Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Own Life (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009). Forthcoming.
Donald Miller likes “slow literary movies that don’t seem to be about anything and yet are about everything at the same time”—Garden State, for example. I don’t, and that probably explains why I didn’t like Miller’s newest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. It didn’t seem to be about anything, and I wasn’t sure it was even about everything.
Speaking of movies, A Million Miles is partly a memoir of Miller working with a screenwriter and a cinematographer on a movie about his life. The inspiration for this movie was a memoir Miller had published previously. Other than writing several books, Miller hasn’t done much with his life. He’s not married. He doesn’t lead a church or spearhead a reform organization. He writes about himself. And he’s not even forty.
Such a life seems to me to be pretty thin gruel for yet another memoir, let alone for a movie based on his life. I get the feeling Miller feels similarly. He asks: “Who thinks they are so important they need to write books about themselves?” Who, indeed? A Million Miles is a hodgepodge of stories about Miller doing this or thinking that or feeling some other thing. Frankly, it’s boring. Not only that, it doesn’t complete the story arc. We get the beginning and middle of the tale about writing the script for a movie of Miller’s life, but the ending is missing. The screenwriting process just drops out of the story.
The book does have its moments. Miller’s telling of how he went looking for the dad who abandoned him is quite affecting, and even has a sharp, unexpected turn to it. And his tale of falling in love with a girl and proposing to her, only to have the relationship end dredged up personal memories of the demise of my own engagement 13 years ago. (I’m happily married to another woman now.) And there is a smattering of stories about friends and acquaintances who are doing something world-changing: Bob Goff working to reform the legal system in Uganda, Gary Haugen working to end human trafficking, a woman named Catherine teaching inmates real-world business skills. But these aren’t Miller’s stories; they’re the stories of Miller’s friends. And they’re much more interesting than Miller’s stories.
So, I closed this book bored and disappointed.
Fifteen minutes later, I realized three things.
First, the story of my life isn’t any better. Oh sure, I’m married to a beautiful woman and have a wonderful little boy. But my life is mostly about George P. Wood doing this or thinking that or feeling some other thing. It’s one of those literary movies, but without an epiphany, climax, or character transformation.
Second, I could write a better story. That’s one of the recurring themes in Miller’s book. If you don’t like the story of your life, writer a better one. Miller doesn’t bring much God-talk or Bible into this book, but from what he does say, you get the distinct impression that God wants a better story out of our lives too.
And third, to quote Miller’s friend Jordan: “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” What do I want? And what am I willing to sacrifice to obtain it? Miller’s story, as I read it, is about an insightful guy who’s lonely and wants a better life: perhaps marriage, definitely meaningfulness. At this point, I have a hard time answering those questions for myself. I’ve got quite a lot, but I want something more out of my life.
Miller’s book—at first boring and disappointing—was an inciting incident in my life, a catalyst to make some changes. Had Miller’s own story been more exciting, I would’ve missed its application to me. And I get the idea that that was Miller’s point all along. No wonder he likes those literary movies.