miller, in a big way, as he was transformed by living new stories in his pursuit of Story. Firstly, his habits changed and he became someone he liked better than the "himself" he had been before. Secondly, his relationship with God grew closer and more profound. He realized we really do need to take God's way, that God has wisdom we don't have. But not like God is some dictator; rather, he writes, "God is saying, Write a good story, take somebody with you, and let me help." (author's emphasis; p 247)

Ah, there was the rub. He hadn't been very good in the "take somebody with you" department. One of his trial stories involved pursuing a woman he'd come to like. Though the effort finally failed, he learned something about relationships. And he sums it up in the experience of a couple he got to know, "Neither needed the other to make everything okay. They were simply content to have good company through life's conflicts." (p 205) It is the purely human side of the prior statement.

Naturally, such a book causes a bit of introspection. What of my own story? I realized that, after a couple of false starts, I haven't done badly. The editing of my own life is exemplified in my choices of life companions. Early on, I went for excitement and self-gratification. That flamed out within thirty months. After more than thirty months of recovery and reflection, I chose someone based on faithfulness and steadiness, and now, 35 years later, I am well pleased with the result. My wife and I both count ourselves lucky, even blessed. I could elaborate more, but the foundation of all else is our faithfulness to one another and to God.

Some of the things Don Miller has done are comparatively great, such as the Mentoring Project he founded. As a result, he is on a Presidential task force (Fatherhood and Healthy Families). May his talents always match his challenges.

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