A couple years ago, I sat on a plane. I was returning home to DC after visiting my family in Utah, and the prospect of going back to work made me feel sick to my stomach. Perhaps you can relate.
I didn’t have a lot going on in my life at the time. I woke up, went to work, went to grad school, took care of my dogs, and then usually passed out in front of the TV only to repeat this routine the next day. I was 23 years old and my life — safe and comfortable, sure — was boring.
How did this happen? Growing up, adults frequently told me I was really mature for my age, but this was the first time I didn’t feel pride in that statement — I just felt old. My life made the Golden Girls look hoppin’.
There’s a scene on an episode of House where the good doctor chooses, out of 40 applicants, which ones are going to make his new team. One female candidate, offended and confused by his refusal to pick her, tells him, “I did nothing wrong. Other people screwed up, I never did.” And he responds, “Other people took chances.”
He could have been talking to me. I wasn’t doing anything wrong; the problem was I just wasn’t doing much of anything.
I wanted to live a life worth writing about. But it took me some more time before I started figuring out what that meant. Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years was an instrumental part of that process.
See, Don had written a popular memoir that went on to sell a hefty number of copies. When two producers came knocking on his door to turn it into a film, he started thinking about how elements that make a memorable movie or story are the same elements that can make a life meaningful. The result is A Million Miles1.
He mentions how no one would remember a movie about a guy working for years in order to finally own a Volvo, yet most people spend their lives slaving away for material possessions that provide little — if any — fulfillment. He invites readers to imagine themselves as protagonists in their own life story (which they are), and to ask what kind of character they’re showing to the world. He says,
If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation…in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He’s a jerk in the beginning and nice at the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end…And if story is derived from real life, if story is just a condensed version of life, then life itself may be designed to change us, so that we evolve from one kind of person to another.
If you think about it, the stories we tend to like best are like The Shawshank Redemption, where the character crawls through shit (in this case, literally) and comes out clean on the other side. It wouldn’t be a good story if everything was just handed to the hero. It wouldn’t be a good story if the characters just sat around doing nothing. Would you have watched Lord of the Rings if Frodo had gotten the one ring to Mount Doom by playing a video game in his bedroom?2
So we get our hearts bashed in and our egos torn to shreds. We get broken down so we can build ourselves back up again.
Don quotes the infamous screenwriter and lecturer Robert McKee, who says, “You have to take your character to a place where he just can’t take it anymore…Writing a story isn’t about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc…You put your characters through hell…That’s the only way we change.”
Rather than make me clutch my dogs closer and reach for the nearest comfort food, this book had an interesting effect on me. Not only did I find Don’s own character transformation inspiring, I found that it changed my perspective on life. Instead of viewing certain events through the why-does-everything-bad-happen-to-me lens, I could view them as character-building. Necessary for my growth, even. It made my expectations about life more reasonable.
I asked myself what I wanted my story to be about. I asked myself, if I were the person I want to be, what would I do? I asked myself what was the worst that could happen if I decided to be brave. And then I figured out what actions I had to take to get where I wanted to be.
Are you living a good story?
1Disclaimer: Don Miller is well-known for being a religious writer; I am not religious, yet I did not find his musings distracting or overpowering. Much like Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love” memoir, you can, if you wish, substitute “God” with your preferred deity (e.g., higher power, Buddha, Yahweh, Krishna, etc.).2I feel like I’ve revealed a little too much about my viewing preferences in this post.
* This post was originally published at Picking the Fig and is reprinted here with permission.