Life can be poetry, too

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
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?

Linking with Intentional Me, WIP Wednesday


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15 Responses to Life can be poetry, too

  1. tallandrew 11th July, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    “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 ”


    Seriously, I really enjoyed the book and found it very challenging. I don’t hunk its about making your life more exciting, just more purposeful. It is written to those who, as you say, might drift through like with no goals or purpose, or to those who never quite get around to doing all the great things they’ve considered doing. It is not a self-help book for all, particularly those who would like to do stuff but for whatever reason, can’t. In fact, Millar has developed a conference out of it which is about finding your life story, life purpose, in the context of the bigger story. In other words, can we live for God, and what do we need to change in order to do so.

    • Tanya 20th July, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

      I know, I know…

      I’m halfway through the book at the moment, and, like you, really enjoying it. I wasn’t really setting out to do a review, just that I am noticing this idea of being on an ‘adventure’ with God or ‘living a better story’ that’s cropping up everywhere. I may change my mind at the end of the book (and if so, i’ll comment further), but so far I would stand by what I said.

      I guess it all depends on context. As you say, this book is really good as a challenge for those who are drifting on through without any thought of their meaning or purpose – and I can definitely see that this is just superb as a corrective for that. But I am in the context of hearing lots of people talk about their exciting adventures and changing the world, and this book is adding to that – so I wanted to add my corrective to that. (If you correct a corrective, do you end up where you started from or more nuanced??)

      I love Donald Miller and I think his writing is amazing, so I wouldn’t want to come across as unnecessarily dismissive. (Donald, if you’re reading this: I’m still a fan!)

  2. Kath Cunningham 9th July, 2012 at 10:30 am #

    Hey there, good to read this- very similar thoughts to the ones the husbandface and I had when we read it. It seemed very enticing but every story was one of dramatic transformation, there was little time given over to the wonder of God in the everyday ordinary life, the adventures of trying to love the people in front of you each moment. That, for me, is the hardest adventure. I love that we are on an ordinary adventure in our lives, I want to draw our kids into seeing the adventure in front of us each day as we pootle around the city, as we try and love those around us and each other, as we gaze on beauty, as we seek to find the footprints of our maker.

    I also wonder what Donald Millar (whose writing I love and was gutted when I read Blue Like Jazz as someone had written the book I would love to write!) would make of the 1 Thessalonians stuff about making it your ambition to live a quiet life… seems to me that sometimes those quiet lives that get on with being a dearly loved child of God and loving the people around them without having to shout about it or put a label on it might just be the lives that God calls us to. Which isn’t to say God isn’t against the big dreamers and the big plans and those deeply desiring to change the world, but changing the world always comes down to the small steps of obedience in front of us each day, asking the questions, urging others to share passions and at the end of the day asking, have I loved well or was I trying to create my own kingdom today?

    I’m sure there are more nuances involved in this but there are some thoughts for now!

    • Tanya 20th July, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

      YES! – you have put this so well – the ordinary adventure that we’re in, the adventure of trying to love the people in front of you each moment. Was good to be reminded of the 1 Thess stuff as well – I’d forgotten that. Thanks for expressing so beautifully what I was trying to say. I guess that’s what I’m trying to do – to say, in with the big plans, honour the small things.

  3. Mandy 6th July, 2012 at 2:23 am #

    Hi Tanya! I’m coming to you from Mary Beth’s site. You have offered much food for thought. At times, I have found myself wondering if my life is completely boring. Then I realize that my life is not my own. If I fail to see amazing things in my life, it is because I fail to see how God has worked in it. And then I count my blessings and remember the amazing things He’s done! This is a great post. Thanks!

    • Tanya 20th July, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

      Nice to see you! Yes – it’s about remembering that God is the co-author with us, I guess. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Tereasa 5th July, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

    Hmm… I think feel the same. I’m curious to hear what you think after reading it. I think my life is much better than a movie.

    • Tanya 20th July, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

      Halfway through it at the time of writing… I like that your life is much better than a movie! Mine has fewer car chases, certainly.

  5. Shelly Miller 5th July, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    Well, I will be interested to see how you feel after reading the book. I had all the same thoughts you had here, after I read it. So I think you’re spot on. I am a huge Donald Miller fan, even contributed to the movie, and know the producers but have to admit, I didn’t care for this one as much as his others. It was too self-focused for me and I kept wondering where his faith changed between books.

    • Tanya 5th July, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

      Ah – interesting – am really glad you think my instinct was right on this one. How cool that you contributed to the movie! That’s amazing.

      Hope you had a great 4th July!

  6. Mary Beth 5th July, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

    I’m tracking with you on your thoughts here. I’m interested to hear what you think after you read the book! I’ll be looking for the update!

    Thanks for linking up with WIP Wednesday!
    Mary Beth @newlifesteward

    • Tanya 5th July, 2012 at 4:20 pm #

      Yes – I think that’s my holiday reading for this year… Have you read the book? what did you think if so?

  7. Penelope Swithinbank 5th July, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    Tanya thank you for this beautiful and profound thought. I’ve already read through it several times and in particular that last paragraph: 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.
    It’s bringing tears to the eyes and a prayer to the heart.
    BLess you for writing that today.
    – Penelope

    • Tanya 5th July, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

      Thank you Penelope – it’s always brilliant to hear what has connected with you. Thank you so much for your encouragement – I feel like we’re on a similar journey at the moment, and it’s very nice to have a running partner! Much love.


  1. Life is for telling « Thorns and Gold - 27th July, 2012

    […] In a previous post I mentioned Donald Miller’s book on living our life as story. It has got me thinking a lot about story and how we bring meaning to our life. […]

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