The Write Stuff

We all have our thing. Some women appreciate men in military uniforms. Others fawn over firemen, sports heroes, movie stars, or go crazy at rock concerts. I develop crushes on men with keyboard-calloused fingers. Not music keyboards. Computer keyboards.

Wit and intellect, a way with words, and I get weak in the knees. It’s no surprise, really, that I think Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, should be voted “Sexiest Man Alive.” In my mind, best-selling author Don Miller could easily be a first runner-up to wear the SMA satin sash. Or maybe the “Sexiest Man Alive” title is etched on a leather tool belt. I don’t know.

For my birthday, my girlfriend Debbie bought tickets for us to hear Don Miller talk about his latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I felt like a recipient of the Make a Wish Foundation except I wasn’t going to Disneyland. And I’m not terminally ill that I know of.

I had to promise Debbie that I wasn’t going to rush the platform and throw underwear on the stage. Don was, after all, speaking at the Eastside Foursquare Church. Worshipful conduct was in order. Maybe an alabaster jar and some perfume…

Don spent an hour talking about the components of great stories: the narrative arc, the protagonist and antagonist, conflict, climax and denouement. Well, maybe Don didn’t say “denouement,” but there was a great section on story arcs. Story arcs may not sound humorous, but when Don’s narrating it, characters and conflict are seriously funny.

Turns out the upcoming film version of Don’s New York Times bestseller, Blue Like Jazz strays a bit from reality because Don’s actual life writ large is too boring for the big screen. (That’s not my opinion. I think men in front of computer monitors are studs.) The filmmakers decided Don’s life needed some gentle embellishment.

As Don explains it, great stories–in movies or in real life–are all about a series of events. It’s what someone is actually doing more than what a character thinks or feels. That’s not to say that a good film has to be an action movie—car chases and cool stunts—or that what a character thinks and feels is irrelevant. But no one can see what someone thinks unless it’s demonstrated through actions. You don’t know what someone feels unless he shows you.

To make a movie interesting, you have to a string together a series of events with a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. More than that, what he wants has to matter.

“If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers…Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo. But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful,” Don writes. “The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.”

Don went on to talk about how assiduously we avoid pain and conflict in our lives. Yet grand stories are about the transformation of a character; and pain and conflict are the main tools that produce change in our lives.

Nobody changes because they have something happy happen to them, Don says. We change through hardship and pain and through the pressure of difficult experiences.

That’s a concept. Embrace challenges. Welcome pain as an element that’s going to produce a grand story in your life. I’m conflicted over the concept of conflict in my life, but when I’m thinking of lifelong wishes, it occurs to me that ultimately, we really are all terminally ill. Some of us just know the timing a bit better than others.

When the credits roll, it would be nice to have lived a grand narrative. It would be great to invest my time and energy into actions that make a difference in the end.

My life? It’s the stuff that movies are made of. I’ll tell you all about it while I’m folding the laundry…

One Day In Austin

Don and I met at a coffee house today. I suspect we’ll be announcing wedding plans in a few days…we just want to take things slow, ‘ya know, don’t rush things…really get to know each other well.

I should back up for my friends who are new to this conversation. My small group from church read Don Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz this past year. It was a really good book. (This is why I don’t write book reviews. War and Peace? Well, that was a very long book. Gladwell’s Outliers? That was a very interesting book.) I digress, so back to Don.

I like the way his brain works. He’s got some synapses that seem to be firing in the right patterns, and I’d say he’s capable of stringing together a sentence or two. (A million or more sold copies of his book might attest to the fact that someone out there agrees with me about his writing skills. Or, more likely, his amazingly beautiful and honest thoughts about faith.)

Shortly after I finished Blue Like Jazz, my friend Kris (who has a massive crush on Don but only in a very holy and spiritual way of course, because she’s married) sent me a link to Don’s blog where he had posted a video of Lucy, his new chocolate Lab. It was total puppy love. It might also have been a classic case of transference.

Lucy was careening around Don’s home chewing up everything in sight. My black lab, Whistler, chewed my rugs. Whistler destroyed my shoes. I was waiting for video footage of Lucy chewing Don’s walls down to the studs, and while I waited, I thought about how committed I was to my crazy beast. I love Whistler. I love Labs, which meant that I loved Lucy, and while I was at it, I probably loved Don, too.

As fate would have it, Kris pointed out that in addition to Lucy, Don had an iMac. That clinched it. Same breed of dog. Same brand of computer. I mean, forget the fact that Labradors are like the most popular breed of dogs in the U.S. I’m taking it as a cosmic sign that we have the whole world in common with each other. Soul mates.

So fast-forward to the Q conference here in Austin, Texas. We’re listening to a series of 18-minute presentations from some pretty interesting folks: Gregory Berns, Chair of Neuroeconomics at Emory University on how the brain of an iconoclast works; Author Shane Hipps on the impact of technology on our souls; Tyler Wigg-Stevenson on the post-atomic world. Ten presentations on Day 1; nine more on Day 2 and then a panel discussion and breakout sessions.

I know that I’m a complete nerd, but I feel like a fly in a meat house at these conferences. I scribble notes. I soak in the speakers and the discussions. At our breaks for lunch and dinner, I like to talk with other conference attendees—particularly this one because of the shared passion for social ventures—and collect their business cards for possible interviews/features for the World Vision Report, where I work.

This afternoon, conference organizers sent us off to various sites across Austin to meet with small groups to discuss what we’ve heard over the past day and a half. I was in Don Miller’s group. (Confession is good for the soul, so I need to state that I wasn’t actually assigned to his group, but I might have misread the group number on my lanyard so as to end up at the coffee house where Don was group leader. Fate needs a helping hand at times.) I entered the coffee shop and noticed that our small group was rather large. A lot of young women were there. Pretty, single, young women who apparently were also having a hard time discerning their proper group assignments.

Don entered and surveyed the scene. We did not lock gazes across the room, so I casually walked over and introduced myself. I’m certain Don was instantly smitten. True love was looking him in the eye. All time stood still. [Fill in your own cliché.] He tried to play it cool, but he was shaking. My hand, that is. We shook hands. I told him we shared some mutual friends. (Larry Wilson who worked on World Vision magazine with me was now married to Susan Isaacs, a friend of Don’s…) I wanted to tell him all the other commonalities we shared. Dogs. Computers. Both of us reside in the Pacific Northwest. Both of us are citizens of planet earth. I needed a few more minutes to figure out what other ties bind us together…but Don was heading off to the barista to order something so he could start the session.

Our group talked about how dumb we felt to have our smart phones confiscated from us during the presentation on technology. We discussed the session with Ted and Gayle Haggard and the response of churches to leaders when they fall.

Don observed how easy it was for people who merely buy products connected to good causes to feel like they have done their part as humanitarians but they resist really getting involved. He talked about his foundation for fatherless boys and how difficult it’s been to recruit mentors to commit to befriending 7- to 12-year-old boys.

I told him that World Vision had an opposite version of this problem. Everyone wanted a hands-on, experiential involvement beyond financial contributions—take a trip somewhere, volunteer with us. But these were short-term involvements, so perhaps Don’s correct that there is a lack of response when it comes to messy, life-altering and life-involving, long-term commitments.

I wanted to say, “Don, I believe in long-term, life-altering commitments,” but another lovely lady was asking him to please come over to their table to tell them about The Story: “You’re the only one who can really talk to us about writing the arc of a story,” she said with batty eyelashes.

Don declined. He had another appointment to keep. I like to think he was just letting her down gently because today, he met me…and if nothing else, well, we’ll always have Austin!