Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Living better stories

This post is part of a new series on Stories of Conflict and Love called Books Well-Loved. In it, I will share quotes, impressions, and insights from the books that have touched me. 

Book and Author: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Don Miller
When I read it: On the first week of January 2011
Where I read it: Next to a sleeping Elijah, in Be'er Sheva, Israel
Favorite phrase: "the emotional inheritance of stories"

One way I will remember 2011 is as the year when I acknowledged my fervent belief in the power of storytelling. I still struggle with the labels: Writer feels too big, blogger feels too writing-from-grandma's-basement-in-my-pyjamas-about-what-I-had-for-lunch. Photographer feels too big, essayist too unearned with a pinch of pretentious. Storyteller, though, with all its intentional ambiguity, all its room for growth, all its invitations for multiple media and their-crossover, and all its magic -- storyteller fits. 

Fittingly, then, the first book I read in 2011 was Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Miller earned a spot on the NYT Best-Selling Author when he published Blue Like Jazz in 2003. Following the success of that book, a production company approached him about turning the collection of essays into a film. That is where A Million Miles in a Thousand Years begins. After some fairly blunt feedback from the screenwriting and film team, Miller realizes that to tell a better, more compelling story, he needs to live a better story as well. 

That articulation has been perspective-shifting for me because it implies bi-directional forces in storytelling. We, readers of books and viewers of photographs and films and dance performances, the quintessential story consumers, know that storytelling can shape the life of the reader or the viewer, but we do not often think about how telling our own story shapes us. We often think that we have to live, LIVE, REALLY LIVE to have some full story wells to draw from, but we rarely think of our stories themselves as instruments and vehicles to better lives. That is exactly what Don Miller did in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: He tied living and storytelling, and committed himself to improving both, side-by-side, with a keen and open eye for the way in which the two influenced one another. 

One of Miller's starting premises is loud - and comforting to those of us who have put boarding passes aside for a while and are indeed writing in a basement in our pyjamas: 
A lot of people think a writer has to live in order to write, has to meet people and have a rich series of experiences or his work will become dull. But that is drivel. It's an excuse a writer uses to take the day off, or the week or the month off for that matter. The thinking is, if we go play Frisbee in the park, we're going to have a thousand words busting out of us when we get back to the house. We're going to write all kinds of beautiful prose about playing Frisbee. It's never worked for me. Annie Dillard, who won the Pulitzer while still in her mother's womb, wrote one of her books in a concrete cell. She says most of what a writer needs to really live they can find in a book. People who live good stories are too busy to write about them. Nobody ever strapped a typewriter to the back of an elephant and wrote a novel while hunting wild game. Nobody except for Hemmingway. But let's not talk about Hemmingway. 
I want to argue with that -- after all, it is harder to write about the ceiling tiles of the basement than wild game hunting -- but the image of the strapped typewriter on the back of an elephant disarmed me. That paragraph does not serve to tell writers to be complacent or to turn off the ignition; rather, it is a wake-up call to be alert, and to remember that the world of imagination is always alive. Rather than encouraging his readers to not go search for the elephants and the wild games and the thrills, Miller does quite the opposite -- he empties comfort of its appeal: 
Humans are designed to seek comfort and order, and so if they have comfort and order, they tend to plant themselves, even if their comfort isn't all that comfortable. And even if they secretly want for something better.
And to dissuade us from experiencing the disappointment of going, going, going without a question that we want to live in, Miller offers this:
It made me wonder if the reasons our lives seem so muddled is because we keep walking into scenes in which we, along with the people around us, have no clear idea what we want. 
I have found joy in not knowing what I want from a place, an opportunity, a door in life... I think there is a real value to not knowing, and to embracing the (dis)comfort of that. Embracing that brings with it an openness to the stories that may present ourselves along the way, to the stories that we wish to weave out of unfamiliar paths. 

There can be a discomfort to storytelling, for the writer, the photographer, the subject, the reader, for whole communities at once. My favorite genre of writing, the personal essay, often feels like navel-gazing, like a guilty indulgence in the admission that my personal life's story may be of interest to someone outside myself. Miller, with a few best-sellers under his belt, has the following to say about this sentiment: 
You get tired of thinking about yourself all the time when you're a writer. Or at least when you write the kinds of books I write. It gets wearisome, all the bellyaching and feeling and thinking about the world and how you interact with it. Everything's a mirror when you're a writer; the computer monitor is a mirror. Who thinks they are so important they need to write books about themselves? Who are these people who write about themselves, and how did I become one of them? 
That is what Miller does beautifully in this book: He asks questions of himself and his reader, and then experiments with the answers in a way that prompts you to get off the couch and join him. He spares no words when describing the magic of storytelling, the beautiful simplicity of love on some days, or the attributes of a good storyteller. And for those of us who may be tempted to take our bubbling youth and cram it with as many life experiences as humanly possible in an attempt to make sense of the world, to build a story, Miller says this, gently:
I don't think memorable scenes help a story make sense. Other principles accomplish that. What memorable scenes do is punctuate the existing rise and fall of a narrative. 
I am still on the hunt for all of that: looking for sense, building the narrative, collecting the memorable scenes, spinning the yarn of all of it together. If you are too, Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is a good companion on your journey. 

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