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The Hidden Pitfalls of Story

We hear a lot these days about capital-“s” Story, about the power of Story, about crafting more exciting and more meaningful Life Stories, etc. I’m a writer, so the whole “story” metaphor resonates with me, but there are some dangers to be aware of too. The first danger is that we can judge ourselves too harshly when things don’t go as planned. There’s so much we can’t anticipate about the arc of our lives that we necessarily spend a lot of time and energy responding to fate rather than mastering it, being shaped by life rather than shaping it. We should hold loosely to our scripts. We’re not the sole authors of our stories.

The second danger is that we can become addicted to stories. I’m reminded of a scene in Season 2 of Parks & Recreation where Ron is explaining to Leslie why he thinks she doesn’t like her boyfriend, Justin, a guy who is by all appearances a decent and successful man. “He’s a tourist,” Ron says. “He vacations in people’s lives, takes pictures, puts them in his scrapbook, and moves on. All he’s interested in are stories. Basically, Leslie, he’s selfish. And you’re not. That’s why you don’t like him.”

It’s possible to careen from one thrilling story to the next like an adrenaline junkie. You may be doing good in the world, but you will also have a lot of broken relationships in your wake. The down times, the slow work of spiritual formation, the dailiness of apprenticing ourselves to Jesus, the long-term commitment to particular people and a particular place, all the quotidian details of life, will leave you restless and discontent.

Donald Miller talks a lot about story in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, in his Storyline conferences, and in his new book Storyline: Finding Your Subplot in God’s Story. I haven’t read Storyline yet. The subtitle of that book makes me think he addresses my first point. When I interviewed him a few years ago for a profile in RELEVANT Magazine, our conversation touched on my second point. Here’s how I closed the article in the draft I sent my editor:

Miller tells a story in [Million Miles] about the time he hiked Machu Picchu to woo a girl. Before his group started the arduous hike, Miller looked up toward the peaks of the Andes to where “the farmers cut the steep land for their crops.” He wrote that the farmers, “hiked up every day to their high fields. They hiked up with their tools and their baskets for harvesting, straight up a thousand feet of trail, to tend their family business.”

What about the people who are living lives that are comparatively small, but living them with great integrity and fidelity? I asked Miller. What about those farmers? Is it possible to live a great story while living simply, while living in obscurity?

“Yes,” Miller said without a beat. “When you’re doing a book, you’re looking for the more dramatic as a tool to compel the reader.” He said he re-wrote the ending of the book because he realized that not even he wants to live those dramatic stories. He said he hopes his next story will be “very Americana”: some sort of family, some kids.

“Bob Goff wants to ride motorcycles across the Middle East,” he said. “I don’t know if I have the energy to do that. I think I want to put on a record, drink some wine, and take my dog to the creek. You know what I mean? There is this sense at the end of the book where normally you would expect this invitation to live a grand story, and instead I say, ‘It’s not for me.’ I think there is a beautiful story in living a simple life, and I’m kind of tired.”

While acknowledging that Story is a powerful organizing metaphor, are there other pitfalls we should be aware of?

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One comment on “The Hidden Pitfalls of Story

  1. I agree with you John, I’ve thought a lot about this subject. Even to the point where I think the whole premise of A Million Miles is flawed. Miller is trying to construct a narrative of his life that is exciting and therefore must highlight the good parts and leave out the boring. But what is this if not dishonesty? I don’t mean to single out Miller, we do it all the time, but the fact is that movies and the idea of story are often forced narrative constructions that are often untrue to life itself. Sorry, that was long. I should write my own post.

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