PORTLAND, Ore. — 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
“I reached a point where I
had to get a job or write another book,” he says. “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.
At Portland’s legendary Powell’s City of Books, where it’s shelved in the Red
Room with other religious, travel, foreign language and health-related titles,
Blue Like Jazz sold more copies in 2006 than any other book in the room.
Part of Miller’s appeal —
and what has made the book so successful — is his “brokenness,” says Paul Louis
Metzger, a theology professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in northeast
Portland, a writer himself and a friend of Miller’s.
“Don understands at a core
level what it’s like to feel pain, suffering, 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 says.
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
“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 that his actions convey his character. He’s just 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
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,” says 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 says 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,
Texas, 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 says, 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
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 says. “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
“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.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Haught
writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.)