Here’s an interview that recently came out with the United Methodist Church. I spoke with Robin Russell in Dallas a few weeks ago and really enjoyed the time. We pretty much hit on all the things I care about, so I’m reposting it on the blog.
Q&A: A conversation with Donald Miller
Robin Russell, May 5, 2009
Donald Miller’s best-selling Blue Like Jazz has drawn a cult-like following among young adults seeking a “nonreligious” take on Christianity. His next book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years(Thomas Nelson), due out in September, chronicles his experience with filmmakers as they edit his life for the screen and tells how storytelling principles apply to our own lives.
Mr. Miller is also the founder of The Mentoring Project (thementoringproject.org), which recruits church mentors for boys growing up without a father. He spoke recently with managing editor Robin Russell at the recent Christian Book Expo in Dallas.
Tell me about your newest project.
Some guys wanted to make a movie out of a memoir that I’d written, and so we started writing the screenplay. And they began to change things in the book—they began to fictionalize my life, which was humiliating. So I realized that the principles these guys were using to make a story meaningful could also be applied to my life: A protagonist who has an ambition makes for a better story. If they want something that’s self-sacrificing, it’s an even better story. If they’re willing to endure conflict to get the thing—the more conflict, the better the story.
That began to change the way I lived life, the way I made plans, the way I processed my goals and ambitions. And so A Million Miles in a Thousand Yearscame out of that journey.
How did it change the way you lived your life?
At the beginning of every year I’d spend a few days going over my goals: I’m going to finish this Web site or I’m going to wrap up this book. I realized that every year I was sitting down to write an incredibly boring story. And I thought no wonder they’re changing my life for the screen. And so I started doing things a little differently.
I started a mentoring project. And we’re mentoring 65 kids in Portland. We’ll mentor 500 by the end of the year and 5,000 by the end of next year. I stopped being afraid. The Obama campaign tapped me to campaign with them and I would have never done that before. But I thought, “They don’t make movies about guys who are afraid.” I got on a bicycle and rode from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., and raised $200,000 to drill wells in Africa. I found my father. Hadn’t seen him in 30 years. I was scared to death, but it ended up as a great time. We spent a few hours together and he even apologized for leaving. He’s been married for 20 years to another woman. But my mom didn’t even know that he was alive. It was really an amazing experience and I’m very glad I did it.
Who are your writing role models?
Anne LaMott was very much “literary permission” for Blue Like Jazz. Actually, [author] Philip Yancey nailed it in terms of seeing behind the curtain a little bit. He said, “Your top two influences were Anne LaMott and J.D. Salinger.” And I was like, wow. The truth is I was trying to combine them. If I combined their voices, it felt like my voice. It felt very natural to me.
And now, I can’t stand Catcher in the Rye—it drives me crazy. This sniveling idiot needs to be spanked. And when I heard the audio version of Blue Like Jazz I had the same thought: “You pansy of a human being! Are you going to complainagain about something?”
Tell me about your writing process. Are you disciplined?
Extremely. At 4 a.m. every morning I jog. [laughs]. No, it’s seasonal. I block out weeks at a time, so I’m in a writing mode now. And that’s the only thing that really works for me. If it gets really hectic around the house, a friend has a cabin on Orcas Island and I’ll go up. And it’s a beautiful place, but I hate being there because it’s just so lonely and I like people around. But it’s unfortunately productive. And so a lot of times I have to go up there.
And the other thing is I just have to turn off the phone. I get up, I usually take the dogs for a walk, come in and for the next several hours will kind of wrestle with the book, which means I do a lot of reading. And at some point I force myself to sit down—because I never want to—and within about five minutes I’m lost in the book. I’m really enjoying it. Which is just weird: to enjoy something so much and not actually want to do it. I think it’s because every fourth or fifth writing session is so bad. I can’t get the words to go where I want them to go. It creates a fear that that’s going to happen again.
Tell me about your work with The Mentoring Project. What would you like to see happen?
I’ll probably take 2010 and only work with The Mentoring Project. I’ll do a 65-city tour this year to support the book and “earn my right” to just work on mentoring. The idea is there are 27 million kids growing up without dads and 360,000-plus churches in America. What if the churches in America had a mentoring program? We could mentor a significant number of kids. We could shut down prisons, right? Because 85 percent of kids in prisons grew up without dads, in fatherless homes. Statistics are really staggering. And what changed my life were the relationships I had that were mostly provided through the church. We resource and equip and train mentors in specific churches to start a program. Right now we’re focusing on men and boys. Boys tend to become oppressors when they have struggles; girls tend to become victims. So we thought mentoring boys was a pretty good way to end both.
What age will you work with?
Young—elementary school. When you’re dealing with a problem child, it starts early. Our church partners with elementary schools in our area, and the Portland ISD has come to us and asked for 500 more mentors. The lives that are being changed, the grades that are going up, the feedback they’re getting. So we’re seeing lives changed. We want to grow exponentially—nationwide.
What does a mentor do?
It’s as easy as playing catch. Calling guys into relational ministry is really hard. And so what we say is, “Pick up a glove—we’ll provide the kid for you—and play catch with them once a week.” And that usually is all we have to ask them to do. Because then it’s, “You’re not good at baseball, do you want to try basketball?” Men will take over at that point. Or “You’re good at baseball. Do you want to play Pee-Wee League?” And now they’re enrolling them in Pee Wee and buying their uniform, and then it’s, “What do you mean you like this girl and you’re not talking to her?” It’s just over, because now this kid is a project and this guy wants to win. But getting them there is the challenge for us.
So the way we do it is say, “Look, we want you to mentor these kids together, as a community.” So it’s 10 men and 10 mentors. And we provide tickets to basketball games, to baseball games, camping trips, hiking trips. So these men can create community with these kids all together. And the kids, oh, man, we’re seeing self-esteem go through the roof. Some of these kids are hilarious. They’re so fun.
You campaigned for President Obama. If he asked you to do some community work, what would you do first?
He has asked me to be on the fatherlessness task force. We’re going to meet soon and talk about what the agenda is. One of the reasons I want to take 2010 off is just to be able to serve the president on that issue. That’s all I want to do. So the fact that I can combine The Mentoring Project, my love for providing mentors for kids, and then to have the president behind you—I mean, what a push, to be able to open doors.
What do you want to accomplish in a boy’s life?
I want him to know that he matters. If a young man knows that he matters, it will change his life. We’ll never repair the damage to fatherless kids, but I’m telling you, if a mentor can let him know that he matters—without using words, just showing up at the game—then 90 percent of a kid’s life is going to be so much better. Of course he’ll struggle, but kids with dads struggle. The fact that he matters, that someone cares about him, that’s the main thing.