Anne Lamott creates problems for people. And by "people," I mostly mean Donald Miller.
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Sometimes, they are good problems: Anne writes so candidly about the intertwining of life and faith that people are forced to confront and examine their own selves in light of what she has said.
Sometimes, they are strange problems: Anne's name gets mentioned on the back of someone else's book, and that person is instantly ushered into a special category of "funny-while-being-spiritual" writers. His or her name will now be printed on the back of someone else's book (alongside Anne's, of course), in the lifelong quest to draw readers to spiritual writings--because even if they don't care about spirituality, they will probably like wit. And honesty. Anne is good at these things. Interestingly enough, if you are funny and a writer and a Christian, 92% of your own wit and honesty is automatically attributed to Anne Lamott. Apparently, she owns the market on spiritual humor.
So this shouldn't be a problem for Donald Miller, who started getting his name paired with Anne's after the release of his spiritual memoir, Blue Like Jazz. It's Anne Lamott, for crying out loud! Anne Stinkin' Lamott! And Don was being hailed as her male counterpart, which is a huge compliment--to say that one is intelligent and funny and well-spoken about such personal (and sometimes controversial) topics. The only problem is that Anne Lamott doesn't write Donald's books for him, which means that after Blue Like Jazz, Don had some pretty big shoes to fill. Namely, his own.
If you haven't read Blue Like Jazz, it's worth a look. (Or two. I was half-hearted about it the first time through, but my second read pushed it into my Top Fifteen Books of All Time.) Miller pens the story of his spiritual/life journey with insight, compassion, and wit. Yes, wit (he's in the 8% that doesn't have to pay royalties to Anne for being clever). While I don't necessarily agree with all of Don's spiritual conclusions, I love his storytelling style: raw, balanced, unjudgmental. He roots deep down into the hearts of his characters--and into his own--to find common ground with all readers, no matter their spiritual background. And while he sometimes switches voices from the poetic to the scholarly to the teenage boy, they are all essentially Don.
So when some guys approached Don about turning Blue Like Jazz into a movie, editing portions of his life to make them "better," he began questioning what, exactly, it is that makes a life into a story worth reading. He decided to write about it in a book called A Thousand Miles in a Million Years. The cover was pretty, and right on the front of the book jacket was a quote from Anne Lamott: "I love Donald Miller." Anne! Lamott!
Since Blue Like Jazz was such an inspiring, thought-provoking, and beautifully worded book, I expected that the story of its transformation into a movie would be the same. Wrong. I think Don summed it up well when he talked about how writing is hard, and sometimes writers don't even like to do it--they like "to have written" more than "to write." Which seems to be the case here.
The basic idea of the book is that we all have purpose, and we need to live our lives intentionally, making choices that will affect our personal plotlines. We need to give more than get, focus on other people more than on ourselves, find something bigger than ourselves to belong to. These ideals are woven in and out between smaller stories about Don's search for a long-lost father, a bike ride across America, and a family who jumps fully clothed into a lake. The stories, in classic Don fashion, are the heart and soul of the book. As Don attempts to tell us how to "live the better story," he, ironically, distracts from those stories to comment on them.
I felt as though he were talking in circles, giving too much explanation rather than letting the story speak for itself. Even the writing style, while still sounding very much like Don, lacks the substance and beauty of previous books, opting instead for short, short sentences, laid out in nice rows.
Don's honesty remains, but I didn't find his writing as compelling here. Rather, it seems like a mishmash of good insights, mediocre work, and half-hearted efforts. Is this book about writing, or about living, or about a movie, or about lacking motivation? Because I'm getting a little of all of that...but if I hadn't read the back cover, I'm not sure I'd be able to pinpoint a premise.
I guess I expect Don to be able to sew a million unrelated topics together flawlessly; it's what he's done before. But after reading this, all I can see are raw edges and loose threads. And the thing is, even though I agree that there's more to life than sitting around, wasting time, I was frustrated by the underlying theme that story comes from doing big things. Marathon bike ride! Opening your house to diplomats! Meeting a girl! Hiking in Peru! Starting a foundation! Yes, big events can help us feel alive--but what about the mundane things that make up most of life? Is there not story even in that?
I think Don hedges on that point, but it gets drowned out in chronicles of larger, more exciting events. A Million Miles often equates mundane with boring, and boring with meaningless, and meaningless with lazy. Sometimes, these equations can be true. But they are flawed comparisons if we consider that small, daily choices have as much impact as grand events. There's a huge distinction between living a "small" life vs. just plain lacking motivation. It really bothers me that to "live a better story," Don focuses more on doing something different than on first becoming someone different. Because if our hearts change, won't our actions follow suit? But if we're just trying to do exciting stuff to make a better story, we haven't necessarily changed inside.
Honestly, it's disappointing. I have several of Don's books in my library--not all with top billing, but still earning their spots of honor on a certain shelf. It doesn't feel right to put this one there. Maybe it's harsh to say that. After all, feisty Harper Lee never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird. Could subsequent novels ever live up to its success? Perhaps it is just one of the great trials that all great artists must face: to constantly surpass the expectations of their audiences. It is hard. And yet...it has been done. Even Miller's lesser-known books are worth reading, but A Million Miles seems to have fallen into a slump. That doesn't mean it hasn't nothing to say; on the contrary, it has lots of good little things. It's just that the good little things are presented in a manner that didn't really meet my expectations. So while I can't recommend this particular story with all sorts of gold stars, I'm hoping that Don will return to the magic that he has shared before and prove to us, once again, why he and Anne can get away with anything.
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