Of Better Stories

A friend of mine, Jason Young, gave me a box of books lately, and one of the treasures I unearthed as I emptied my Huggies box-o-goodness (the official packing box of all parents) was Donald Miller‘s most recent title, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. I was excited to see the cover, if not completely overwhelmed; I like Miller, dating all the way back to Blue Like Jazz, but I had grown a bit dim on him after reading To Own a Dragon (I probably should go back and re-read that one, though).

I picked this one up with some enthusiasm and started to read.

Good choice.

Miller, like all writers (including me), has a certain side that can border on what another writer friend of mine, Kevin Wray, calls “whiney” – a little too introspective, a little too self-absorbed, a little too-personal in a way that makes you want to throw your hands up and say, “Enough already!” The first couple of pages of A Million Miles struck me in that way – in fact, it wasn’t until Miller writes about taking a class from one Robert McKee on Story (a book that I’ve read in part, but not yet in full, thanks to Matt Friesch) that the book actually got interesting. Miller discovers that what makes a fictional story work – a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it – is essentially what makes a life work – as Miller later writes, “we [are] designed to live through something rather than to attain something, and the thing we [are] meant to live through is designed to change us” (70).

As a writer, it resonated. The more Miller delves into the elements of a story as theory, and brings those elements to play on the story of his life (also the story of the book), the more I find myself fascinated by the comparisons. I know not everyone will go for this metaphor, but I really like the idea of God as Author.

Is it a flawless metaphor? Absolutely not. Authors, for one thing, tend to be a bit neurotic and controlling. And ultimately, an author is creating something that isn’t real – something that exists only in a person’s mental universe and ceases to exist when the book is put away.

Also, God is perfect and omnipotent, so He’s never tossed an entire manuscript into the trash can and wept for an hour over the futility of it all.

But there are some startling discoveries within the metaphor of God as Author that can help make sense of the world around us, such as characters that write themselves. If you’ve ever heard an author describe the writing process, you’ve undoubtedly heard him or her say something along the lines of, “Well, such-and-such character really surprised me. I didn’t expect him to do what he did.” The idea being that good characters, whole characters, characters with a feeling of reality to them, often express themselves within the Author’s larger story. The author planned for the heroine to go left, but she went right, did a forward roll and pulled out an Uzi. When an author creates characters that feel real, the characters begin to act real in the author’s imagination and often surprise the author with their choices.

Now, this isn’t a perfect metaphor for the free will of mankind, seeing as how we don’t catch God by surprise, but we do exert our will on the story. We choose certain goals and ends and actions and sometimes corrupt what God intended (Garden of Eden, anyone?).

Miller brings this out in his book, so I won’t pretend that the idea is mine. But as a writer, the view of life as a narrative, one with plot and structure and good and evil and struggle and victory makes certain days a lot more palatable – I know that my story is part of a much grander narrative, like a character in a Franzen novel, and that the overall story gives shape to my own experiences. I don’t drown in self-absorption when I think like this. My sufferings, somehow, make more sense.

I’m not done with Miller’s book, but I’m more than halfway through. I’ll post something when I’m finished. For now, I’ll leave you with this last quote:

“I privately wondered if I was a protagonist telling an exciting story who happened to live in a nice condo, or whether I was a protagonist telling a boring story about trying to pay off his nice condo. Looking over my bank statements, I feared the latter might be true.

My only consolation was I wasn’t alone. Most Americans aren’t living very good stories. It’s not our fault, I don’t think. We are suckered into it. We are brainwashed, I think.

The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want. If we don’t want anything, we are living boring stories, and if we want a Roomba vacuum cleaner, then we are living stupid stories. If it won’t work in a story, it won’t work in life.”

One thought on “Of Better Stories

  1. Um, God did have an entire manuscript he threw out—it was called the dinosaurs. That was “Earth” draft one. Think of how dissapointed he was when he got millions of years into the story and hadn’t even gotten to the development of language much less art or the internal combustion engine.

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