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Million Miles in a Thousand Years
Author: Donald Miller
Publisher: Thomas Nelson ISBN: 9780785213062
Donald Miller is the writer of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, but after you read the book you can call him Don – you know, the guy that wrote Blue Like Jazz. Don likes to make up titles that are hard to explain to people. Don also likes to take pages from his life and think, in retrospect, about what they meant to him and what they might mean to us.
Luckily, Don knows how to invite us into his world in a style that’s reflective of the way we tend to think about ourselves – we’re not quite sure about how this trip called life will eventually end up going where we want it to go, but we’re willing to try to figure it out along the way, with Miller as a travelling companion.
Miller has an entertaining style and writes in vignettes that are easily digested in single sittings. You’ll find yourself saying, “ummmm – I can do another section or two,” - the book has a good sense of momentum that will carry you through without feeling labored.
As with his other books, you’ll soon find yourself familiarized with a cast of characters, this time including a cameo by no less than Steve Taylor. Taylor, the CCM musician turned filmmaker, contacts Miller with the prospect of turning Blue Like Jazz into a film – and therein lies the catalyst for this book, as well as somewhat of a framing device (although the frame remains open-ended: an issue I’ll explain later). Taylor and his assistant show up to begin the process of turning the autobiographical novel into a screenplay and Miller is thrown headlong into the concept of story – what makes an audience care, what are the elements of good storytelling, and – most importantly – what makes your story a good one.
The book starts off with healthy doses of Miller’s light-hearted but insightful observations on the triumphs and frustrations of day-to-day life, as he imagines his fictionalized on-screen life only to be told that his actual life is too boring and needed to be beefed up a bit to become good story material.
Miller explores the concept of story through some hefty soul-searching as well as the ‘legendary Robert McKee story seminars’– all leading him through such adventures as reconciliation with his father, hiking in Peru, exploring a romantic relationship, travelling to Uganda (and getting involved in serious social issues), and taking part in a cross-country bicycle trip to raise money for Blood: Water Mission, a project that builds wells in Africa. It’s a journey that, in the end, changes Miller from a somewhat depressed fatalist to a purposeful man - hopeful about the prospect of creating a better story by living a life of doing instead of just observing, of taking some risks: of living in a more sacrificial framework.
As always, Miller’s writing is a joy. Certainly, there’s a lot to be learned from Miller’s conclusions, even if many (perhaps most) of his readers will have less opportunities than the author to climb mountains, bicycle across America and visit Uganda (facing your father is something we all have to do eventually). Then again, that’s part of Miller’s point – taking the daring leap – the leap of faith, perhaps – to see where the story leads. There are those who climb mountains and there are those who have to keep the grass trimmed below. Of course, Miller himself quotes Solomon, who said that doing your work and enjoying your family is a pretty important story in and of itself.
The meat of the book is set up by the introduction of the filmmakers and Miller working out the basics of creating the author’s screen persona - but the book fails to return to that theme in the end, perhaps violating one of the elements of good storytelling that the book discusses. Structurally, the book begins in typical Miller style, with small doses of real-life comedy and casual glimpses of Believers who aren’t afraid to say that they have baser desires than you might want to admit, who will discuss the deeper things over a bottle of wine or a mug of beer. The writing actually does get into a serious and weighty mode eventually, and ends in a surprisingly ‘inspirational’ tone, although Miller never lets his writing get too lofty or overly maudlin.
I was genuinely affected
by portions of the book, but a final question lingers (for me, anyway)…
Miller goes from not much of a story to quite an impressive multi-layered
one. Certainly there are real lessons to be learned here and, but the cynic
in me wonders, “was this all about a better screenplay?” An infinite mirror
trick? I’m not saying that this is the case, or even that that’s what I
believe, but a part of this book is about what makes for good storytelling…