You get a feeling when you look back on life that that’s all God really wants from us, to live inside a body he made and enjoy the story and bond with us through the experience.
Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
Donald Miller’s writing is drenched with familiarity. He’s everybody’s buddy, except that this buddy can change your life with a story as mundane as trying to get a Baby Ruth out of a vending machine. This is not to imply that he’s simplistic, for behind Miller’s average-Joe literary persona is a thoughtful and deeply funny man. He’s introduced a pioneering variety of witty observational commentary integrated with evangelical culture and translated it into five books to date, including the seminal Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.
For a while, I spent an indulgent amount of time in bookstores, mostly because the fragrance soothes me. At this time, I was not a Christian and not planning on becoming one. However, I remember picking up Blue Like Jazz a number of times and examining the paperback like questionable produce. Inevitably, I would return the book to its shelf, thinking it blemished by its Christian status. But even outside the bookstore womb, Blue Like Jazz haunted me. Almost to a person, everyone I knew who spent Sunday mornings at church (the ones who still associated with me, anyway) recommended with a certain gusto Donald Miller and his masterpiece. Eventually, I became a follower of Christ, and a friend living in Turkey mailed me Blue Like Jazz—as in, from halfway across the planet. No longer could I justify ignoring what lied within, so I got to reading, and when I was done, I realized I should’ve read Blue Like Jazz a long time ago.
In the tradition of J.D. Salinger and Anne Lamott, Blue Like Jazz is written in memoir style. To be moved by the book is to be moved by the author and his thoughts. Many people loved Blue Like Jazz for its refreshing honesty, and two of those people, who happened to be filmmakers, decided they loved it enough to make a movie about it. The problem was…
“Thoughts don’t translate onto the screen very well,” writes Miller in his new book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. “The audience can’t get inside your head like they can in a book. They will be restless. They won’t engage. Trying to be true to the book is like asking people to read your mind. A story has to move in real life and real time. It’s all about action.”
Essentially, Miller was told his life was too boring to be translated to film. He and his fellow screenwriters would have to fabricate a good story in order to make a holistically successful movie. As is his tendency, Miller got to thinking about human lives as smaller stories woven into the Big Story, and about what it means to be a good character in a good story. He finds that a good story is crafted by living a meaningful life. And while being thoughtful and contemplative is valuable, “good stories don’t happen by accident, I learned, they are planned.” Experience matters, and experience is created by doing. Miller himself took time away from the isolation of writing and became very intentional about being a good character in the true story of his own life. This experience is chronicled in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which Miller is supporting with a nationwide speaking tour that includes a stop at Calvin College on October 13. And for now, I’m going to stop writing and get to living a good story with Donald Miller’s thoughts in mind.
- Padraic Wood