A Million Miles In A Thousand Years
Title: A Million Miles In A Thousand Years
Author: Donald Miller
Read In: 2023
Description: Donald Miller’s thoughts on creating an intentional life and living a good story, during the period where his memoir, Blue Like Jazz, is being re-written and fictionalized for the big screen
Purchase: Bookshop.org (affiliate link)
. . . we are all poems coming out of the mud.
I wondered then if life weren’t about nature, if we were supposed to live in the woods and grow into the forest like tree moss.
You get a feeling when you look back on life that that’s all God really wants from us, to live inside a body he made and enjoy the story and bind with us through the experience.
I wonder if that’s what we’ll do with God when we are through with all this, if he’ll show us around heaven, all the light coming in through windows a thousand miles away, all the fields sweeping down to a couple of chairs under a tree, in a field outside the city. And we’ll sit and tell him our stories, and he’ll smile and tell us what they mean.
I just hope I have something interesting to say.
But I like movies. There’s something about a good story that helps me escape. I used to go to movies all the time just to clear my head. If it was a good movie, the experience felt like somebody was resetting a compass in my brain so I could feel what was important in life and what wasn’t.
The movies I like best are the slow literary movies that don’t seem to be about anything and yet are about everything at the same time. They are about insecurities and sexual tension and whether the father will stop drinking. I like those movies more because I don’t have to suspend as much disbelief. Nobody in real life has to disassemble a bomb, for instance. Not the kind of bomb you think about when you hear the word bomb.
. . . I never know what to say to people when I first meet them. I can get tired when I talk to somebody new, because if there is silence in the conversation, I feel it’s my fault.
We were walking through Trader Joe’s, and he asked what it felt like to edit my life. “What do you mean?” I asked
“You know. Just to dream it all up again. Everybody wants to go back, man. Everybody wants to make it right. We get to edit your story so it has punch and meaning. That has to be an incredible feeling.”
“I mean no disrespect,” I said. “But what is wrong with the Don in the book?” The question came out of my mouth more personally than I wanted.
Steve sat thoughtfully and collected his ideas. He scratched his chin and collected some sympathy. “In a pure story,” he said like a professor, “there is a purpose in every scene, in every line of dialogue. A movie is going somewhere.”
That last line rang in my ear like an accusation. I felt defensive, as though the scenes in my life weren’t going anywhere. I mean, I knew they weren’t going anywhere, but it didn’t seem okay for anybody else to say it. I didn’t say anything; I tried to think about the philosophy of making movies so my face would look like I was thinking something other than the fact that Steve didn’t think my life was going anywhere.
“What Steve is trying to say,” Ben spoke up, reaching for the jar of olives, “is that your real life is boring.”
“Music obeys form and structure. There are scales and harmonics; there are principles a musician adheres to, in order to make music. If he doesn’t, it’s just noise. It’s the same with story. If you don’t obey certain principles, the story doesn’t make sense. Without story, experiences are just random.”
You’d think it wouldn’t be a stretch for me to write a movie about my memoir. I’d written the memoir, after all. But I didn’t like thinking about myself anymore. You get tired of thinking about yourself all the time when you’re a writer. Or at least when you write the kind 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?
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but it’s obvious now that in creating the fictional Don, I was creating the person I wanted to be, the person worth telling stories about. It never occurred to me that I could re-create my own story, my real life story, but in an evolution I had moved toward a better me. I was creating someone I could life through, the person I’d be if I redrew the world, a character that was me but flesh and soul other. And flesh and soul better too.
When Steve, Ben, and I first started working together, I didn’t want Don to embrace conflict. I wanted it to be an easy story. But nobody really remembers easy stories. Characters have to face their greatest fears with courage. That’s what makes a story good. If you think about the stories you like most, they probably have lots of conflict. There is probably death at stake, inner death or actual death, you know. These polar charges, these happy and sad things in life, are like colors God uses to draw the world.
If you want to talk about positive and negative charges in a story, ultimately I think you’d break those charges down into life and death. The fact of life and the reality of death give the human story its dramatic tension. For whatever reason, we don’t celebrate coming into life much. I mean we send cards and woman have baby showers and all that, but because the baby can’t really say thank you, we don’t make a big deal out of it. We make a big deal out of death, though. We sit around at funerals, feeling sorry for the unfortunate person whom death happened to. We say nice things about the person; we dig a hole and put the body in the hole and cover the casket with all our questions.
I knew he wouldn’t die, because his life was like the roots of a tree that went miles into the soil and miles around its trunk and came up in my cousins, in their faces and their voices and their character. I didn’t think you could kill a tree that big. Not even God could kill a tree that big.
The thing about death is it reminds you the story we are telling has finality.
If Steve was right about a good story being a condensed version of life—that is, if a story is just life without the meaningless scenes—I wondered if life could be lived more like a good story in the first place. I wondered whether a person could plan a story for his life and live it intentionally.
Good stories don’t happen by accident, I learned. They are planned.
A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it is the basic structure of a good story.
The night after we talked, Jason couldn’t sleep. He thought about the story his daughter was living and the role she was playing inside that story. He realized he hadn’t provided a better role for his daughter. He hadn’t mapped out a story for his family. And so his daughter had chosen another story, a story in which she was wanted, even if she was only being used. In the absence of a family story, she’d chosen a story in which there was risk and adventure, rebellion and independence. “She’s not a bad girl,” my friend said. “She was just choosing the best story available for her.”
I pictured his daughter flipping through the channels of life, as it were, stopping on a story that seemed most compelling at the moment, a story that offered her something, anything, because people can’t live without a story, without a role to play.
“No girl who plays the role of a hero dates a guy who uses her. She knows who she is. She just forgot for a little while.”
My friend Anna works at a soup kitchen, a café downtown run by Catholics. I volunteered there one day, cutting celery, and there was another woman working who had a son who was autistic. Her son sat in a booth and stared at his hands, flicking his fingers in front of his face, watching them like flames.
The boy’s mother said he was autistic and sometimes spaced out, staring at his hands, but because I didn’t know what autism was, really, I figured he was more or less mesmerized by his existence. I was romanticizing the situation because the kid was probably distracting himself or daydreaming or something, but I thought maybe he was like Hamlet looking at his hands, thinking sincerely about what it means to have been born.
It was a phase, I think, but I used to suddenly realize I was alive and human. I felt like I was in a movie and had two cameras for eyes, and I’d swivel my head around as though I were moving my cameras atop a tripod. I even wrote a poem about it and said we were “spirit bound by flesh, held up by bone and trapped in time.” Back then I wondered why nobody else realized what a crazy experience we were all having. Back then I’d be lying in bed or walking down a hallway at college, and the realization I was alive would startle me, as though it had come up from behind and slammed two books together. We get robbed of the glory of life because we aren’t capable of remembering how we got here. When you are born, you wake slowly to everything. Your brain doesn’t stop growing until you turn twenty-six, so from birth to twenty-six, God is slowly turning the lights on, and you’re groggy and pointing at things saying circle and blue and car and then sex and job and health care. The experience is so slow you could easily come to believe life isn’t that big of a deal, that life isn’t staggering. What I’m saying is I think life is staggering and we’re used to it. We all are like spoiled children no longer impressed with the gifts we’re given—it’s just another sunset, just another rainstorm moving in over the mountain, just another child being born, just another funeral.
When Steve, Ben, and I wrote our character into the screenplays, I felt the way I hope God feels as he writes the world, sitting over the planets and placing tiny people in tiny wombs. If I have a hope, it’s that God sat over the dark nothing and wrote you and me, specifically, into the story and put us in with the sunset and the rainstorm as though to say, Enjoy your place in my story. The beauty of it means you matter, and you can create within it even as I have created you.
But I’ve noticed something. I’ve never walked out of a meaningless movie thinking all movies are meaningless. I only thought the movie I walked out on was meaningless. I wonder, then, if when people say life is meaningless, what they really mean is their lives are meaningless. I wonder if they’ve chosen to believe their whole existence is unremarkable and are projecting their dreary lives on the rest of us.
I knew from Jason’s story that the same elements that make a movie meaningful are the ones that make a life meaningful. I knew a character had to face his greatest fears. That’s the stuff of good story.
And once you know what it takes to live a better story, you don’t have a choice. Not living a better story would be like deciding to die, deciding to walk around numb until you die, and it’s not natural to want to die.
If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation.
If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He’s a jerk in the beginning and nice as the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end. If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just a condensed version of life, then life itself my be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another.
I asked Marcos what he’s discovered; and he said, essentially, humans are alive for the purpose of journey, a kind of three-act structure. They are born and spend several years discovering themselves and the world, then plod through a long middle in which they are compelled to search for a mate and reproduce and also create stability out of natural instability, and then they find themselves at an ending that seems to be designed for reflection. At the end, their bodies are slower, they are not as easily distracted, they do less work, and they think and feel about a life lived rather than look forward to a life getting started. He didn’t know what the point of the journey was, but he did believe we were designed to search for and find something. And he wondered out loud if the point wasn’t the search but the transformation the search creates.
He said we think we are the same person, but we aren’t. “People get stuck, thinking they are one kind of person, but they aren’t.”
For instance, Marcos said, “The human body essentially recreates itself every six months. Nearly every cell of hair and skin and bone dies and another is directed to its former place. You are not who you were in February,” he told me.
Once I understood the power of story in my personal life, I wanted to know more about how to create a good one. I was getting up a little earlier, and interestingly enough, I was going to fewer movies. In a way, I’d started a new story about trying to find a story, and so I didn’t need to escape my boring life anymore. I was a character who wanted something, and, well, that’s half the battle. And I kept learning more about story. I learned that not just any character can work to create a good story. It takes a specific kind of character. And not just any ambition would define a good story. It took a specific kind of ambition. The elements of story were conditional, in other words. These conditions were fixed principles too, and every good screenwriter knows them the way a musician knows his scales.
Robert McKee talks about character revelation in his book: “Beneath the surface of characterization,” he says, “regardless of appearances, who is this person? At the heart of his humanity, what will we find? Is he loving or cruel? Generous or selfish? Strong or weak? Truthful or a liar? Courageous or cowardly? The only way to know the truth is to witness him make choices under pressure, to take one action or another in the pursuit of his desire.”
Of all the principles I’d learn about story while working with Steven and Ben, the idea that a character is what he does remains the hardest to actually live.
I live in fantasies. I live terrific lives in my head. It’s part of the creative imagination, to daydream, to invent stories.
When I was young, I used to watch this cartoon about a kid who got lost in daydreams. He’d zone out during class and imagine himself in the jungle, fighting toothy animals. In the cartoon he’d be shaken by the jaws of a lion, right about to die, and come out of his daydream with his teacher standing above him, shaking him awake.
I think I grew up to be that kid. As a writer, I’ve turned daydreaming into a cottage industry. I make stuff up and sell it. I realized this was true recently while writing at a friend’s cabin on Orcas Island. I’d gone there because there’s nothing to do on the island but write. I can’t write at home because there are too many phone calls and e-mails and it’s harder to work.
But even on the island, when I should have been writing, I’d take long walks along the water and imaging myself having been a captain lost at sea. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but it’s true. In my mind I could see a boat washing up on the shore and I imagined myself climbing out of it with a long beard, smoking a pipe, being greeted by local villagers who were hungry for stories about life on the ocean.
I didn’t know getting lost in daydreams was odd until a couple of years ago when I asked an old girlfriend what she daydreamed about. She answered, “Nothing.” How does a person daydream about nothing? I wondered. But she explained she lived in the now and worked with whatever was really happening.
In the room where I’m writing today, nothing is happening. And later there will be laundry happening, which is nothing to daydream about. I can’t deal with reality.
It hit me that while I had spent my twenties daydreaming and avoiding the reality of crying children, this man I didn’t know had met a woman and started a real family with real children who were not literary inventions, but actual characters who cried in coffee shops. Thsis sort of life once sounded boring to me. It was too real, too unromantic, I suppose. But there in Boston it occurred to me that his story was better than mine for the simple fact that his story was actually happening. He was doing real things with real people while I’d been typing words into a computer.
When I arrived home from Boston, I realized there were no pictures on my mantel. I set down my suitcase and walked into the living room and looked across to the fireplace, and it felt empty. Empty of real stories. I went into my bedroom where the bed was made, and on my desk there were no pictures in frames, and on the end tables there were no pictures. There was a framed picture of Yankee Stadium above the toilet in the bathroom, and there was some art I’d picked up in my travels, but there was little evidence of an actual character living an actual life. My home felt like a stage on which props had been set for a fake story rather than a place where a person lived an actual human narrative.
It’s an odd feeling to be awakened from a life of fantasy. You stand there looking at a bare mantel and the house gets an eerie feel, as though it were haunted by a kind of nothingness, an absence of something that could have been, an absence of people who could have been living there, interacting with me, forcing me out of my daydreams. I stood for a while and heard the voices of children who didn’t exist and felt the tender touch of a wife who wanted me to listen to her. I felt, at once, the absent glory of a life that could have been.
I was watching a reality show on television about this time, and I wondered what a show might look like if a camera followed me around. I wondered what people would think. That is, setting aside my daydreams and wants and thoughts and revealing my life through an objective camera lens. The thought was humbling. In truth, I was a person who daydreamed and then wrote down his daydreams. Sure, there were other characters, friends and business associates, but I wasn’t living any kind of sacrifice. My entire life had been designed to make myself more comfortable, to insulate myself from the interruption of my daydreams.
I don’t know why we need stories, but we always have. I’d say it’s just that we like them, that they’re entertaining, but it’s more than that. It’s a thing in us that empties like a stomach and then needs to be filled again.
This is how it has always been. The ancients who painted hieroglyphics, the orators telling the news, the children in their beds while their parents made up heroes and dragons, and then the three of us, sitting in the living room with scraps of paper all over the floor and on the coffee table, with two whiteboards filled from one side to the other with ink, with time lines, with this happens and then this happens and then another thing.
I hadn’t loved the process of writing so much in years. Steve and Ben were sitting, but I paced, and I only pace when I’m engaged. Some people say a writer catches spirits, and the spirits whisper lines inside his brain. It feels like this at times. It feels like there are spirits. I paced and I was catching spirits.
I like the part of the Bible that talks about God speaking the world into existence, as though everything we see and feel were sentences from his mouth, all the wet of the world his spit.
I feel written. My skin feels written, and my desires feel written. My sexuality was a word spoken by God, that I would be male, and I would have brown hair and brown eyes and come from a womb. It feels literary, doesn’t it, as if we are characters in books.
You can call it God or a conscience, or you can dismiss it as that intuitive knowing we all have as human being, as living storytellers; but there is a knowing I feel that guides me toward better stories, toward being a better character. I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness.
“You’re right,” he finally said. “You aren’t living a good story.”
“That’s what I was saying.”
“I see,” he said.
“What do I do about that?”
“You’re a writer. You know what to do.”
“No, I don’t.”
Jordan looked at me with his furrowed brow again. “You put something on the page,” he said. “Your life is a blank page. You write on it.”
A general rule in creating stories is that characters don’t want to change. They must be forced to change. Nobody wakes up and starts chasing a bad guy or dismantling a bomb unless something forces them to do so. The bad guys just robbed your house and are running off with your last roll of toilet paper, or the bomb is strapped to your favorite cat. It’s that sort of thing that gets a character moving.
The rule exists in story because it’s a true thing about people. Humans are designed to seek comfort and order, and so it 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.
The most often repeated commandment in the Bible is “Do not fear.” It’s in there over two hundred times. That means a couple of things, if you think about it. It means we are going to be afraid, and it means we shouldn’t let fear boss us around. Before I realized we were supposed to fight fear, I thought of fear as a subtle suggestion our subconscious designed to keep us safe, or more important, keep us from getting humiliated. And I guess it serves that purpose. But fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.
You don’t know a story is happening to you when you’re in it. You slide into the flow of it like a current in the ocean; you look back at the beach and can’t see your umbrella, and your hotel is a quarter mile behind you.
. . . I believe God wants us to create beautiful stories, and whatever it is that isn’t God wants us to create meaningless stories, teaching the people around us that life just isn’t worth living.
I don’t know why there are dark forces in the world, but there are. And I don’t know why God allows dark forces to enter into our stories, but he does.
A story is made up of turns, Robert McLee says. Once an ambition has been decided, a positive turn is an event that moves the protagonist closer to the ambition, and a negative turn moves the protagonist away from his ambition. All stories have both. If a story doesn’t have negative turns, it’s not an interesting story. A protagonist who understands this idea lives a better story. He doesn’t give up when he encounters a setback, because he knows that every story has both positive and negative turns.
The thing I never realized while I was studying marketing was the process of advertising products is, in many ways, a manipulation of the elements of story. It’s like I was telling you about an inciting incident disrupting the stability of a character’s life, throwing him or her into a story. Advertising does exactly this. We watch a commercial advertising a new Volvo, and suddenly we feel our life isn’t as content as it once was. Our life doesn’t have the new Volvo in it. And the commercial convinces us we will only be content if we have a car with forty-seven airbags. And so we begin our story of buying a Volvo, only to repeat the story with a new weed eater and then a new home stereo. And this can go on for a lifetime. When the credits roll, we wonder what we did with our lives, and what was the meaning.
The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want. If we don’t want anything, we are living boring stories, and if we want a Roomba vacuum cleaner, we are living stupid stories. If it won’t work in a story, it won’t work in life.
From the plateau it was seven miles of climbing stairs. I found a rhythm and kept my head down and drank lots of water and ended up keeping with the group. I was surprised I could do it, but I could. I was a better hiker than I thought. When you’ve lived countless stories in which you play a sedentary role, it’s an odd feeling to switch stories. But I was surprising myself.
And it was like Carlos said, because you can take a bus to Machu Picchu; you can take a train and then a bus, and you can hike a mile to the Sun Gate. But the people who took the bus didn’t experience the city as we experienced the city. The pain made the city more beautiful. The story made us different characters than we would have been if we had skipped the story and showed up at the ending an easier way.
He reached over and picked up my book and smiled and shook his head. “You can write,” he said in a voice that seemed to come from before time. “I can’t believe how good your stories are.” I didn’t want his words to mean anything. I didn’t want to need his affirmation. But part of our selves is spirit, and our spirits are thirsty, and my father’s words went into my spirit like water.
And I found myself wanting even better stories. And that’s the thing you’ll realize when you organize your life into the structure of story. You’ll get a taste for one story and then want another, and then another, and the stories will build until you’re living a kind of epic of risk and reward, and the whole thing will be molding you into the actual character whose roles you’ve been playing. And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time. The more practice stories I lived, the more I wanted an epic to climb inside of and see through till its end.
On our first night on the water, we camped on one of the few beaches that wasn’t taken by a cliff. In the night, there were no lights on the horizon, no civilization. There was no man-made noise, save the occasional passing yacht heading to Chatterbox Falls at the back of the inlet. And in the morning I found bald eagles nesting in a tree near our camp, and the seals would come up near our rocks and look at each other and sink back into the sea, coming up again a few yards further as though they wanted us to chase them. The beauty of the inlet was nearly that of Peru, and I wondered at all this exposition God had created, as though it were an invitation to an epic so grand it might match the scenery. The mountains themselves call us into greater stories, I thought.
I asked Bob what was the key to living such a great story, and Bob seemed uncomfortable with the idea he was anything special. But he wanted to answer my question, so he thought about it and said he didn’t think we should be afraid to embrace whimsy. I asked him what he meant by whimsy, and he struggled to define it. He said it’s that nagging idea that life could be magical; it could be special if we were only willing to take a few risks.
I think this is when most people give up on their stories. They come out of college wanting to change the world, wanting to get married, wanting to have kids and change the way people buy office supplies. But they get into the middle and discover it was harder than they thought. They can’t see the distant shore anymore, and they wonder if their paddling is moving them forward. None of the trees behind them are getting smaller and none of the trees ahead are getting bigger. They take it out on their spouse, and they go looking for an easier story.
Robert McKee put down his coffee cup and learned onto the podium. He put his hand on his forehead and wiped back his grey hair. He said, “You have to go there. You have to take your character to the place where he just can’t take it anymore.” He looked at us with a tenderness we hadn’t seen in him before. “You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’ve been out on the ledge. The marriage is over now; the dream is over now; nothing good can come from this.”
He got louder. “Writing a story isn’t about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn’t think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s conflict that changes a person.”
His voice was like thunder now. “You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That’s the only way we change.”
I have a friend named Kaj who used to run an outdoor school in Canada. I went to visit him a couple of times, and each time I noticed he had a remarkable men’s group at his school. The men tended to bond like brothers and respect each other and treat each other with dignity. I asked him once how he got the guys to bond like that, and Kaj said he believed the key to getting men to bond was to have them risk their lives together. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, so he explained he was talking about rock climbing and swift-water kayaking and that sort of thing. But one night I went to one of their men’s events, and they didn’t exactly sit around beating drums. Instead, they played capture the flag, but instead of flags they chucked little bottles of gasoline across fields into each other’s campfires. The team whose campfire burned down last won. I honestly thought somebody was going to die. And then another night they made knights’ outfits and rode bikes at each other with javelins made from long sticks with rolled up towels on the end. Only the towels had been dipped in gasoline and lit. I looked over at Kaj as though to say he was crazy, and he reminded me that men don’t bond unless they risk their lives together, and that Canadians have enjoy free health care.
After visiting Kaj, I realized how much of our lives are spent trying to avoid conflict. Half the commercials on television are selling us something that will make life easier. Part of me wonders if our stories aren’t being stolen by the easy life.
I knew I had fifty more miles to go, and the miles would be, perhaps, the most miserable of my life. But in that place, I remembered about story, about how every conflict, no matter how hard, comes back to bless the protagonist if he will face his fate with courage. There is no conflict man can endure that will not produce a blessing. And I smiled. I’m not saying I was happy, but for some reason I smiled. It hurts now, but I’ll love this memory, I thought to myself. And I do.
You never see this in movies. Character don’t look at themselves in the bathroom mirror for hours wondering why they can no longer feel. Characters in movies progress. But I didn’t know what direction to move.
Interfering with suicides was prohibited by Nazi guards, but Frankl whispered in people’s ears all the same. The essence of his whispers was that life, even amid the absurdity of human suffering, still had meaning. Suffering, as absurd as it seemed, pointed to a greater story in which, if one would only construe himself as a character within, he could find fulfillment in his tragic role, knowing the plot was heading toward redemption. Such an understanding would take immense humility and immeasurable faith, a perspective perhaps achieved only in the context of near hopelessness.
There wasn’t anybody in the seat next to me, so I ordered a drink and laid back and imagined Victor Frankl. I remembered him in the concentration camp, and I imagined him whispering in my ear. I didn’t want to hear him at first. I didn’t want to get well, because if I got well, nobody would come and save me anymore. And I didn’t want to get well, because while I could no control my happiness, I could control my misery, and I would rather have had control than live in the tension of what if. A chance of hope is no pacifier against a sure tragedy.
But Victor Frankl whispered in my ear all the same. He said to me I was a tree in a story about a forest and that it was arrogant of me to believe any differently. And he told me the story of the forest is better than the story of the tree.
We sat in silence and creaked in our chairs as James and Jena recited their vow, and our mines went up like high branches over them and over each other.
The next night, I was back at my friend Jim’s. I sat on his deck and made a fire. I sat and watched deer cross the driveway that climbs through a hundred trees up to his house, and because it was winter I could see through the skeletal limbs the lights of distant neighborhoods clustered together as though for warmth. And at one point I turned when I heard a tree drop a heavy limb to the ground. I sat by the fire until the sun came up and asked God to help me understand the story of the forest and what it meant to be a tree in that story.
I was saying the words my character needed to say, Ben was adding dialogue from the other character, and Steve was typing it in as fast as he could. Neither Ben not I was looking at each other, because if we did we’s have cried—we’d have cried over characters who didn’t exist resolving a tension that never really happened. There’s just something in the DNA of a human that responds to the idea of an event, a moment in which the upheaval we’ve all been working around is finally laid to rest.
. . . I think God wanted his people to build alters for their sake, something that would help them remember, something they could look back on and remember the time when they were rescued, or they were given grace.
But it’s like I said before, about writers not really wanting to write. We have to force ourselves to create these scenes. We have to get up off the couch and turn the television off, we have to blow up the inner-tubes and head to the river. We have to write the poem and deliver it in person. We have to pull the car off the road and hike to the top of the hill. We have to put on our suits, we have to dance at weddings. We have to make alters.
We don’t know how much we are capable of loving until the people we love are being taken away, until a beautiful story is ending.
Taylor, the younger son, sat in a chair with a glass of wine and talked with his parents’ friends about his mom and seemed to enjoy putting the characters in her life together, as though fleshing out lesser-known scenes in her narrative.
Later, at around two in the morning, when there were only a few dozen people left at their house, I looked across the deck at Steve and Ben sitting and talking to Jim, and as they laughed and drank their wine, I wondered how much it costs to be rich in friends and how many years and stories and scenes it takes to make a rich life happen. You can’t build an end scene as beautiful as this by sitting on a couch, I thought to myself. And I also knew that while this group had experienced a devastating loss, the ones who remained were richer still because of her passing, as though Janice left an emotional inheritance of stories that would continue to be told, stories that would be passed down to her children.
I looked across the deck at Steve sitting and talking to Jim, and as they laughed and drank their wine, I wondered about the story we were writing and wanted even more to write a better story for myself, something that leaves a beautiful feeling even as the credits roll.
I went home and looked up the story, and it turned out Odessa had won the state championship the following year. I remembered the story correctly, but the screenwriters didn’t write about the year I remembered; they didn’t write about the year Odessa won the championship game. They wrote about the year they almost won.
I wondered why, of course. I found an article online that said the screenwriters wrote about the year Odessa almost won because that year the team tried harder. They said the year the team won the story was great, but the year they lost the story was better because the team that lost had sacrificed more.
Later, when I started learning about how to resolve a story, and when I began thinking about story as a guide for life, I took a lot of comfort in that principle. It wasn’t necessary to win for the story to be great, it was only necessary to sacrifice everything.
A good storyteller speaks something into nothing. Where there is an absence of story, or perhaps a bad story, a good storyteller walks in and changes reality. He doesn’t critique the existing story, or lament about his boredom, like a critic. He just tells something different and invites other people into the new story he is telling.
When you fly across the country in an airplane the country seems vast, but it isn’t vast. It’s all connected by roads one can ride a bike down. If you watch the news and there’s a tragedy at a house in Kansas, that guy’s driveway connects with yours, and you’d be surprised at how few roads it takes to get there. The trip taught us that we were all neighbors, that my life is connected to everybody else’s, that one person’s story has the power to affect a million others.
But it has been a year since I’ve had a very sad thought. It’s probably been a year since my adrenaline pumped too. Bob invited me to ride motorcycles across the Middle East, so maybe my adrenaline will pump if I do that. It sounds like a good next chapter to my story, but I don’t know. Who wants to mess with contentment? I might just buy a bottle of wine and listen to a record. I like slower stories these days. I like the simple ones, the ones that play out like art films.