"Let me ask you this. If nothing in your life changes ... 12 months from now, will you look back on your life and say, 'That was an incredibly meaningful year?' If any part of you doubts the answer to that question is 'yes,' then attend the Storyline Conference."
Donald Miller is speaking to me in a tough-love sort of way through a glossy video embedded on the website of the Storyline Conference, which lands in Nashville this week. His tone is warm but firm, cautioning me about the perils of confusing success for meaning. Everyone else in the clip — conference goers and guest speakers, wedged among dreamy images of palm trees and shorelines, underpinned by a generic pop rock soundtrack — appears ebullient. They are content because they are redeemed: They are, in the vernacular of Storyline, "living a better story." Or on the way there.
Miller, the 42-year-old New York Times bestselling author of Blue Like Jazz and other "nonreligious" Christian books, brings Storyline to Nashville with hopes of helping a capacity crowd live better stories too. On Saturday and Sunday, attendees will hear lectures from Miller, Restore International founder Bob Goff and former Obama administration official Joshua DuBois, among others. They will, in the parlance of the Storyline website, attain a "complete-life plan" that will help them "experience a deep sense of meaning" that won't require riches or fame — American Dream be damned.
Or the Nashville Dream.
Miller's message seems tailor-made to contradict the yearnings of so many in our midst. Aspirations of popular success are often nurtured by Storyline's host, Belmont University, which sends a huge crop of starry-eyed singers, musicians and recording engineers into the world (if not the music industry) every year.
Storyline espouses a few central tenets, chief among them that we're able to infuse time-honored principles of screenwriters and novelists into mundane reality to design better narratives for our lives. Instead of living reactively or accepting our station as a fait accompli, we can write and edit our "stories" to wield meaning for ourselves and those we encounter, who in turn draw inspiration from our flesh-and-blood epics. We can hurdle the odds and achieve greatness in a fashion barely different from our favorite film and literary characters. Storyline, then, could be seen (albeit playfully) as self-help for the liberal arts set — characters in search of a narrative.
That idea is at the heart of Miller's book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which was published by Nashville-based powerhouse Thomas Nelson in 2009. Throughout, Miller's prose is both confessional and authoritative as he weaves in and out of stories from his mostly recent past, peppered with hard-won principles learned along the way. He refers to Scripture and God intermittently, though in a fashion befitting the less stringent times of cosmopolitan Christianity: Miller frequently writes, "I like that part of the Bible when ... " instead of pointing readers to a specific chapter and verse, and he paints God in softer, artier hues than his predecessors. Miller's refusal to bind himself to Bible Belt Christian-ese has long been a significant part of his appeal.
A Million Miles chronicles a reinvention Miller says he experienced in the wake of Blue Like Jazz's runaway success. Aside from wealth, acclaim and a chic new condo, Miller found himself leading a growing movement of mostly progressive believers disillusioned with the church. But as Miller told the Daily Beast in May, he was "less happy" after accomplishing his goals. He elaborated on this point in a YouTube interview with the leadership guru Michael Hyatt, indicating that he felt lost outside the context of a story. He'd reached the climax of a tale he'd designed for himself, only to realize his ambitions were too small. More than that, they were possibly misdirected. Success was abundant but meaning was lacking.
A Million Miles goes on to describe how Miller began to think differently during the process of co-writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of Blue Like Jazz. Initially reluctant to alter the facts of his life in service of making a better film, as co-writers Steve Taylor and Ben Pearson intended to do, Miller eventually realized the power of storytelling principles — and how they could be used to structure real life. Doing so helped him realize he was living a "bad story," and the remainder of the book details a number of "better stories" Miller lived once the scales fell from his eyes.
He hikes Machu Picchu, gets fit after years of being overweight, tracks down and forgives a father who abandoned him, rides a bike across America to raise money for the charity Blood:Water Mission, and founds The Mentoring Project, which serves fatherless youth.
"Ultimately, success to me means finding a deep sense of meaning in my life," Miller tells the Scene by email. "Freud said the chief desire of man is pleasure, but Viktor Frankl came behind him and said it's not pleasure that he wants, it's meaning, and when he can't find meaning he distracts himself with pleasure. I think that's the American narrative. I confess it's mine. It took a while to figure out what my soul really wants."
"At its core," Miller continues, "my soul wants a close connection with friends, a challenging project that changes peoples lives and some workable explanation for my suffering. Those are the core three principles of the Storyline Life Planning process. I live it now, and it works."
We live in a cynical, knowing age. So when anyone — even an author who's popular with a young, progressive demographic — says, "I live it now, and it works," it's natural to wince. The instinct is to counter that nothing "works," that everything is subjective and that anyone who says otherwise is a cult leader in the making. Or a sheep.
But Miller doesn't oversell his point, even while selling out conferences on its premise. "Life isn't perfect," he says, "but now I have little time or interest in frivolous distractions."
"We all are drawn to stories," says Mark Charbonneau, who is traveling from Austin to attend Storyline. "Perhaps that's because understanding others' stories helps us interpret our own. If I can distance myself from the immediacy of this very moment and understand that my life is actually a story being played out every day, I might begin to play my role more effectively and with more integrity." Charbonneau hints at Storyline's interest in helping people live intentionally and with empathy.
Considering its young age, it's hard to know how Storyline's own narrative will play out. Will it have the grand impact Miller envisions? One could argue it has already succeeded in one sense: Storyline's protagonist overcame conflict to write an important new chapter in his life. And, for him at least, it works.
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