Life Stories

Donald Miller’s latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, is about how we ought to think of our lives as stories, and plan them as though we were writing a plot. There are, of course, many possible objections to this line of thinking, which I am strongly tempted to present, but oughtn’t. Instead, I’m going to partially agree with his premise, and offer a counter-narrative — things I’ve learned from some of my favorite stories, in no particular order. If I were more bored or less lazy I might make this into one of those trendy personality tests: what kind of story is your life most like; what does it have the potential of being.

I suspect I relate most to the format of the knight errant story: not because I get myself into adventures much, but because it’s the way of meeting new situations I understand the best. Go to Tuluksak and deal with what you find there; and Santa Fe; and Syria; and Tucson — perhaps elsewhere: who knows? I’m not any good at it, though — I always complain, or am too self-absorbed, or preoccupied, or inadequate.

Life is a story, but it’s difficult to know which one.

You may be living War and Peace, where it takes 300 pages for the action to coalesce, but it sure is beautiful once it takes off. By the end of things it’s still not quite clear what the plot was, but the magnificence lies not in the vast movement of History, but in the infinitesimals of the internal worlds of the characters.

Life is a story, but there are other people in it, some of whom live by crazy philosophies.

You may be Dimitri Karamazov, who would like to write a story about someone who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get her; in his case, Grushenka, but he also has a crazy family, and a passionate philosophical Christian writer; so his story is going to have to deal with all that. He may even need to repent.

Life is a story, but you are only a character in it; half the fun is the unknown of things.

You may be a knight errant who comes across a mysterious message: go to the Castle of the Falling Wind and deal with what you find there. Since you don’t know what you’re going to find, it’s no use writing a story about it in advance. “My year story is that I’m going to go out and look for adventures. I have no idea what they will be, since I haven’t found them yet.”

Life is a story, but sometimes we wildly exaggerate out place in it.

You may be Walter Mitty, living in dreams. More likely, though, you may be Anne of Green Gables, interested enough in your life to exaggerate a normal day into an epic quest. Just remember to have a sense of humor and proportion about your hyperbole before you start on a book like Epic.

Life is not the kind of story that gets to fade out after true love’s kiss, or the ride into the sunset, or even after climbing the rainbow to the country whence the shadows come.

This should, of course, be obvious, and yet somehow it isn’t, at least to me. I keep expecting a nice plot arc with a convent ending place for the purposes of writing and editing and condensing. Yet stuff keeps happening. New, unexpected, un-plotted, possibly unrelated stuff. You may be living The Never-Ending Story. See also: you may be living War and Peace. There may be two or three or five hundred epilogues. There may be a love story stuck in the appendix a la Lord of the Rings.

Life is a story, and sometimes it’s a comedy and the joke’s on you.

Make sure you’re not living Notes From Underground; if you are, try laughing at yourself.


4 thoughts on “Life Stories

  1. By the end of things it’s still not quite clear what the plot was, but the magnificence lies not in the vast movement of History, but in the infinitesimals of the internal worlds of the characters.
    I love this sentence, especially the use of ‘infinitesimals’–did you get that from your math class at St. Johns? The word sounds like a good title for a short story or essay. In fact I will use it for a bit of my writing on the blues: Merle has a wonderful version of ‘I Find it Hard to Say Goodbye’ that is all about understatement and infinitesmals.

  2. Molly,
    This seems to me to be a fine idea for a good essay. You already have some good samples of ‘life as a story’. I would include the old and revamped ‘God has a wonderful plan for your life’. You might want to re-read GKC’s writing in Orthodoxy on life as a romance. But I believe your idea is already in capable hands–yours of course!

  3. Everyone has a story, I used to say. I’ll have to start thinking along the line that everyone is a story.
    Have you seen the movie Stranger Than Fiction? In it the main character literally is a character in a story being written and a professor he turns to for help suggests he find out if the story, if his life then, is a tragedy or a comedy.
    May all our stories end, “…lived happily ever after.”

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