American Culture

Storyline: Conference, Day One


“Did you come from a cold, wet place?” Donald Miller asks. A murmur of laughter ripples through the room. “That’s awesome,” he says, laughing. The weather in San Diego is in the mid-sixties today, and everyone I’ve met so far at the Storyline conference has reveled in it. “That part is free,” Miller quips.

Miller has a smile his mouth can barely contain. He strolls back and forth across a half-moon dais, obviously delighted to be here. Behind him, the space has been set to look cozy: a pair of cushy leather chairs fronted by a glass coffee table, a round cafe table flanked by two short metal stools, tall plastic ficus trees in august gray urns, an antique book cabinet with dust-dimmed glass. It could be his own portable neighborhood coffee shop if not for the massive movie screen that hangs behind him.

“The most powerful stories are people,” Miller says. “What will the world miss if you don’t tell your story?” His question hangs in the air like a static charge and appears onscreen in letters as big as Miller’s head.

Miller believes we all have the potential to lead lives that make good stories, and through Storyline, he’s made it his mission to help people realize that potential. “I want you to contemplate the idea that we might be called to something special,” he says.

The problem is that our stories get hijacked, he explains, blaming commercialism and religious legalism as the main culprits. It’s the dream of owning a Volvo for the sake of owning a Volvo, he says. It’s the belief that your trip to Bed, Bath, and Beyond is really important. It’s buying into the myth sold by advertising: We won’t be happy unless we buy more stuff.

Donald Miller chats between sessions with a Storyline attendee.

Donald Miller chats between sessions with a Storyline attendee.

“That’s not the story we should be buying into,” Miller says. It’s not the story we should be writing for ourselves.

“The locus of control is inside of you,” Miller says. “You have the power to affect change.” By approaching life proactively rather than reactively, we have the ability to start writing our own story.

“A good story consists of a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it,” Miller explains. He promises that we’ll talk a lot about conflict, and our need to confront it, and our need to find redemption in it.

The character’s clarity of purpose is key. There needs to be something at stake, too. “Nobody is going to want to want to watch a movie about a guy who wants to buy a Volvo,” Miller says. “That’s not a compelling reason to watch a movie.”

Good stories have meaning, they save lives—meant in a broad sense—and the characters are transformed because of them.

Miller’s approach is heavily influenced by the work of psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Frankl’s contemporary, Sigmund Freud, argued that people are motivated by the quest for pleasure; Frankl, on the other hand, argued that people are motivated by the quest for meaning. When they can’t find meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their graves with the song still in them,” Miller says, quoting Thoreau. Then Miller asks, “Is there a story inside you?”

That’s what we’re here to find out.

2 replies »