Happy New Year! I hope 2015 has started well for you. I've just returned from a month-long holiday in Singapore and the Philippines, where I had a great time exploring both remote islands and big cities.
No holiday of mine would be complete without an excessively large collection of books to read. I managed to narrow my selection for this trip down to a mere 5 books (not including 4 travel guides!)
One of these was Donald Miller's A Million Miles In A Thousand Years - which I saw in author Barbara Winter's list of "25 books I could never part with".
Barbara is one of the best storytellers I know so it was interesting to discover that Donald Miller's book is all about stories - how they work in movies and how they work in our lives. And this turned out to be a great topic to explore at the beginning of a new year.
After writing several books (at least one of which had been quite successful), Donald Miller found his life had gotten into a bit of a rut. One day some film-makers call him up and tell him they want to turn his bestselling autobiographical book Blue Like Jazz into a movie. After he gets over his initial shock, the film-makers come and stay with him for several months to work on the script together.
This inspires Donald to learn more about how stories work. He attends Robert McKee's famous Story Seminar for scriptwriters and realises that everything he is learning also applies to his own life. One of the most important rules of stories is that a character "is what he does". You can't tell a reader of a novel or the audience of a movie that your protagonist is heroic, they have to do heroic things. You can't say they're a good person, they must do good things.
Donald realises he has been spending too much time sitting at his computer, or on the sofa watching TV. This is not a good story for a movie – or for a life. So he sets out to live a better story and takes on some big challenges. He gets in contact with his father who he hasn't seen for decades, he hikes the Inca trail (despite being quite unfit), and he cycles across America. He learns to notice whenever he feels "a story calling to me".
A good story is not an easy story
Donald also makes the point that interesting stories are not meant to be easy. Think of any great movie or novel and there is hardship along the way. The same is true when we set out to make something important happen in our own lives.
His analogy is of an arduous boat trip. And to me it perfectly echoes those early stages of starting to do what you love and get paid for it:
It's like this when you live a story: The first part happens fast. You throw yourself into the narrative, and you're finally out in the water; the shore is pushing off behind you and the trees are getting smaller. The distant shore doesn't seem far, and you can feel the resolution coming, the feeling of getting out of your boat and walking the distant beach. You think the thing is going to happen fast, that you'll paddle for a bit and arrive on the other side by lunch.
But the truth is, it isn't going to be over soon...
The point of a story is never about the ending, remember. It's about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle.
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 ahead are getting bigger. They take it out on their spouses, and they go looking for an easier story.
This is what I see so many people do when the going gets tough in their journey to make a living doing what they love; they go looking for another story – only to find that it too gets hard in the middle. But the rewards only come to those who keep going:
It's like this with nearly every crossing, and with nearly every story too. You paddle until you no longer believe you can go any farther. And then suddenly, well after you thought it would happen, the other shore starts to grow, and it grows fast. The trees get taller and you can make out the crags in the cliffs, and then the shore reaches out to you, to welcome you home, almost pulling your boat onto the sand.
What story is calling to you?
So in 2015, what story is calling to you to be lived? What story is important enough to you that you're willing to stick at it even when it takes longer than you hoped and has more setbacks than you would have wished? Because that story is the one that holds the real rewards - both for the life that awaits you on the other side and for who you will need to become along the way.
I'm here to help.