A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned by Editing My Life by Donald Miller (Thomas Nelson, 2009)
I started (mentally) writing this review when only a few pages into the book. The review began something like this:
Given which of us is the famous author and which is not, it would not be wise to say Donald Miller can't write. But what is definitively true is that, whether he can or not, he doesn't write in a style that I enjoy reading. It's narcissistic, informal bordering on stream-of-consciousness and slangy bordering on vulgar. Considering the endorsements from big-name Christians (Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Gary Haugen, Max Lucado) I was expecting a little less nonchalance about casual sex, drug use, smoking, and nihilism. And it jumps around like one of those modern movies where you don't know what's real and what's not, what's then and what's now.
Before I met the filmmaker guys, I didn't know very much about making movies. You don't think about it when you're watching a movie, but there's a whole world of work involved in making the thing happen. People have to write the story, which can take years; then raise a bunch of money, hire some actors, get a caterer so everybody can eat, rent a million miles of extension cords, and shoot the thing. Then it usually goes straight to DVD. It's a crap job....
But I like movies. There's something about a good story that helps me escape. I used to go to movies all the time just to clear my head. If it was a good movie, the experience felt like somebody was resetting a compass in my brain so I could feel what was important in life and what wasn't. I'd sit about ten rows back, in the middle, and shovel sugar into my mouth until my brain went numb....
I'd go to the movies because for an hour or so I could forget about real life. In a movie, the world faded away and all that mattered was whether the hobbit destroyed the ring or the dog made it home before the circus people could use him as a horse for their abusive monkey.
Really, how much of that can a reader be expected to take? But there's a reason I finish a book before publishing the review. It gets much better, mostly because Miller eventually starts focusing on things other than himself.
The change in Miller's life came when two filmmakers approached him with the idea of making a movie of his best-selling memoir, Blue Like Jazz. (Here's the movie's trailer, which reminds me of why I don't usually watch movies.) Miller is not happy to discover how much his life must be changed to make a good film.
"[W]hat is wrong with the Don in the book?" The question came out of my mouth more personally than I wanted.
Steve sat thoughtfully and collected his ideas. ... “In a pure story,” he said like a professor, “there is a purpose in every scene, in every line of dialogue. A movie is going somewhere.”
That last line rang in my ear like an accusation. I felt defensive, as though the scenes in my life weren’t going anywhere. I mean, I knew they weren’t going anywhere, but it didn’t seem okay for someone else to say it.
In the process of discovering what makes a good story for a movie, Miller has a revelation: What makes a good story for a movie, makes a good story for a life. I'm not at all sure I agree—I've said many times that romantic tragedy makes for great opera but a lousy life—but when he begins to consider his actions in light of the question, "Is this part of a good story?" Miller turns his aimless life around. He goes hiking in Peru, finds the father he hasn't seen in 30 years, rides his bike across America, and founds The Mentoring Project, which works with churches to provide mentors for fatherless (and effectively fatherless) children.
I was haunted by a feeling of familiarity—with negative connotations—as I read this book, and I finally realized that the style reminds me of Confessions and Reflections of a Traveler. What saves A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is that, despite my comments above, Miller writes better than Brett McLean.
It's not my kind of book. I can't say that it makes me want to ride my bike across America or to (personally) drill wells in Africa, but it does make me want to learn more about the art of telling a story. And viewing life as a story is a fascinating thought.
[Quoting storytelling expert Robert McKee] "Writing a story isn't about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn't think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it's conflict that changes a person." His voice was like thunder now. "You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That's the only way we change."
I think joy does change a person; plenty of growth comes through real joy. But the story arc analogy puts a different perspective on the age-old problem of pain.
[Reflecting on a tragic story of terrorism] When we watch the news, we grieve all of this, but when we go to the movies, we want more of it. Somehow we realize that great stories are told in conflict, but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are actually in. We think God is unjust, rather than a master storyteller.
The belief that we enjoy seeing characters "put through hell" may explain why there are so many movies I don't want to watch. I love stories of life and growth through the sweet joys and minor tragedies of ordinary life, such as Miss Read's (Dora Jesse Saint) Thrush Green and Fairacre books. One of my favorite scenes in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the ordinary dinner at the Beavers' house. Likewise in J.R.R. Tolkien's epic books, it's the meals, the conversations, and the everyday parts of life that really capture my attention.
In the end, Miller acknowledges that a "good story" life is not all epic adventures.
It's interesting that in the Bible, in the book of Ecclesiastes, the only practical advice given about living a meaningful life is to find a job you like, enjoy your marriage, and obey God. It's as though God is saying, Write a good story, take somebody with you, and let me help.
I've over 20 post-it notes adorning the pages of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, but on reflection I'll skip the rest and quote a longer section that is perhaps my favorite. It's about Miller's first encounter with Bob Goff and his family, while kayaking in British Columbia. Bob is a real person, and not the local politician of the same name who handed Heather her diploma when she graduated from high school. His life is the kind of story that makes you remember not all lawyers deserve the opprobrium many have earned.
We broke camp, packed our boats, and began paddling for home. But before crossing the inlet, our guide wanted to show us a lodge a man had built the previous year, a massive house set on a ledge just off the water. i thought it was odd that anybody would build a house back there, since you could only get to the place by seaplane or boat. But indeed, a home had been built. And it was an enormous and beautiful place, snug against the gray cliff of the mountain, with decks cascading down to the waterfront where there was a dock and some boats and a plane. The man was a lawyer, one of my friends said, who lived in San Diego but had a law firm in Seattle. He was also the American consul to Uganda. He gives most of his money away, my friend said. He'd actually bought five thousand acres in the area to save the trees and preserve the beauty. We were only going to paddle by and take a look at the house; but as we got closer, we saw a man coming down the steps to the dock. "That must be him," my friend said. "That must be Bob. ...
He walked down the stairs to the dock and smiled and pulled his gray hair back and waved at us in large, graceful swings. He waved at us then with both hands to call us closer to the dock. ...
"Are you hungry?" we heard Bob shout. ...
Bob got down on his knees and helped us out [of our boats] as though he'd been waiting a week for our arrival. "We saw you coming, and Sweet Maria put fruit out on the table," he said. "There's plenty. And she made lemonade too. Let's go up to the house and get you guys fed." At first I thought Sweet Maria was the maid or something, but it turns out Sweet Maria is Bob's wife. ...
For the better part of an hour, they asked where we'd come from and what we did back home. ... I asked Bob how he'd come to build a lodge sixty miles from the nearest road, and he told us he'd grown up going to the Young Life camp nearby and always loved the place. He said the real reason for the lodge was to host leaders from foreign countries and talk about peace, to talk about how leaders can bring peace to their countries.
I was curious about how he got world leaders to fly into the middle of nowhere to talk about peace. Bob smiled and looked at his wife and said, "Well, now, that's an interesting story. I suppose we stumbled into that one, didn't we?" ...
When his children were young, he told us, he was spending time in Uganda, helping the government work through some legislation, and they asked him if he would be willing to serve as the American consul, essentially Uganda's official American lawyer. Bob agreed; but while he was a good lawyer, he'd never had to interact with diplomats.
On the flight home, he wondered what he'd say if he had to meet with the president of South Africa or the ambassador from France. When his kids asked how the trip went, he told them he'd been asked to serve as Uganda's official lawyer, and he was a little nervous to meet the dignitaries. So Bob asked the kids what they would say if they had to meet with the leader of a foreign country. Adam, the youngest, said he'd ask them if they wanted to sleep over. Bob said that was a terrific idea, because when people sleep over you get to know them really well. Lindsey said she'd want to ask them what they put their hope in, and Bob and Maria agreed that was a beautiful and important question. Richard, the oldest, who had recently been given a video camera, said he'd want to record the interviews so he could make a movie. Bob and Maria thought that was a terrific idea, too. Bob said that if he ever met with a foreign leader, he'd remember their suggestions. But after thinking about it, Bob decided that the suggestions were too good to risk to chance.
"Let's write letters," Bob said. The kids wondered what their dad was suggesting. "I'm serious," Bob said. "Let's write all the leaders in the world and ask if they want to come over for a sleepover, and if we can interview them and ask what they hope in." The kids got very excited. Maria smiled and loved the idea. Bob told the kids that if any of the world leaders said yes to the interview, even if they couldn't come for a sleepover, he'd fly them to that country and they could video tape Lindsey asking what they hope in.
Bob didn't expect anybody to write back, so he brought home more than a thousand pieces of stationery and the kids researched world leaders and came up with more than twelve hundred addresses for heads of state and assistants. For a while they heard nothing, and Bob confessed he was relieved, but then a single letter came in, and a few days after, another. Both of them granting an interview. And then another letter, until in all twenty-nine world leaders contacted the Goffs instructing them on how to make arrangements to interview their countries [sic] leader. ...
[Bob] put his family on planes, flying them all over the world. The kids' teachers were furious, saying that he was harming his children by taking them out of school. But Bob convinced them that his children might learn more interviewing the president of Paraguay than by reading a book about him. ...
Bob said the world leaders fell in love with his kids. He said there was no way he could have received as much hospitality on his own. ... At the end of each interview, Adam presented the world leader with a box that had a key in it, explaining that the key was an actual key to their family home in San Diego. He said they sometimes lock the door when they go to the store, but that he could just let himself in, and that if he ever wanted to have a sleepover, he was welcome in their home.
The relationships the family began that year would sustain. The world leaders wrote the children letters, and the children wrote back. And one world leader even came to San Diego and used his key and stayed over with the Goff family.
That year Bob said he learned that people are just people, even if they are world leaders. He said most people want what's best for their friends and their families, and if they are given the opportunity to talk out their differences, they will. And so when the law firm did very well one year, he bought the land around the lodge and built a place for world leaders to come and have a sleepover.
"And they come?" I asked.
"We've had a few," Bob said. "I hang their flags from the banister, and we sit and eat and talk. We explore the inlet on the boats and usually do a little cliff jumping."
I tried to imagine a foreign diplomat jumping from one of the cliffs around the inlet. ... Bob said that before the dignitaries leave, they sit and write a peace treaty, just some informal language that commits to making the world a better place, about how they will live sacrificially and try to do things for others as often as possible. He said each of the leaders signs the treaty and takes a copy home to remember their [sic] time at the lodge.
Bob and Maria's kids, now grown and in high school and college, each have a quiet dignity and confidence. They also have an informal charm, as though they just know they would like us if we'd take the time to get to know each other. It is obvious they'd played the roles in the story their family was living, the roles of foreign dignitaries, traveling with their parents on the important assignment of asking world leaders what they hope in. Their story had given them their character.