PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS)—Author Donald Miller’s best-selling 2003 memoir, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, is being made into a movie, and he’s on the phone with his director.
“That explosion and the sex scene?” he says into his cell phone. “I still want those in there.”
He’s kidding. Blue Like Jazz won’t be that kind of movie. It is Miller’s account of growing up fatherless, struggling with relationships and finding a Christian faith that wrestles with Jesus, the church and cultural stereotypes.
There are no sex scenes, but Miller, 38, has lived through an explosion of sorts.
Before Blue Like Jazz, Miller was a freelance writer sharing a house in Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood. His first book hadn’t sold well, and his tiny publishing business wasn’t making much money.
“I reached a point where I had to get a job or write another book,” he said. “I wrote another book.”
Cue the explosion.
Blue Like Jazz was a giant hit. It made The New York Times best-seller list and has sold 1 million copies.
Part of Miller’s appeal—and what has made the book so successful—is his “brokenness,” said Miller’s friend Paul Louis Metzger, a theology professor at Mult-nomah Biblical Seminary in northeast Portland and a writer himself.
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“Don understands at a core level what it’s like to feel pain, suffering and abandonment. There’s a sense of rawness and pain and earthiness to his writing.”
And a slightly warped sense of humor. “That humor is bound up with shared humanity,” Metzger said.
Blue Like Jazz caught the eye of documentary filmmakers Steve Taylor and Ben Pearson, who contacted Miller about turning the book into a movie.
Miller’s new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, is the story of that story and everything he’s learned so far about living and telling stories.
“The reward you get from a story is always less than you thought it would be, and the work is harder than you imagined,” Miller writes in his new book. “The point of a story is never about the ending, remember. It’s about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle.”
After a year writing the screenplay and learning about character development and narrative arcs, Miller realized his actions convey his character. He recently finished a 70-day, 65-city book tour. He’s a sought-after speaker and a member of President Obama’s task force on fatherhood.
He’s organized The Mentoring Project, a nonprofit that works with churches to recruit mentors and match them with fatherless kids. He has dreams of creating a corps of good fathers in the next 20 years, of closing down the prisons that today house so many fatherless sons.
He lends himself—not just his name—to what he calls “noble causes,” including a cross-country bike ride to call attention to the global need for clean water.
He spends time alone, daydreaming and recharging his spirit with his cast of friends who show up often in his writing. When he can, he worships at Imago Dei Community, an independent, art-supporting, thriving church, whose founder, Rick McKinley, is one of Miller’s closest friends.
“We were nobodies in the beginning,” said McKinley, who first met Miller 10 years ago. “I wanted to start a church, and he was becoming an author.”
These days, Imago Dei draws 2,000 people every Sunday.
McKinley believes his friend’s success is making a difference in people’s lives.
“There’s a whole generation of people trying to make sense of church, of faith, of God. I think he created a following that continues to respond to Don.”
Miller grew up in Pearland, near Houston. His mother, Mary, still lives in the same tiny house where he would shut himself up in his room and daydream.
“He was very easy to raise,” she said, which was a good thing because being a single mother with two children wasn’t easy. “He didn’t get into trouble, but he had his own ideas about things.”
When his high school band teacher, who would urge students to “visualize yourself marching as you play,” complained that Donald was skipping rehearsals, his mom confronted him.
“Tell him to just visualize me,” Donald said.
Miller’s flippant streak helped him deal with his parents’ divorce and the handful of times he reconnected with his father.
“He left when I was 2,” Miller said. “I remember being 11 or 12”—the last time he saw him—“old enough to be scared of him, old enough to think, ‘Who are you?’”
The prospect of seeing his father again figures in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. It’s an idea Miller says he wouldn’t have considered except that the filmmakers wanted to inject some conflict into the screenplay.
“If I learned anything from thinking about my father, it’s that there is a force in the world that doesn’t want us to live good stories,” he writes in the new book.
“It doesn’t want us to face our issues, to face our fear and bring something beautiful into the world.
“I guess what I’m saying is, I believe God wants us to create beautiful stories, and whatever it is that isn’t God wants us to create meaningless stories, teaching the people around us that life just isn’t worth living.”