Learning to be a Good First Person Narrator

The other day on facebook I saw a quote from Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Since my life itself has been a sort of critique to that book, especially lately, it’s about time I finally challenged it.

The book is about how our lives are stories. Like all our lives consistent of the elements of story (setting, plot, character, and conflict). Therefore, he challenges his readers to actively write a meaningful life for themselves instead of passively letting their story happen to them. It’s not a bad challenge, but it’s an incomplete revelation. I couldn’t help but think that this revelation was a bit too new to Miller for him to be able to write on it maturely.

Okay, maybe that sounds a little condescending but my first thought as I read his book was “Seriously?! You’re a writer (in your thirties?) who just had the revelation that life itself is like a story?! Come on, I figured that out in late middle school/early high school and I’ve been trying to write my life ever since.” I’m not kidding. My friend Jessica and I were both aspiring fantasy writers in middle school. As we transitioned into high school, I began to realize that the primary story I was interested in writing was my own.

While hanging out at Jessica’s one summer during high school, she told me that she imagined that in heaven she and God would sit around telling awesomely fantastic stories to each other—being that He made the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien and Roald Dahl, plus created the universe, He must have the greatest imagination of all. I said that God and I would sit around talking about all the twists and turns in my life He’d created that foiled my perfectly planned out plot. I’d playful scold Him for being a pain in the ass and He’d delightfully laugh at how utterly and impossibly foolish I’ve been in my quest to have complete narrative control of my life.

That little story illustrates the problem I have with Miller’s book. My second thought was, “Your next lesson, or revelation, is going to be that God is the primary author in your story, you’re only the secondary author. So you better prepare yourself for the fact that He might be constantly altering where you think this story is going, or even the type of story you think it is. The setting, characters and conflict He introduces may all be different than the ones you’re imagining.”

You all know, this is the lesson that God’s been teaching me since high school. I used to think that my life’s story would be some sort of epic romance. A tragic epic romance at that. You know, something on par with Buffy and Angel. He’s totally foiled that plan (while also helping me realize how much that isn’t really the life I’d want). Throughout the last year, He’s been disrupting some of my other plot lines as well. I think it’d be safe to say that He’s done almost a complete re-write.

The “processing” I told you I was doing last week had a lot to do with this. It really got through to me that I have to accept where I am in my story, and cultivate some gratitude for God’s craftsmanship as a storyteller. Maybe my story won’t end up being epic, but it is turning out pretty damn good. Without even realizing it, God and I have begun to work more in tandem. Primarily in terms of my relationships. Especially the romance growing between Sergei and I.

You can see in my blog this obvious progression over the last year in which I was getting ready to move from pseudo-dating to actually dating. It wasn’t entirely an intentional progression. It was mostly the result of a necessary process of healing and self-reflection that led to some needed changes in my perspective and approach to relationships. I could feel that I was ready for that transition. In the spring, I picked out an option for myself that seemed sure and safe. God vetoed that. He gave me a man I wouldn’t have chosen (I say that just because he’s so much younger than me), but who is a much better fit for me. While I’d told you all back in April that “it’s becoming non-negotiable that love manifest itself through care, affection and tenderness instead of obsession,” I almost settled again for something like obsession. God didn’t let me. He has given me a relationship that fits that description (though I’d hesitate to use the L-word so soon). In this relationship, I’m working with God instead of against him. Looking at how He’s crafting this part of my story, I can’t help but admit that His narrative gifts far exceed my own.

Over the weekend, it struck me that I’m a little like Charlie in the perks of being a wallflower.* First of all because I’m also a writer who is learning how to participate. I haven’t exactly been a wallflower all these years. Instead of living on the sidelines, I’ve been living too much in my own head and in my sort of alternate reality.** It’s similar. Just like him, I’ve had to step up and really take part in my life instead of spending all my time trying to write it.

Also because I realized that my role in my own story is much like his. Charlie isn’t the author of the perks of being a wallflower, he’s the first person narrator. His voice is distinct from the author, who is ultimately directing the story, and yet it’s through him that the story comes about. Both through his narration and his role as the main character. He can’t control the other characters in the story, he can’t make them love him, he can’t even entirely make them see him, but he can make his presence more visible and let himself be loved by them. He can respond, he can make choices and he can tell the story he’s been given. The same is very much true of me, of all of us.

Maybe Miller’s next book will be something along these lines because this is certainly the next lesson that he has to learn. It’s a very important one. I agree with him that we all need to be aware that our lives are a story and, if we want our lives to be meaningful, we have to be active participants. But we can’t step into the role of being the author of our lives. All we can do is play the part of that first person narrator.

End Notes:

*I saw the film this weekend. I must say it’s one of the best book to film translations I’ve ever seen. Even if you haven’t read the novel, I highly recommend it (as long as the trailer entices you-if it doesn’t then I do believe its magic will be lost on you).

** Through this last year I think you’ve been seeing how God’s been curing me of my “Passion of Mind.” You know, how I used to let my wondrously overactive imagination and utterly romantic sentiment make my obnoxiously uncertain pseudo-relationships appear like soon to be romances. How I used to try to control the uncontrollable in the only way we can, through the art of illusion which eventually results in some delusions.

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