What would your life look like if it were turned into a film?
This is the premise behind Donald Miller’s latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. His (excellent) memoir, Blue Like Jazz, was being turned into a film, and in the process of writing the screenplay he came to an uncomfortable realisation: his life was boring. It would not make for good viewing.
So he asked himself the question, ‘What if I lived as though my life was a story?’ The new book describes his experiment with applying to his life the principles of writing a good story.
It is an idea that merits some thought. For example, he reflects on the fact that in movies, you can’t say a character is feeling something, you need to show the audience. He then recalls a conversation with a man who had thought very highly of his wife since she had their baby, but he hadn’t told her. The wife didn’t know what he was thinking because he hadn’t said it. The husband, when realising this, went out and bought her some flowers.
There is lots of useful stuff there. But I have to admit, when I heard of the book, I was a little irritated by the concept.
I have two disclaimers here. First – I love Donald Miller and his writing. Second – although I know it is bad practice and I don’t usually do it, I am about to critique an idea without having yet read the book (though it is sitting on my bedside table, about to be read). It may well be that I have completely misunderstood his premise. If so, please feel free to correct me!
The objection I have is this:
To be looking at our life and asking ‘How can I make it more exciting?’ seems a little Western, middle class, and – dare I say it? – narcissistic. It puts us at the centre of the story.
Additionally, when we start thinking ‘how can I make my life a better story?’ we primarily think in terms of plot and drama, the things we can do, the difference we can make to the world.
I hesitate to critique this, because I do think it’s a good corrective to the equally Western tendency to just drift through life, punctuating it with pleasurable diversions. It’s good to be intentional, to think deeply about what we are doing with our life, how we are developing as characters. I think a bit of self-examination is very healthy, and often neglected.
And yet… It makes me wonder what it says about our intrinsic value as people. Books and movies are about plot, action, overcoming obstacles. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of choice about the direction our lives take. What if our lives don’t have much drama? What if our obstacles overcome us?
I often think of Jenny Rowbory, severe M.E. sufferer who has spent the past seven years bedbound, very isolated from the rest of the world, unable to do much more than lie in silence. She is a published poet. One of her poems talks about those people that we honour for their great acts, and contrasts it with her daily reality: ‘Only God notices the deedless form on the bed’. You would not make a movie out of her life. Does that make it less valuable?
Life doesn’t have to be understood as a movie, or an exciting novel. It doesn’t have to be drama and plot.
Beauty and meaning can be found in the daily rhythm of feeding your children, the faithful repetition of loving people who are difficult to love in a job that you hate, the stubborn, meticulous crafting of perseverance in difficult circumstances. Life can be poetry, too.
We are not the makers of our own destiny; we have One who is writing our story with us. And we don’t have to be the central character of our story. We are part of a bigger story.
There is something in me that would love to be the courageous hero of my own life story, but there is a better and more glorious Hero for me to focus on.
My life may never be the world-changing, hearts-moving best-seller, but merely a fragment and whisper of broken poetry in the midst of an epic.
Life can be poetry. May I be content for my life to be a rhyming couplet in a bigger story. And may that poem be a hymn of praise to the Almighty.
For further reading:
Addie Zierman – ‘Don’t change the world’ – what I’m trying to say, but better
Jeff Goins’ review of A Million Miles
Buy A Million Miles on Amazon.com
Buy J K Rowbory – Rainbows in my eyes
Over to you:
- If your life were turned into a movie, what kind of movie would it be? (And which actor would be playing you?)
- What do you find helpful/unhelpful about thinking about your life as a novel or movie?