Is Donald Miller Becoming a Motivational Speaker?

The “Blue Like Jazz” author on how he lost everything — his money, his health, and his existential crisis.

I’ve got a friend in San Francisco who’s a big fan of the coming-of-age Christian memoir Blue Like Jazz. She called the other day and said she’s been a little worried about Donald Miller lately.

“First the movie,” Stevie sighed. “Now I hear he’s holding self-help seminars.”

DonMiller4883“No way,” I replied. “The guy who quit his job and road tripped to the Grand Canyon in a VW bus? That dude who slept in scary Halloween costumes so his buddy’s kids would let him sleep til noon?”

“Serious,” she says. “I hear he’s in Nashville now.”

Miller’s work has been a great source of comfort to me as well. He was a dreamer somewhat lost, scattered but hopeful, talking about God and faith in ways we could understand. I sure didn’t want him to become one of them.

I pick up a copy of Miller’s new book, Scary Close, set up a meeting, and head for his office, located in a strip mall just off Music Row. Once parked, I immediately find myself face to face with a pack of pasty dudes wearing handlebar mustaches and fuchsia skinny jeans. Oh crap. It’s worse than we expected. The Nashville hipsters have captured Don.

“Uh . . . ,” I stutter. “I’m looking for Donald Miller?” No response. “The writer guy?”

“He’s more towards the back,” the pastiest dude sniffs. “I think.”

With thanks and a sigh of relief, I head through a wide hall, down an alley, and up a couple short flights of battered stairs. Standing in a doorway, there’s a slim fellow waiting with a worn sort of smile. “Hey, man,” he says as a greeting. “Come on in. . . . ”

scarycloseThere’s a line in Scary Close I want to ask you about. You’ve taken a personality test and the result was something like: Don’t talk to Don about anything that doesn’t further his agenda.

That’s what the report actually said.

As a reader of your earlier works, that confused me. That freewheeling bohemian guy in your first few books wasn’t eaten up with agendas. That’s what drew me to him. Have I been duped?

It’s really hard to write a book, put it out and promote it unless you are at least a slightly driven person. I started thinking about guys like Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen — the whole pothead filmmaker set. They come off as these sort of carefree guys, but bottom line is, you don’t accomplish what they have without being driven.

So, yeah, I felt like this bohemian “I don’t care” person but there was always an underlying sense of “Hey, Miller. Let’s get some things done here.” Scary Close just takes on that voice.

So maybe I’m actually wired more like these CEO types that I’ve been criticizing? It stumps me too.

Do you think that comes as a surprise or letdown to some of your readers?

I don’t know. In the last couple of years I’ve written so much about living a more meaningful story. And we’ve worked on a brand to help people do that. But that kind of flies under the radar. Anybody who reads the things I’ve been writing about daily would not be shocked.

You tackle a lot of deep psychological issues in this new book.

Well, we’re much more nuanced and complex than people give us credit for. I meet a lot of writers who seem to be their character but once you get to know them you realize that to some degree they’re acting a part they’ve created. Billy Collins, the poet, fully admits that he writes from the perspective of a character he’s created. Which is brilliant, if you want to create good art. But I don’t want to do that in my writing. I don’t want to create a character and write from that perspective.

I imagine you’d get stuck, right?

Yeah, sure. My old shtick was the loveable loser who keeps trying to figure things out. But the loveable loser doesn’t quadruple his company so I was thinking: should I not talk about that? Well, no. That’s me and it’s what I’m going through right now. So put it out there and let people deal with the nuances of who you are and not categorize you. And maybe sell fewer books. But do I want to impress people or do I want to be known?

Don Big

Throughout the book there’s personality tests and therapists and workshops and life coaches. What would you say to those who are wondering if Donald Miller is becoming a motivational speaker?

Yes! It was only six years ago that I was 180 pounds heavier than I am right now —

Wait. How much?

I wore a size-50 pants. I was nearly 400 pounds.

How did you lose the weight?

I got an advance when Blue Like Jazz came out, so I went down to Texas and paid off my mother’s home. And I was going to put in a new wood floor for her. It took me a week to put down a floor the size of this small room. I was so winded and thought, this is crazy. You can’t keep living this way. That was the wake-up call far as my weight went.

I got down to 275 and then signed up to ride my bicycle across America at that weight, which got me down to 216. And now I’m 225. I wish I knew the answer. I lost it very slowly.

Have you thought of writing that book?

No.

But it’s an incredible story.

In all reality, I’m still ashamed. Ashamed I ever let myself get that way. I still need to lose some more. So to me it just doesn’t feel like a victory yet. It’s still a struggle.

I don’t think a lot of us realized you were so overweight.

I don’t talk about it. But from being in that carbohydrate fog, to stop staring in my belly button and feeling sorry for myself, to go get something done — build a little company, enjoy the community that comes from those endeavors, move towards healthier relationships — I had to get help to get well. I had to work with counselors and people who could show me the way.

To be a memoirist and try to teach people from what I’ve learned, you do come off as a self-help speaker sometimes. But I think some would listen to me and say I was the anti-self-help speaker. Especially with religious formulas, which I’m not drawn to.

I want to turn around and help people through this journey that I’ve been on. And if that labels me as a self-help guy . . . then so be it.

You caught some flak for a blog post that said you no longer attend church.

Yep.

Haven’t you found a church home, brother?

(laughs) I get asked that all the time here! I never got asked that in the Pacific Northwest.

Hey man, you’re in Nashville now. Even heathens go to church.

I know. I know! Betsy and I do not attend church. It isn’t a conscious decision. We don’t wake up on Sunday morning and go, “Well, we’re not going today.” I’m not even looking, to tell you the truth.

It’s simply not on our menu of options when it comes to practicing our faith. We have an amazing community that we’ve built up in our house. We’ve been married a year and we’ve had 120 overnight guests. Probably 500 for dinner. So we live in Grand Central Station.

Worship for me is a much more literary experience rather than musical. So that’s taken care of. We do a retreat every year with church leaders and there’s community there. And we have projects that we support and give to. It feels to me that all of the tenets you have in church we still experience, just perhaps in a more unique and creative way.

So in a sense, you have a home church.

Very much so. We just don’t meet every week and do an academic study of the Bible. We have something special now that very few of the people who I know that attend church have. So we’re not looking. That may change though. Especially when we have children. But yeah, I was really shocked at the response to those blogs.

blue-like-jazz-(2012)-large-pictureYou okay with talking about the Blue Like Jazz film?

Please, sure.

I heard you lost your house.

Oh, yeah. Financially, I put all my savings from the book into the movie. I thought it was a sure bet. I lost everything. It was painful, certainly humbling.

But then it was like, okay — sink or swim here. What are you gonna do, right? A big reason I’m so business-minded now is that was the point where I determined to take charge of my own career.

The movie’s failure was a wake up call.

A massive wake-up call. I knew I had to take the reins. So I started a little brand strategy business and have pretty much made back everything I lost.

It was hard, but looking back it seems like the hand of God through the whole experience.

So you wouldn’t consider it a failure.

Yeah, sure it was a failure. A business failure. A financial failure. (laughs) A judgment failure.

You also wrote a book about making the movie. . . .

A book about a movie about a book. Yeah. I did.

I’m not saying this to beat up on you. I just think it’s interesting to a lot of people who have followed your career.

No, no. It’s fine. I spent a couple of years just on the writing of that movie with two other guys, so to turn around and write a book coming out of that period — well, you write about what you’re thinking about at the time. And what I was thinking was how to write a story based on my life. Which showed me what needs to be in life and what doesn’t, how to live a more meaningful story. So that turned into A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Which turned into the Storyline company, which is a life plan based on the work of Viktor Frankl. And then that turned into StoryBrand, which is brand strategy based on Storyline.

So if I don’t write Blue Like Jazz the movie and lose money on it, then Storyline doesn’t exist — which has helped about 20,000 people rewrite the story of their lives — and the Million Miles book doesn’t exist and StoryBrand doesn’t exist, which has allowed us to work with clients like Ford, Pantene, and the White House.

So I look at what I lost on Blue Like Jazz and think that’s really cheap. That’s a pretty awesome deal.

That being said, would you do anything differently?

Would I go that pain again to know what I know now? Yes, I would.

I guess what I’m fishing for is this: For people who loved the book and felt the movie didn’t quite line up — is there another approach you could have taken?

Well, as a confession, how arrogant of me to think I could capture such a big memoir in ninety minutes. And then fictionalize it so much and turn it to a college-age deal and not get resistance from people who resonated with the book? That was pretty naïve of me. So you’ll have to chalk that up to my arrogance and I’ll take the hit for it.

I thought Through Painted Deserts would have made a better movie.

Really? That’s been so long ago now. Steve (Taylor) actually wanted to make a movie out of that book but Blue Like Jazz had the name recognition.

So what, exactly, are your companies?

Storyline is conferences and we help people create their life plans. It’s a minor part of the business, but it’s the public face. StoryBrand is a two-day process we take companies through that helps them clarify their marketing message. And we use the seven elements of story to help them do that.

Sometimes a company is so massive, you’re so inside the bottle that you can’t read the label. So the end of our process reflects the main message of that company to the consumer on one sheet of paper. Then we take that one sheet and say, “Okay, are your commercials reflecting this? How about your print ads and email blasts?” So we use this information as an editing tool to shape up their marketing so it’s crystal clear and compelling and they can see an uptake in business.

The lucrative side of what I do that no one knows about is StoryBrand. And Storyline is more of the public face. And even more public is that every four years I release a book. Which is basically a hobby.

DonaldMiller1

If business is booming, where does that leave time for writing?

Well, about every four years I release a book. . . .

Is that going to change?

It is. In fact, with the staff I have now I’m able to make more time for creative things. I’ll release another book in 2016 and another the year after that. And those books are already defined.

What’s your writing routine these days?

On a writing day, well rested and in a rhythm, up at four a.m., at the office by five, staff shows at nine and I’ll get an enormous amount of work done before they show up.

Sounds like you’re a very busy man these days, so I’ll let you get back to it.

Is there any other way we can serve you today?

All images courtesy of Donald Miller.

Jamie Blaine
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