Donald Miller: Writing His Own Life Story
- 2009 17 Sep
How many of us get to see a movie made about our very own lives? Not many to be sure.
For best-selling author Donald Miller, it became a reality when filmmakers Steve Taylor and Ben Pearson (The Second Chance) approached him about adapting his best seller, Blue Like Jazz, for the big screen.
Perhaps this was what awoke Miller from his self-described "funk." After six years—and after 45 times of seeing his contemporary spiritual classic make the New York Times' best-seller list—the memoir's long-running success had found its Portland, Oregon-based author sleeping in and avoiding his publisher. It was time for Donald to start writing his next story, but about just what was the question that loomed large.
While crafting the narrative for the film, Donald was told his real life was "too boring" and something with more structure and more compelling content was needed to make the screenplay really work.
"People who live great lives intuitively know about story," he admits. "They may not know they are doing it, but they structure their experiences in such a way that their experiences are charged with meaning."
While searching for the perfect, meaningful experiences to include in his book-turned-movie story, Donald discovered how to make a better story by pursuing a better life for himself. He studied the art of story, traveled to Los Angeles and learned from legendary Robert McKee's "Story" seminar. And all the while, he began opening his life to new experiences, journeys, relationships, motivations and ultimately, some radical character transformation.
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life chronicles this filmmaking and story-making process. I had the opportunity to speak with Don about the book, his experience making a movie and what's next for this bike-riding, nonprofit-founding, adventure-seeking storyteller. …
What is A Million Miles in a Thousand Years all about?
It's the short story of a couple of screenwriters who are making a movie out of my memoir, Blue Like Jazz. And I work with them on the screenwriting process, so we co-wrote the movie. And in so doing, we had to change and fictionalize a bunch of the story to make it more exciting and meaningful which was somewhat humiliating, because we were changing my life to make it more meaningful. I studied screenplay quite a bit in the process and realized that a lot of the principles screenwriters use to make a story interesting and meaningful I can also apply to my life. The character has an ambition, a self-sacrificial ambition, and is willing to go through conflict. These are all elements of a much more meaningful experience. And so it changed the way I lived in many ways—from having goals of finishing this book and finishing a Web site and trying to come up with this or that to starting a mentoring program and then riding my bike across America to raise money for people who are without water in Africa. These are things that I probably wouldn't have done had I not studied what makes a story meaningful. It's really what makes a life meaningful. So the book is about that journey and all of the things I've learned and studied about what makes life good.
How did you learn to write a screenplay?
I took a couple of courses, and I learned a lot from a seminar actually with Robert McKee—he's sort of a guru of storytelling. I wrote the movie, wrote a television series that will be on the Halogen network and wrote a novel and all of that combined helped me understand how story actually works.
Who did you work with on the film?
Steve Taylor is the director of the film. A guy named Marshall Allman is playing me in the movie. He was the kid in the movie Hostage with Bruce Willis, and he currently stars in the television series Prison Break. Nashville, L.A., Houston and Portland are the locations.
Will you be in the film at all?
I play a cameo. There's a scene in the movie where kids are at a book reading at a bookstore, and they're making fun of the author and they think his writing is absurd. And I'm the author. Here's what's great: the character who plays me heckles me, which I just think is great.
Were there any parts of your life that the filmmakers wanted to change that you felt very strongly about?
No, because they were paying me [laughs]. We wanted to make a really entertaining movie. I had seen Running with Scissors which was a movie made out of Augusten Burroughs' memoir. The memoir was great, and the movie was awful because they basically portrayed the book. And you can't do that. It's very different on-screen. So I went into this thinking, "I don't want anyone thinking that this movie really stunk. It was true to the book, but it wasn't a very good movie." I want people walking out of the movie thinking, "That was really funny and really good and made me think and I felt a lot and I identified with a lot during the film."
So we fictionalized all of it. That said, the book itself is a series of essays, so you can't make a story out of it anyway. But what you'll probably do is watch the film and say, "You know, I believe that that character in that movie would have written Blue Like Jazz." We've shown the movie to super-fans of the book. And we've let people read the screenplay, and nobody's noticed that there's anything different. And yet there's only one scene in the movie that's in the book, and that's even drastically changed. So that makes you wonder, "So what's the relation?" It's the same characters having similar experiences. A good example would be the book Fast Food Nation, which was nonfiction. But they turned it into a movie, and they made a story out of the ideas that were presented.
What is the release date for the film?
The movie is coming out in early 2010. Probably in February.
When did you get the idea to write A Million Miles in a Thousand Years? Was it before, during or after the filmmaking process?
It was a slow evolution. While we were writing the screenplay, it began to be so funny … you know, editing my life. I just thought this would just make a funny book. And then when I began to study story—because I studied story while writing the screenplay and even after—I started seeing all of these ideas that related to life. And I thought not only would this be a funny book, it would be a really meaningful book and then began to write it based on that. So in the middle of the screenplay process and after, it began to evolve.
You're going on a 65-city tour this fall in support of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. What will this be like?
Susan Isaacs, who's written a book called Angry Conversations with God, will also be there. But the idea is to sort of have a literary evening that would be very entertaining and humorous and fun. We're treating it basically like a concert with musicians, except there will be writers. And then we'll also show the trailer from the movie at every stop.
You know, in Portland hundreds of people show up for book readings. So people will literally show up to hear an author read from his or her new book. They're wonderful evenings. David Sedaris gets paid $25,000 to show up at a reading for his book, and he fills out very large venues. So it'll be interesting to see how it works out. I've done readings before, and we'll have a thousand people there or something like that. But I don't know how it's going to work on this tour. Susan will probably do a reading, and I'll probably do a talk—but one that's based on the book.
I read somewhere where you've said that you're more of a behind-the-scenes person. So when you're speaking in front of big groups of people like this, how does that make you feel?
It's not that I don't like it. It's that I recharge by sort of not being up front all of the time. But I enjoy speaking. I like it. I can get worn down pretty quickly doing it, but I always go back and want to do it again. And I truly believe in this message. I've given the lecture a few times. People have sold their homes and done crazy things and have had their lives dramatically changed—not through what I have said but just due to the fact they've wanted to live a better story. They're going to die, and all they did was buy a Volvo. And they want to do something more than that. I'm excited to go out and present those ideas to audiences. Plus, everywhere I go I just meet the coolest people, and so it will be fun to go out on the road and interact with folks as well.
But … if I had the perfect life it would probably be continuing to write screenplays where nobody actually knows who wrote it or any of that. You get to tell stories and engage audiences, but you don't have to deal with some of the attention that comes with that.
Talk about the television series that you mentioned. Are you done with the writing of that?
We have filmed the pilot. It's a series called Transitus which is Latin for "crossing." It's about eight people who live in Portland, Oregon, and they've decided to live by these eight principles of community. They don't live in the same house. "We do not lie to each other" is a principle of community. "When somebody wrongs the group, we confront them." And [the principles are] all biblical. None of the characters are Christian, and there's not a religious influence in the script at all—except for that these tenets are biblical and they work. They create this really beautiful community. There's betrayal in the story and tragedy and redemption and forgiveness. "We forgive each other when we do the wrong thing" is part of one of the tenets of community. And so we filmed the pilot, and it will air on the Halogen network and we hope to film the rest of it this year.
Halogen is a brand new network. They're building their program lineup now. Paste Magazine will have a music show. They're Christians who actually started the network, but there's no religious material on the network. I think it's more along the lines of "family viewing," although our story isn't all that family oriented. So we'll see what happens.
At this point in your career, it sounds like you are starting to concentrate more on screenwriting and less on books. Is that an accurate assessment?
I think I'll focus more on fiction in the future. It's so great to write as a team and to write stories for screen. And then it's millions and millions of dollars in order to make a movie, and so it's just a mind-boggling process. Well, if you actually wrote a book you just publish it. It's not write the book, and then find the actors and then work with the unions and then figure out who's going to be your light crew and raise $5 million to actually shoot the film and then hope you get a distribution deal. I think I didn't realize I was going to have to do all of that for this movie, so now I'm just thinking that I could just write stories and put them on paper. That seems a lot easier. And you don't have to hire actors that way, right? You're just finding the right pen.
Had you wanted to write fiction before this filmmaking process or did that inspire you to write fiction?
I wanted to write fiction before. I'm so glad I didn't, even though I did write a novel. It was awful, because I didn't understand how fiction worked. I didn't understand the elements of story. So I'm glad we did all of this. I wanted to write fiction before, but now that I've done all of this, the work will be better. I think. I hope so.
Will you plan differently when writing fiction as opposed to nonfiction?
With nonfiction, I don't have an outline. I write myself into the book and then figure out what the book's about as I'm getting in to it and then hone it in and then revise it. So it feels like it's about whatever it's about from the beginning.
What's interesting is the way I'll approach fiction is I'll probably spend five or six months creating a story with a team of people. I'll invite people in to the office and we'll go over to the white board and figure out every turn of the story. And then once you do that, the story writes itself. You sit down and you go through index cards, and you flesh out the index cards.
Do you already have a story in mind?
I have several. We bought SavetheKitten.com because there's a funny story that we want to do about that. We bought BuytheWhiteHouse.com because we have this idea of writing a novel about voter fraud and all the elements of that. Kind of a thriller story. Probably 2011 is when I'll start working on those. Nothing like planning ahead!
Besides writing, you've also started something called The Mentoring Project. Would you share a little about that and why it's important?
We started a mentoring program at my church in Portland where we mentor about 65 kids. Once we started the program, then we started programs at other churches and our goal is to have 1,000 churches have mentoring programs within them. And that's only our initial goal. We want to be able to mentor millions of kids. There are 27 million kids growing up without dads and there are 360,000 churches. And so if many of those churches would have a mentoring program, we could shut down prisons in this country because 85% of guys in prison grew up without dads. So we feel the Church can meet a very tangible need in a short period of time.
A church signs up. We equip, we train, we work very intimately with that church to start the program. We almost run the program for a little while, then turn it over to the church as their program. And we work with them to shape the program. Do they want to partner with a local elementary school? Do they only want to mentor the kids who are already actually coming to the church? Because a lot of kids without dads are already attending these churches. So there are essentially many options for churches.
We run the program as a community. So the group would have a group of men mentoring a group of boys. The mentor has a specific child that he's working with. They could do things like attend baseball games together, go camping together, go hiking together and these kinds of things. They would get involved in each other's lives. There is a relational need. The kid is struggling with "Do I matter?" And the relationship helps to take care of this need.
We also want these young men to learn things like table etiquette, how to tie a tie, how to talk to a woman. These are things that these kids don't know and don't yet understand. Nobody will teach them to tie a tie if they grew up without a dad. Other things like the basics of fishing and these kind of things that young men are probably not going to learn without fathers. It's just a very relational ministry, and there's a point person at each church who is watching and monitoring the relationships as they develop.
Donald Miller takes to the road this fall, visiting 65 cities by tour bus, to launch A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life (Thomas Nelson, $19.99 hardcover, October 2009). "Donald Miller On Tour: An Evening with Donald Miller" will give fans the opportunity to hear Donald talk about his book and how his life changed while making the film based on Blue Like Jazz.
For more information about the tour, please visit amillionmiles.com. To read more about Donald, his newest book and the upcoming film based on Blue Like Jazz, please visit his personal blog at donmilleris.com.