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On Storytelling: The Powells.com Interview with Donald Miller

Donald MillerDonald 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?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.

Miller: Exactly.

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."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.

Sheila: Can I ask how you came up with your idea for the title?

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.

Sheila: So, you seem to have some mixed feelings about your purposefulness as a writer. At one point in the book, you describe a scene where you see a family — a man, a woman, and two kids — in a coffee shop in Boston, and you say, "[I]t occurred to me that his story was better than mine for the simple fact that his story was actually happening. He was doing real things with real people while I'd been typing words into a computer." That sounds so dire!

Miller: [Laughter] Well, it's possible to do both as a writer — to engage and have a family and all that good stuff — and I chose not to for the sake of the career. And that was a moment where I was wondering if that was a good decision or not. In the book, I'm pretty open about that, I guess. But I didn't mean for it to be too dire! Of course, I'm just trying to make the point that the story we're telling ourselves is often very different from the story we're telling the people around us. And that's just part of it, I guess.

Sheila: Do you ever think of your writing as a spiritual calling or a vocation?

Miller: No, I don't. I think of writing as part gift and part learned skill, and I'm trying to think of it more as a craft, not unlike a carpenter or a plumber.I think of writing as part gift and part learned skill, and I'm trying to think of it more as a craft, not unlike a carpenter or a plumber. It kind of takes the pressure off, when you say, "This is what I'm good at, and it's how I can pay my bills." Not to take the concern and the passion out of it, but I think writers can get a little melodramatic sometimes about their work, and it helps me not to do that, to just say, "Well, this is how I make a living, and I need to become a very good craftsman."

Sheila: I'd think that would take the pressure off. Like, you're not trying to create a piece of genius, you're just trying to sit down and... write.

Miller: Exactly. If a piece of genius comes, it comes, and it if doesn't, it doesn't. But you showed up and you did your work.

Sheila: Right. What's the line you quote in the book: "The muse honors the working stiff"?

Miller: That's right. Steven Pressfield [author of The War of Art] is who I learned all that from.

Sheila: Do you find that comforting?

Miller: Oh yeah. It's something you can actually control. With writing, it feels like it's given to you, and when the good stuff hits, it feels like it's coming from some other planet, you know? And you're just channeling it. But you can only channel it if you sit down and do the work. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t, but regardless you have to sit down and do it.

Sheila: Yeah, I guess even a day's worth of crappy work is better than no work at all. But, I think, for a lot of writers, one of the things that stops them is that resistance that you talk about in the book — that there's a dark force out there getting people to resist writing or living good stories. How do you overcome that resistance?

Miller: You realize that it's there and then you jump into it.

Sheila: That's... hard.

Miller: You can't tell a good story without conflict — the story can't be beautiful or meaningful. We're taught to run from conflict, and it's robbing us of some really good stories.

Sheila: One of the things that got me really jealous is that, in the book, you've got these two guys, Ben and Pete, who show up and encourage you throughout the process of turning your memoir Blue Like Jazz into a film. Can you talk a little bit about their influence on you?

Miller: They're the ones who introduced me — I'm ashamed to say — to the concept of story. I mean, even as a writer, I hadn't studied story, and I didn’t know very much about it. I didn't know how story worked. So, when writing the screenplay, they introduced me to the science of it. And I'm grateful. I'll probably use that information for the rest of my career, in terms of writing novels or writing stories. And then, of course, to help me live a better story, a more meaningful story. That's part of what those guys introduced me to, too, so I'm really grateful for that.

Sheila: I wish I could borrow them for a little while! Do you have other writer friends who help keep you in line when you want to stick your head in the sand instead of write?

Miller: I have friends who are writers, but we don't tend to talk about literature very much. It's just not part of my process; I tend to be pretty secretive about what I'm working on. Although, with this book, I posted chapters online and let people give feedback, and I was surprised at how much of that feedback I actually used for the book.I posted chapters online and let people give feedback, and I was surprised at how much of that feedback I actually used for the book. It was a different process for me, but I liked it.

Sheila: That's kind of scary-slash-cool.

Miller: I posted the first three chapters and I had enough people say that chapter two was dragging that I cut it out just before the book went to press. And I'm glad I did. The book is a lot better without it.

Sheila: That's great. I would worry that reader feedback would "taint" the direction of the book, but it sounds like it had a really positive outcome for you.

Miller: Yeah, well, I was definitely in the editing process by then and trying to decide what to take out of the book at that point.

Sheila: And you posted this on your personal web site?

Miller: On my blog.

Sheila: Was the feedback from friends? Or strangers?

Miller: Mostly strangers. I had some friends commenting, but mostly it was people I didn't know. But they're fans. They're fans of the books, so they have a working knowledge of how I write, and they know what they like and what they don’t like. I'm really grateful for their feedback.

Sheila: That must be so cool for them to think, "Wow. Hey, I'm a fan of Donald Miller, and I gave him some feedback on his book... and he actually used it."

Miller: Yeah, absolutely. It was pretty cool.

Sheila: It must make you seem so much more accessible and present, rather than some "far-off, famous writer."

Miller: Yeah, you're always weighing whether you should be that accessible or not, but my personality is naturally just to throw it all out there, so I'm much more comfortable with doing thatmy personality is naturally just to throw it all out there, so I'm much more comfortable with doing that.

Sheila: I suppose as a memoir writer, you have to be accustomed to the fact that your readers are going to know a lot about you personally.

Miller: Yeah, a lot of stuff that you're sort of embarrassed about once it hits the press.

When you write, you're alone in a room. And when someone reads a book, they're alone in a room, too, usually. It's a really intimate exchange. And so people ask me where I get the boldness to talk about this or that, but I didn't feel like it required any sort of courage, because I was alone. Sometimes it feels weird for people to read it.

Sheila: Have you had any sort of memorable or strange exchanges with readers based on this kind of presumed intimacy?

Miller: Not that I can recall. There's a lot of letters, and a lot of people come say "hi" at book signings, but I'm amazed at how normal everybody is.

Sheila: For me, one of the parts of the book that really hits home is when you're talking to your friend Jason, whose teenage daughter is dating some jerk and smoking pot. And you say, "She's living a terrible story." I wanted to show that passage to my parents and say, "This explains my entire adolescence." That blew my mind when I read it. Did it blow your mind when you came up with it?

Miller: [Laughter] Well, I didn't necessarily come up with it — Jason did. It blew my mind that what I was thinking was actually applicable to people's lives, and it certainly revolutionized his family.

Sheila: Does that concept help you in your work as a mentor and youth minister? Thinking of troubled teens as "living a terrible story"?

Miller: I think we can provide better stories through providing mentors, and certainly part of my story is providing mentors to kids growing up without dads. I think positive male role models go a long way in terms of rescuing kids from a life of trouble.I think positive male role models go a long way in terms of rescuing kids from a life of trouble.

Sheila: Can you tell me a little bit more about The Mentoring Project?

Miller: It's right here in Portland and we're mentoring a hundred kids growing up without dads. We don't have a religious agenda, but we do use churches. There are about 360,000 churches in America, so we could mentor a million kids within a short period of time if everyone signed on, which, of course, is a pipedream, but we're going to reach toward that.

Sheila: I read your interview on Crosswalk.com, and you say that you have plans to write fiction at some point. Is it really true that you bought two domain names — SavetheKitten.com and BuytheWhiteHouse.com — based on these story ideas?

Miller: Yeah, those belong to me. Who knows whether they're going to turn into books, but they do belong to me.

Sheila: It's funny that the stories don't exist yet, but you had the foresight to buy the web sites.

Miller: [Laughter] It's sort an inciting incident: If you buy the website, maybe you'll do something with it. But so far I haven't; we'll see.

Sheila: You say that you've tried your hand at fiction before?

Miller: Before I studied story, I was trying to write a novel, and it was terrible. It wasn't going anywhere, and I couldn't figure out what I was trying to do. It was really hard; much harder than I thought it was going to be. Now that I've studied story, I think I'd have a different approach and maybe I could actually get it done.

Sheila: Are these books that Powell's would shelve in the Literature section, or the Christian Fiction section?

Miller: They wouldn't have any sort of religious agenda; hopefully they'd just be in the Literature section.

Sheila: What kind of books do you turn to when you're looking for inspiration, be it for writing or life?

Miller: I don't read a lot of inspirational books for life. But for writing, I think the two best books are The War of Art and William Zinsser's On Writing Well. I read a lot of classics; I read Annie Dillard a lot; writers who make me want to be a better writer. That usually jump-starts me.

Sheila: Do you ever have the experience where you're reading a book and it's such a fantastic book that it inspires you to put the book down and go write?

Miller: Oh, absolutely. Half the time I pick up a book, that's what I'm trying to get.

Sheila: It's pretty much the best feeling in the world.

Miller: It is. It's very encouraging.

Sheila: When's the movie Blue Like Jazz coming out?

Miller: We're trying to raise money; we've got about half the money raised, but we still have a long way to go. The economy is turning around, so that's going to help a little bit. We're hoping to shoot it early next year and release it late 2010. That's what we're hoping.

Sheila: Do you know who's playing you?

Miller: I do. We haven't been able to talk about it publicly because we haven't signed contracts yet, but it's a great young actor.

Sheila: Well, I'm really looking forward to seeing it. I imagine it'll get a lot of good play in Portland.

Miller: I hope so.

Donald Miller spoke while riding on a train in Chicago on October 29, 2009.

Books mentioned in this post




2 Responses to "On Storytelling: The Powells.com Interview with Donald Miller"

  1.  
    Christina November 4th, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Great interview, Sheila. Like you, I was struck by the idea that our lives are our own stories (with different genres attached, no doubt). They can all be written down into paragraphs, numerous chapters, and several volumes. But what content would we want to edit into or out of our book(s)? Would our lives, on paper, look fruitful or fruitless to us? Obviously, we lack the control to write the outcome of our stories, but what do I want my next chapter to contain? Very interesting. Thank you.

  2.  
    Carol Daubenmire November 4th, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    I love that guy! He, or rather some of the things he has written, changed my life. His book, Blue Like Jazz, challenged the way I love people. I found out, I am not as good at it as I thought.

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