Written by Suzanne Montz Adams
“The saddest thing about life is that you don’t remember half of it,” begins Donald Miller in his memoir, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.” Amen to that! And yet most of us brush off the loss as part of the unreliable whim of memory, the part beyond our control.
Miller takes an entirely different approach—viewing the loss as an opportunity to “write” a better story of his life, a more vivid and memorable one. If he can sculpt his mundane life into a series of spectacular experiences, then how could he forget those moments?
Of course, as practitioners and followers of TLA, we know that writing down our stories also helps to preserve our memories and to discover the layered meanings or the nuggets of wisdom hidden among the simple facts. Generally, this panning for gold occurs in the deep rivers of the past. Miller suggests that we scoop those gems out of the moving waters of the present. First, however, we have to change who we are and how we act.
When Miller begins writing a screenplay of one of his previous books along with two experienced screenwriters, he creates parallels between the elements of a meaningful and memorable movie with the elements of a meaningful and memorable life. The whole point of a story and a life, he says, is character transformation. Yes, we nod. That’s obvious. But then we read about Miller’s transformation from an apathetic couch potato to riding a bike across America for a cause, from emotionally and physically ignoring his father (who left his family over thirty years before) to finding, meeting, and reconciling with his father, from being lackadaisical with his money to founding a nonprofit called The Mentoring Project to help youth growing up without fathers. It may sound simple on paper, but in reality, most of us are comfort-seeking people who are fine with the status quo, like Miller was when he started his journey. But as he weaves his story of transformation with all his character flaws on display, we recognize our own apathy, our own negative self-assessments, our own doubt. That’s when we realize that character transformation isn’t easy. Yet Miller proves again and again, that it is equally rewarding.
As a writer, I found his simple rules for crafting a memorable story (and a remarkable life) worth remembering. I even jotted down a few notes as I read, thinking, “So true.” One of those rules was that characters don’t want to change. They must be forced into it, even if they secretly desire something more. Being forced typically involves a troubling or even traumatic experience. And though we frequently resist such things, suffering and pain, when kneaded carefully over time, rises within us, and stretches us beyond what we thought possible.
As a fellow human traveler, I could also empathize with Miller’s preference for remaining stuck, unable to view his life from a wider lens. “I didn’t want to get well, because while I could not control my happiness, I could control my misery and I would rather have had control than live in the tension of what if.” Then, he says, Victor Frankl (Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning) whispered in his ear and reminded Miller that he was a tree in a story about a forest, and it was arrogant of him to believe any differently. And the story of the forest is better than the story of the tree. Resisting growth can be viewed, in this way, as a self-centered reaction detrimental to the community of humankind, which puts a whole new spin on things.
While Miller never says anything in this memoir that is completely original—perhaps you’ve heard or read these ideas in a psychological or spiritual context or in a writer’s workshop—when he connects the dots between his screenplay and his life, it’s like watching a math professor working out the algebraic equation on the blackboard rather than reading about the theory in the textbook. It’s the application of the principle that really matters. And Miller applies the theories beautifully, with humor, common sense, and refreshing transparency.