After reading Story Engineering earlier this week I was really intrigued by the premise of Donald Miller’s memoir A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. When he started working with screenwriters to adapt his previous book Blue Like Jazz, Miller realized that the components of great storytelling have parallels in living a worthwhile story in real life. In seeking to live a better story, Miller reflected on how our stories are part of a bigger Story, and made deep observations about life while also being funny and inspiring.
I loved the writing style in this book, and I enjoyed the ways Miller drew parallels between writing and life. For example, in a story the main thing is character arc: your character needs to change as a result of what happens to him, and THAT is the meat of the story, not the car chases and getting the girl and whatnot. The action is important because “a character is what he does.” The same is true in life, if you think about it. Difficult situations call on us to act in ways that reveal our characters and change us. The sections of the book that explore that concept had a remarkably fresh and real perspective.
For example, Miller relates the story of how he set himself a goal to climb the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, even though he was a couch potato before. It was incredibly difficult, but he found that although it’s possible to take an easy touristy way to Machu Picchu, the effort of the Inca Trail makes it more powerful “..because you can take a bus to Machu Picchu; you can take a train and then a bus, and you can hike a mile to the Sun Gate. But the people who took the bus didn’t experience the city as we experienced the city. The pain made the city more beautiful. The story made us different characters than we would have been if we had skipped the story and showed up at the ending an easier way.”
Another section deals with the writing concept of inciting incidents – things that happen that start the ball rolling and put the character on a path to change. Miller tried adding inciting incidents to his life and learned quite a bit. He talks about how he watched a movie and tried to figure out what made it so great, only to realize that you could stop any scene and point out what every major character wanted. “No character had a vague ambition. It made me wonder if the reasons our lives seem so muddled is because we keep walking into scenes in which we, along with the people around us, have no clear idea what we want.” It’s an interesting thing to think about. You can coast along in life playing it safe, or you can take on big audacious goals that push you and change you. Good stories are made from big ambitions and characters who are willing to accept risk and change, and so are good lives. Miller says, “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, we are living stupid stories. If it won’t work in a story, it won’t work in life.”
I think what I liked best about the book was that it’s not a strictly writing book, and it’s not a strictly Christian book – rather it’s a story that’s infused with the writer’s drive to understand God and understand his calling to write. Miller has great observations and ways of seeing things, and I think you’d get a lot out of the book even if you’re not a writer (but if you’re a writer, you’d probably enjoy it even more). I highly recommend A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and think it would be great for a book club, a writing group. If you read the book on your own, drop me a comment and let me know what you thought!
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