Faith Featured Ministry

Recap: Storyline Conference 2013, San Diego


All the conversations I’ve had with readers (and viewers) of Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz suggest that it occasioned in its church-based audience something akin to Roberta Flack’s lyrics in “Killing Me Softly.”

I was about to say that I wish I could relate. In fact, I tend to spend a lot of time trying to differentiate myself from others in my various categories–writer, woman, Christian, what-have-you–rather than carving out the niche I wish to inhabit. It’s easier, you know.

So in calling Miller’s best-seller (and subsequent works) a self-indulgent exercise in soft-core narcissism, I realize that those stones I’m throwing might end up breaking the glass house I inhabit.

Ironically, that’s a realization I owe to what I learned at Donald Miller’s Storyline conference.

– — –

The only thing more surprising than my ending up at this conference was being invited to it by my mom. What I find self-indulgent in Miller’s prose would be likely to strike her as downright offensive. You’ll understand, then, that attending the conference with her was as irresistible as an “Epic Fail”video. I wanted to see what would happen.

(I toyed with the idea of bringing some toilet paper and going all Rocky Horror Picture Show up in that piece. But that seemed crass, since my mom was paying my admission.)

– — –

The conference was held at a Christian university in San Diego. As you might expect, there were lots of youngish, attractive people in beanies, but I was surprised and pleased to notice that maybe 25 per cent of attendees looked closer to my mom’s age than mine.

The stage was dressed with a couple of buff leather armchairs, a vintage armoire stocked with antique books, and a round bistro table with a couple of barstools under it. A projector screen showed a collage of film clips playing simultaneously; seeing both Lord of the Rings and The Matrix represented there dampened my enthusiasm a little bit, but I reminded myself I was there to give the whole thing a chance.

Then Donald Miller took the stage.

“Wow,” my mom whispered, “I didn’t realize he was so chipmunk-faced.”

– — –

It’s odd (or maybe it’s not) that self-conscious people are often very good at giving advice to others. D-Miller is no exception. He was pleasant, folksy, casual, and sincere. He fully surrendered the stage to his guest speakers. He brought up examples from his own life without casting himself as the victim/hero, and gave examples from other friends’ lives in a tone of affectionate awe.

The most endearing thing about him, I found, was his laugh. Dude genuinely knows how to laugh at himself and others.

At bottom, Storyline is a self-help curriculum; Miller admits as much in his lectures, and cites Dr. Viktor Frankl as his muse. The curriculum essentially substitutes the word “story” for the word “self.” It’s not unhelpful as a way of freeing up our functional id from the protective demands of the super-ego. (Freudian terms are mine, not Miller’s.) Viewing our lives as a story empowers us to make choices in spite of fear, self-doubt, apathy, and other effects of existential narcissism.

Hearing this taught from Donald Miller’s own lips brings me to the first thing I learned at the Storyline conference:

1. Cut people some slack.

Even if their success annoys you. Even if they crack the same hackneyed church-culture jokes that ought to have been retired long ago. (“Two guys walk into a bar…I mean coffee shop…”) Even if they make a certain amount of Matrix and LOTR references…and by a certain amount, I mean any.

I spoke with a friend after the conference, who goes to church with D-Miller. “I know what you’re saying,” said the friend. “He’s changed a lot in the last few years.”

To rephrase what I learned, if you want credit for your own maturing, give others credit for theirs. Even if they don’t change that much, God uses them for good. Maybe even for your good, if you can let yourself be helped.

Apropos of that, here’s thing #2 that I learned:

2. Don’t wait for your story to make sense before you start telling it.

The opening question of the conference was “What will the world miss if you don’t tell your story?” I don’t know if D-Miller said this explicitly, but where that question took me was to not hold off on my story until it makes sense, or passes the FCC guidelines, or seems (shudder) “redemptive,” or even just seems plausible. Quote from D-Miller:

“Not having the resources or skills just makes your story more interesting.”

Just start telling it, and see what happens.

3. Essential to telling your story is living into it.

I don’t mind admitting that I really like the way that D-Miller puts that idea. Not simply living, but living into. And what that specifically means is actively engaging whatever’s going on in your story, including the conflict.

As Viktor Frankl-via-Donald Miller, points out, story without conflict is only narrative. It signifies nothing.

Miller takes it even further, and you can argue this one among yourselves:

“If you suffer conflict, chances are good that you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.”

D-Miller even goes so far as to say that the more conflict you suffer, the better the story you’re probably living.

3a. Beware distraction.

Things that hold back–or, as D-Miller puts it, “hijack”–the living into most often come in the form not of mustache-twirling forces of darkness. They usually come as distractions: department store sales, petty relationships, ambiguous ambitions for things that, if we considered for a minute, we don’t really care about much.

Minor distractions are, in fact, quite sinister. They are what we look at when we’re afraid to confront our fears.

But confronting our fears is where conflict is born. So if you want to tell a story, you kind of have to do it.

(P.S. In between day one and two of the conference, I confronted a pretty old, gnarly, and specific fear. Didn’t tell anyone about it, and I probably won’t for a little while, but it’s been a week, and it’s working like crazy. Like. Crazy.)

– — –

Inevitably, there were sound bytes that I could spend many happy hours picking to shreds, if I felt like it.

  • At one point, Miller asked for a show of hands in response to this question:

“How many of you felt at an early age that there was something special about your life?”

About twenty people in my field of vision raised their hands. I looked down so I wouldn’t see their faces and have specific images to form my condescending judgments around.

It’s really more the sound of this question that bothers me–I personally feel that it shouldn’t be asked of anyone over the age of five.

Whatever “special” might mean to the people who raised their hands, I believe it’s true that God created everyone with a calling as unique as their thumbprint. Thumbprints don’t look very different, when you line them up, but the fact is that they are different.

My friend Dru recently visited the Dallas Museum of Art with his kids. There’s a collective exhibit in the children’s section, where you can post messages to kids. Dru put one up that says “You might not amount to much. And that’s ok.”

Counterbalance Miller’s question with Dru’s post-it note, and I think I can be satisfied.

  • The beginning and the end of a story, Miller said, are nearly always fun and exciting to live out. “In the middle is just a lot of work.”

Conceded. What he didn’t say here, which I said to myself, is that is why it’s essential to make that work something you love. Because if you don’t love the middle, the daily process, you won’t reach any endings, and you’ll probably stop seeking beginnings. (That’s been my experience, anyway.)

– — –

The guest speakers at Storyline were there primarily as examples of how the guiding principle works. These included:

  • Tom Shadyac, whose look channels an early-career Michael Bolton, is a prominent Hollywood director who fell off a bike, got a gnarly concussion, and ended up giving away all his money to live in a double-wide trailer and reconsider how he could do some good in the world. They screened his documentary about the experience at Storyline.
  • Al Andrews, a counselor to professional musicians in Nashville, whose dream to be a philanthropist seemed improbable because he didn’t have money.
  • Caitlyn Canty, one of those Los Angeles types who has every marketable talent in the network TV playbook, and founded an inspirational jewelry company staffed by homeless people.
  • Mike Foster, author of the book Graceonomics and founder of People of the Second Chance. Just Google it.
  • Bob Goff, who comes off like Santa Claus recast as a lawyer. He’s the guy mentioned in Miller’s book “A MIllion Miles in a Thousand Years,” who invites kayakers off the bay and into his home. He’s also the guy with the line “Everybody has to be in the parade, nobody gets to watch.” He’s the author of “Love Does” and serves as the Ugandan ambassador to the US, in a strange twist of fate that’s better explained by Bob himself.

I’m mentioning all these because I think you should check them out.

They also told the story of an opera singer who started his career too late, an activist who started her career too young, a Wall Street professional who left her white-collar job to train violent prisoners into businessmen, and a bicycle manufacturer who lost everything and ended up redesigning an industry for the people of Rwanda.

For me, just knowing that people are doing crazy stuff like this makes me feel really happy. Less crazy.

– — –

storyline workbookWe were all sent home with a copy of D-Miller’s newest oeuvre.

It’s a 30-day workbook that, in its own words, “can be laid over a therapeutic process developed by Dr. Viktor Frankl called Logotherapy.” It’s a self-help guide, essentially, for putting into practice the principles taught at the conference.

I just heard from a fellow attendee who started on it right away, and she says it’s going gangbusters.

For my part…is it wrong that I’m more looking forward to seeing my mom’s results than my own?

(Yes, that’s wrong. I know.)

– — –

My point in writing this is partly to share what I received with those who’d appreciate it. That’s what friends do, after all. And if you get the chance to attend Storyline sometime, I think you should. It’s a great place to meet and hear from like-minded people, and feel supported, especially in those initial steps toward taking a risk on being something that, while it might not be as unique as a snowflake, is likely to be at least a little bit different. A little bit different is often more uncomfortable than entirely different; Storyline is good at teaching you to reassure yourself that authentically different is the right thing to be.

My other point is to offer an open apology to Donald Miller.

Dear Donald,

It was a self-indulgent act on my part to discredit your premise just because I didn’t like your style. Your imperfections are, for some people, perfect; for others, like me, your flaws grant license not to wait until we’re perfect to get started.

— — —

I’m not Canadian, but you guys are, so you’re probably well-familiar with the Montreal band, Stars? They have this super obvious and emo line that says “Take the weakest thing in you and then beat the bastards with it.” Sorry, I really love that line, maybe because it’s so obvious and emo. Anyway, it nicely sums up my resolve after the Storyline conference.

I’m glad I went.