Even after his Blue Like Jazz memoir became a best-seller, Donald Miller realized his day-to-day life just wasn't exciting enough for a screen play. That's when Miller decided to apply storytelling principles to his own life. Part of the result was The Mentoring Project, a church-based program to provide role models to boys. Christianity Today's Mark Galli interviewed Miller about the project and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which is set to release in September.
Where is the Mentoring Project headed?
We're mentoring 80 kids, hoping to mentor 500 by the end of the year and 5,000 by the end of next year. That's our goal, at least.
If we can build these programs in churches in local neighborhoods, there could be a mentoring influence within blocks of the majority of the population in the United States. That's an idealistic vision. But let's say we get a quarter of the way there. If we can mentor between 5 and 10 million young men growing up without fathers, we would shut down prisons in this country, because 85 percent of prisons are populated by men who grew up in completely fatherless homes. We could see crime decrease and a lot of improvement with the social issues we care about.
How is it different from like the Big Brother program?
It's not terribly different, except that we need a thousand more national mentoring programs. So we're not trying to reinvent the wheel. We are actually equipping churches to start mentoring programs either out of their college programs or their men's groups.
Does the mentoring program come from your own history?
Yeah, my dad split when I was about two. I stopped seeing him when I was about seven. Then I saw him again last year for the first time I'd seen him in 30 years. He's been married for 20 years, lives in Indiana, and I have half brothers. It was an incredibly emotional conversation, but it wasn't like a crying-tear-jerker thing. There were just a lot of weird emotions I couldn't figure out. Why do I care so much what this stranger thinks of me? I have no idea why. We spent about two or three hours together, and he explained why he left. I was very surprised at what a good man he seemingly was. He asked me to forgive him, so now we're in a process of rebuilding a friendship between the two of us.
Can you tell me about your next book?
I'll go on a 65-city tour for a book called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which is about making a movie about Blue Like Jazz. In order to make the movie, they had to change enough of the content to make it accessible to people who are watching it on screen. It's extremely loosely based on something that feels like that book. But in the process of writing the screenplay with a team, we edited my life to make it more meaningful. It was like, 'Your life is neither entertaining nor meaningful. We want people to actually be moved by it when the credits roll.' And I'm thinking, 'Okay, I'm taking all this way too personally.'
So in setting the screenplay I found out the character has to have a very clear ambition. The ambition has to be self sacrificial, all these little tricks that screenwriters use to cause us to care about the character and the story that they're actually living. And I thought, What if I applied some of these principles to my actual life? What if I did the things that movie characters do to make their lives meaningful? And I began to do that. And it really changed the way I live in a number of ways.
For instance, if you had a character whose goal for the year was to finish the website and wrap up the book and do a book tour, nobody's crying at the end of that story. So I began to experiment with little things. The mentoring project was part of this. I rode my bicycle from Los Angeles to Washington, DC last year and raised nearly $200,000 for wells in Sub-Saharan African. What I understand as important has changed in so many ways.
In this current economic climate, it doesn't take money to live a meaningful story. It takes self sacrifice. It takes a loving community and an ambition, and preferably an ambition that saves lives.
I began to understand that even in my own life that the role I play in a story really creates my identity. So if I play the role of a person who sits around watching college basketball, which I do, then that's who I am. So there has to be something other than that.
In the first 45 minutes of Rocky Balboa, Rocky helps a single mom, feeds a homeless friend, grieves the loss of his wife, begins mentoring a young man growing up without a father, tries to repair a relationship with his own son. Rather than seducing a single mom, he stands on the front porch and unscrews the dead light bulb from the porch and takes the light bulb out of his pocket and screws it in. So this is the Mother Teresa of boxers is what they want us to know in the first 45 minutes. He even goes to an animal shelter and adopts the ugliest mangy dog in a movie about boxing. I'm thinking, 'Why are they making Rocky to be this incredible guy?' The reason is because at the end when he goes 12 rounds with the other fighter unless he was a good person, unless he had good character, we don't care. What you do as a person actually matters.
And those are some of the principles. The idea that a character is what they do, not what they feel or what they want or what they wish for but what they actually do. In screenplay you can't have a character that wants or daydreams about things. He has to do something. That's how we know who that character is. So there are guys who daydream about taking their kids fishing, and yet they don't. I want people to understand that the story that they're telling their kid is very different than the story they're telling themselves.
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His forthcoming A Million Miles in a Thousand Years will be available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
The Oregonian recently reviewed the book.