A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

I just recently read a book from an author whom I appreciate and respect, and I thought I’d recommend it to you all. I picked it up at a Barnes & Noble randomly one afternoon and I haven’t returned it yet to its proper place on my bookshelf. (You know it’s a good read when you’ve read it about 2 months ago and you are still digesting it all at this very moment.)

This latest work from Donald Miller, best-selling author of Blue Like Jazz, is nothing short of amazing. With his trademark humor and candor, Miller spills his insights and experience around his “thesis” on how the elements that make up a good story are related to the ones that make a good life as well. I’d say it’s a good last minute stocking-stuffer for a friend (or even yourself, if you’ve been good this year).

Here’s a brief excerpt from chapter twenty-one, “A Good Story, Hijacked”:

Before I started writing for a living, I had a job as a marketing guy at a start-up company that sold textbooks to the education market. In learning about my job, I had to read all kinds of other books about how to sell people stuff they didn’t need. As near as I could tell from reading those books, marketing is a three-step process. The first step is to convince people they are miserable. The second step is to convince people they will be happy if they buy your product, and the third step is to include a half-naked woman in your pitch. I read so many of these ideas I actually considered creating a magazine ad showing a teacher in a bikini draped seductively over a pile of geometry books.

The thing I never realized while I was studying marketing was the process of advertising products is, in many ways, a manipulation of the elements of story. It’s like I was telling you about an inciting incident disrupting the stability of a character’s life, throwing him or her into a story. Advertising does exactly this. We watch a commercial advertising a new Volvo, and suddenly we feel our life isn’t as content as it once was. Our life doesn’t have the new Volvo in it. And the commercial convinces us we will only be content if we have a car with forty-seven airbags. And so we begin our story of buying a Volvo, only to repeat the story with a new weed eater and then a new home stereo. And this can go on for a lifetime. When the credits roll, we wonder what we did with our lives, and what was the meaning.

It’s all very seductive, and rather fascinating. I saw a commercial the other day for a dishwashing liquid. The opening scene showed a woman standing over a sink of greasy dishes, scrubbing hard against some dried-up lasagna that wouldn’t come off a plate. Her hair was disheveled, the kids were running around in the kitchen, and her husband was probably off watching television. The woman standing over the dirty sink looked toward the heavens as though to cry out to God, “How can this be happening to me?” And then the new dishwashing liquid was introduced. There was a magic graphic about how the dishwashing liquid has little living bubbles that dissolve grime on contact. And after the magic bubbles were explained, we were back in the woman’s kitchen. The woman’s hair was done, she was down twenty pounds, the kids were doing their homework, and the husband was back in the picture, holding his arms around the woman’s waist.

The cultural scripts running through that commercial are numerous, but the point of it seems much grander than a simple illustration of an effective dishwashing liquid. Actually, when you really break the commercial down, honestly looking at the subtext, the commercial seems to be saying something more direct: “If you use this dishwashing liquid, people will want to have sex with you.”

I know for a fact it isn’t true about the dishwashing liquid. I have three cases in my pantry.

I’m a sucker for this sort of thing, and apparently so are the rest of you.

The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want. If we don’t want anything, we are living boring stories, and if we want a Roomba vacuum cleaner, we are living stupid stories. If it won’t work in a story, it won’t work in life.

– – – – – –

I’ve been reading through a few books this season and I must say this one definitely has some staying power in this phase of my life. Go pick up a copy for yourself, which you can probably find in the Religion/Spirituality/General section of any bookstore. And enjoy the toasty warmth of the fireplace and the man that is Don Miller.

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