Most successful authors have a blog or landing page to promote their work, keep fans updated, and share recent musings. Donald Miller, the Christian author who became the unlikely poster child of millennial Christianity with his book Blue Like Jazz has something a little different. Instead of a donaldmiller.com there is storylineblog.com. Storyline has blog posts with short, easily digestible Christian advice from Miller and a lineup of other prominent figures. But Storyline is more than a hub of Christian-slanting advice. It is also a business.
The “Start Here” link of Storyline describes three products readers can purchase in order to “live a better story,” the mission behind the business. There is a workbook that helps you break your life goals down into steps, in order to gain clarity and concrete purpose. The book claims, “You never have to wake up in a fog again.” There is an online video course, where Donald walks a fellow author through his process. “Thousands have already gone through the course and found clarity, direction and a better life. Join us!” the description reads. Lastly, one can attend a Storyline conference, a three-day weekend of motivational speakers, Christian musicians, and break-out discussion groups. At the conference, you can create your life plan with one-on one-guidance and the support of a community.
As a consistent follower of Miller’s work over the years, none of this struck me as bad or wrong, per se, but it is a far cry from the words of Blue Like Jazz. Personal truths have become a product to be sold. I had no way of knowing if I was the only member of Miller’s fan base who felt this way, until, that is, Miller published a blog post titled, “I’m Glad I’m Not the Same Guy Who Wrote Blue Like Jazz”. He writes about how healthier he is now—emotionally and physically—than when he wrote his breakout book. The comments section is speckled with mixed points of view about the new Donald. There are those who wholeheartedly agree with comments like “Your transformation gives me hope,” and “Don, if you weren’t changing, you wouldn’t be living a story. At least not a good one, anyway.” And then there are the dissenters. A reader going only by the name “Seeker” wrote a particularly compelling response: “If you’re interested in a ‘constructive’ opinion about what I miss about the old Don and maybe could even be incorporated with the new/future Don, here it is: the thing that makes me feel sad sometimes is that it seems like sometimes the ‘new’ Don takes the answer that has worked for him and truly believes it will work for everyone else too.”
“Formula” seems to be the word on the tip of Seeker’s typing fingers. Fans of the old Don do not like that he now applies formulas to life.Oddly enough, a warning against applying formulas to life is central to Miller’s third book, Searching for God Knows What. If anyone needs concrete evidence as to Donald’s shift as an author, they only need to read the first chapter of this book. It is eerie in its prescience.
The book opens with Miller attending a Christian writers’ conference, where speakers promise to reveal the secrets of writing a best-selling book. They offer two feasible formulas for such a book. The second is as follows:
You must paint a picture of great personal misery. You must tell the reader of a time when you failed at something, when you had no control over a situation or a dynamic. Second, you must talk about where you are now, and how you have control over that situation or dynamic, and how wonderful and fulfilling it is to have control. Third, you must give the reader a three-to four-step plan for getting from the misery and lack of control to the joy and control you currently have.
After sitting through day one of the conference, Miller returns to his hotel room, eager to find where these formulas are in the Bible, but he cannot find them. He writes,
And it really got me thinking that, perhaps, formula books, by that I mean books that take you through a series of steps, may not be all that compatible with the Bible…it makes me wonder if secretly we don’t wish God were a genie who could deliver a few wishes here and there. And that makes me wonder if what we really want from the formulas are the wishes, not God. It makes me wonder if what we really want is control, not a relationship.
Miller’s antidote to formula is the notion of story, that instead of living a formula, you should live a great story. The trouble comes when fitting one’s life into a story becomes a formula. If you treat all stories as essentially the same (the protagonist has a goal, works hard, meets opposition, and ultimately, against the odds, is able to achieve the goal) then you’ve distilled it down into a formula. All stories are not the same.
Formulas are seductive because they work well for surface-level pursuits. You absolutely will lose weight if you exercise more and eat less. You will make better grades if you study longer. It’s easy to get addicted to the results and start worshipping the formulas. Maybe this is where the wrong track begins. When you think these rules can be applied to the deeper things, like art, love, and self-acceptance.
If we can’t pursue those ends in and of themselves, what, then, are we left with? The opposite of living in formula is not to live in a ready-made story, but to live in patient waiting, to be okay with the unknown. The unknown is essentially what we try to eradicate with formulas. You don’t have to wait for the answer because the answer is the same every time. 2 + 2 always equals 4. In waiting, we don’t know what hand will be dealt. In waiting, we live in the present more than the future because the present is all we have.
Poet Rainer Marie Rilke once penned this profound piece of advice on the necessity of waiting:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Our entire lives can be broken down into periods of waiting—to graduate, to land the dream job, to find The One. Rilke is right. You haven’t graduated yet because you’re not ready for college. You haven’t gotten the dream job because you wouldn’t fully appreciate it. The One hasn’t made his or her way into your life because you need to learn to be okay without them. You don’t have the answers now because you would not be able to live them.
We had better learn to wait well because it is the same as learning to live well. Waiting well involves working towards goals, which might have some formulas involved. But as for pursuing the deeper, more important aspects of life, for that there is no formula; there is no equation. In fact, trying to force a formula onto one of these goals can only make matters worse. I find that when we learn to just be, when we stop straining our necks to see as far into the future as possible, life tends to come our way. Though I, of course, can’t say it works every time.
Photo Credit: Umjanedoan