I had never heard of Donald Miller that day in 2003 when at a Christian book fair I found Blue Like Jazz for 4 dollars. A quick survey of the book and I knew I held a true find. With book open in hand I navigated around the room hardly looking up at all. Thirty pages in, having confirmed its greatness I returned and retrieved the other few copies knowing I’d give them away.
I liked the book because Miller was authentic in a way that I had not yet found in a Christian writer, that it seemed Christians were generally incapable of. Critics dismissed the book on account of its meandering prose and because they felt that was indicative of a namby pamby epistemology. On the contrary, he never called into question the basic truth claims of the Bible. In fact, he challenged readers to respond to those claims, to seek understanding regarding them, and to redirect their lives accordingly.
For a while I harbored the ambition to write something akin to Blue Like Jazz. This was indeed the aspiration of many writers. Store bookshelves since that time illustrate this point. Certainly, Miller was eager to repeat his success but disappointingly his next two books did not do very well. He was bummed about things until while scripting the movie version of his bestselling memoir he began to reflect upon what made a story good. These reflections took him in a new, more exciting direction. His latest book, A Million Miles in A Thousand Years tells that story.
because Million Miles cover art so closely resembles Blue Like Jazz, I take it that all parties involved believe that this book is the fitting follow-up to that book. The similarities are obvious, but the differences are more apparent. The most noticeable difference? The author himself. Before he offered a lot of commentary, now he is compelled to be an active participant in his story. The reader is privy to a discussion between Miller and Steve Taylor about the film which reveals the change in progress.
Steve: We just want to take the basic events of your life and shape them around a structure that makes sense.
Don: I don’t think life works like a formula
Steve: We aren’t talking about a formula. We’re talking about a few basic principles.
Steve was talking about movie making. Don was talking about his life. Steve pointed out that Don’s story did not transfer naturally to film. Don wondered why. Steve clued Don in that his story was kind of boring. Don took offense. Realizing Don had taken it personally, Steve tried to make him feel better by saying everyone’s lives are boring. Don wasn’t pleased with that. He started to consider how the principles of great storytelling could apply to life.
What began as a thought experiment resulted in Miller facing some hard truths about himself. One was that he avoided challenges. This had only made him more miserable. He determined that people are hardwired to desire great story and that he had artificially fulfilled this need with TV and needless purchases such as a robotic floor vac. In pursuit of story he hiked the Inca trail, tracked down his father whom he had not seen in 30 years, and biked across the country to raise money for water wells in Africa. He entered these endeavors apprehensively but knew that great characters defy their fear. Then, he got serious about an idea that he had been sitting on.
“I started an organization called The Mentoring Project and within the year we were mentoring 80 kids in Portland. I’d started an epic story of my own. And life no longer felt meaningless. It felt stressful and terrifying, but it definitely didn’t feel meaningless.”
And with that, Donald Miller has come full circle. Once wary of formulas, he better understands the value of a few helpful principles. Previously, he discussed story as more of an abstract concept. No longer content just to “type words into a screen” he now aspires to live a story worth telling. That story is the gospel of Jesus.