First in a series
I’m forty-thousand feet above the Rocky Mountains. Denver is some ninety miles to my left and a long way down. I’ve lost the sun beyond the curve of the earth, but the light it still throws is as bright orange as the glow from inside a smelting pit. Molten sunshine has been poured along the horizon. Somewhere in the direction of the glow is San Diego, although I won’t arrive until well after dark.
I’m heading to Point Loma Nazarene University, a place I’ve never been, to attend a writing conference of sorts. “Storyline” is life-planning process developed by memoirist Donald Miller built on the premise that our lives are like stories: if we employ the techniques screenwriters and novelists use when they’re planning stories, we can have greater clarity in our own.
In all the writing classes I teach, my basic premise is “Tell good stories.” Whether it’s a news story, a feature, a press release, an ad, a piece of fiction, a play, a memoir, a piece of history—we’re telling stories. Even an essay is the story of an idea.
So, as a writer, Storyline caught my interest as something that might give me a few more tools to put in my pedagogical toolbox. It’s a safe assumption that I’ll learn a new activity or gain a new insight that I can then use in my teaching.
But that’s only part of it.
I could use a little life-planning right now, to be honest. Since successfully defending my Ph.D. back in November, I’ve felt a bit adrift.
I knew part of my deep restlessness came from the post-high crash that always comes after finishing a major project. Part of it was the need to decompress after the intensity of cramming four years of doctoral work into two. Part of it sprang from the realization that I now had a shitload of free time and had no idea what the hell I going to do with it.
The soundtrack playing beneath all that has been some dirgy shoegaze score—the result of a breakup back in September with a girl I thought I was going to marry. Tough to think you have that part of life figured out only to discover, overnight, unkindly, that you don’t. That’s been a hard tune to shake, like an earworm from hell but burrowed in my heart.
In the wake of all that change, I figured I needed to just chill a little and the next phase of life would reveal itself to me. I had the holidays to get through, and my Africa trip, and a new semester to start. I had several books under contract that I needed to wrap up. Certainly there was stuff to do to keep me busy while life reordered itself.
But so far: nada. If anything, I’ve become even more restless.
“If a character doesn’t know what they want,” Miller says, “the story gets muddled. The same is true in life.” That might describe me just about exactly.
I’d been getting notices about the Storyline conference for weeks because I follow Donald Miller’s blog, but it didn’t seriously catch my eye until late January. The book, however, has been on my radar screen for months. Well, more accurately, it’s been on my coffee table for months.
I first started reading Miller two summers ago. Ironically, it was Claire, the girl who broke my heart, who introduced me to Miller’s work. She bought me a copy of Blue Like Jazz, which I gobbled up in a couple quiet afternoons. As summer wore on, Claire read Miller’s A Thousand Miles in a Million Years to me whenever we drove somewhere in the car; she recorded her own audiobook version of it as a gift at summer’s end. I tried to re-listen to it before coming to the Storyline conference but couldn’t.
This past summer, I picked up a couple of Miller’s other books, including Storyline. Much to my surprise, what arrived was not another clever memoir about the search for meaning but a workbook I didn’t have time to do because of my dissertation.
Now, it seems, the time has come.
But because I never seem content to do anything the easy way, I’m going to do Storyline but also write about the process as I go through it. A kind of meta-writing project—writing about the writing—similar to my National Novel Writing Month project a couple years ago when I wrote a novel and also wrote about writing a novel. I’m going to do Storyline and write about doing Storyline.
I’ve also recruited a couple friends to go through the process with me, too. Feeny, a married woman in her late twenties, lives near Toronto and works as a Starbucks barista. Money is a single guy around thirty who works for a newspaper not too far from me. They’ve agreed to let me pick their brains as we go and pass along their experiences.
“Sit ‘palms up,’” Miller’s book advises. “Accept that which helps you and softly reject what isn’t helpful.”
This is particularly important advice, I think, because Storyline is a faith-based process. “Our story is a subplot on God’s story,” Miller writes. “When we live our lives as though we are the star of the show, nobody likes our story. Nobody learns from it or is inspired by it or thinks it’s beautiful.”
I’m somewhat skeptical of this. I am a deeply spiritual person, but that aspect of my life is deeply personal. (I’ll write more about that later in the series.) To tackle something faith-based in such a public way, and for this particular audience at S&R, has the potential for awkwardness. However, Miller’s work bills itself as “nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality,” and he frequently references non-Christian religious thinkers.
“I doubt all those who go through Storyline believe in God,” Miller admits, “but we encourage you, perhaps in the tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, to simply understand it makes no sense to believe the universe is all about you.”
That’s something I can buy into, and hopefully it’ll be an “in” for most readers, too.
So here I am, over the Rocky Mountains, starting my Storyline journey on literally a wing and a prayer. I have a short layover in Sin City and then it’ll be on to San Diego. Day one of the Storyline conference awaits.