Donald Miller is a Christian writer, but the question that Miller asks with his latest memoir, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, is applicable to anyone who has contemplated the meaning of life. The question is: If somebody were to make a movie of your life, how many hours of footage would show you goofing off on the Internet or planted in front of the TV? (Probably more than most of us would cop to, right?)
This is what happened to Miller when he agreed to adapt his bestselling Christian memoir Blue Like Jazz into a feature film. Turns out, even the life of a bestselling author is... pretty boring. This revelation sent Miller on a two-fold journey to learn how to craft a meaningful story for his script and for his life. Working with two seasoned movie producers, Miller learns how to write a character – i.e., someone "who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it" – and how to be a character. The result? Blue Like Jazz the movie (coming out in late 2010) and an inspiring, funny, heartbreaking new memoir that will appeal to anyone looking to craft a more meaningful life story.
Donald Miller graciously took some time during his 65-city book tour to talk about storytelling and the craft of writing.
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Sheila Ashdown: I came across your book in a serendipitous manner. I knew of you as a "Christian writer," and I thought, "Oh, I'm not a Christian, it's not going to be my bag." But as a writer, I was intrigued by the premise of A Million Miles. So I flipped open the book and landed on this passage:
I wrote a memoir several years ago that sold a lot of copies. I got a big head about it for a while and thought I was an amazing writer or something, but I've written books since that haven't sold, so I'm insecure again and things are back to normal.
That totally made me laugh, and I thought, "Yeah, I can spend some time with this dude."
So, I read the book and loved it, of course, but it got me kind of obsessed with wondering about your readership. Have you run into a cross-section of people like me? Readers who consider themselves storytellers, but are not necessarily Christian?
Donald Miller: Well, I think this book will probably find a little bit of that market, but in the past it's mostly been Christians, and then Christians will hand the books to people who aren't Christians, because they feel like the books can explain them. So a Christian will hand it to their non-Christian friend and say, "Here's what I'm like." I've gotten a lot of that. But I don't think I have a huge readership outside of that of Christianity.
Sheila: Interesting that your Christian readers have been kind of ambassadors for you in that regard. Do you have any sort of audience in mind when you write your books? Or while writing this one in particular?
Miller: You know, I really don't. I wrote a book about guys growing up without dads, and that was definitely to a specific demographic. But other than that, I took William Zinsser's advice that you write to yourself and you hope that there are people out there who are like you. I've maintained that throughout my whole career: If I think it's funny, somebody else will think it's funny.
Sheila: That's a cool idea, that you're writing to yourself and hoping readers can find a kinship with you.
Miller: Exactly. I think writers would do better to consider that idea, because you know yourself really well, and you never know your demographic fully. You only get into trouble if you try to please somebody you don't really understand.
Sheila: Yeah, and I guess it's not an organic process if you're trying to write to or for someone instead of writing what comes from you intrinsically.
Sheila: This particular book is very "meta" — if you'll permit me to use an English-class word. You know, it's a story about how life is a story. Did you have trouble pitching that? Like, did your agent or publisher think it was too new-agey or not as easily categorized as "Christian spirituality" as your previous books?
Miller: Yeah, I think they assumed it would just take on that tone — that Christian spirituality tone — and then, when they finally got the book, they liked it enough that it just didn't bother them. God doesn't come up in the book till pretty far into it, and that wasn't intentional; it just kind of happened that way. So, no, they didn't really have a problem with it. The publisher basically said, "Okay, well, we never really understand your ideas when you come to us with them, but somehow they kind of work when you're done."
Sheila: It's good that they've got some faith in you — and faith in the process.
Miller: Yeah, I'm glad for it, because half the time I don't know what I’m trying to say.
Miller: All my books have been titled based on a piece of the prose from inside the book, so I'd written this piece of prose that had the phrase "a million miles in a thousand years," and I thought, "That has a nice ring to it." So I pulled it out for the title and everybody really liked it, so we stuck with it. It doesn't really mean anything.
Sheila: That sounds too easy.
Miller: [Laughter] We've had some fights before on book titles, but this one wasn't hard.