Living an awesome story

September 7, 2011 | 31 comments

A good nickname for me would be “Inertia, “ because, like the dictionary definition of the word, I tend to “exist in a state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.”

If my choice is accepting an invitation to go to an interesting social event or continuing to sit in front of my computer, I’ll choose the latter. If I had an idea for a new way to decorate the living room, I wouldn’t do it, even if I had the time or money. In other words, left to my own devices, I tend to do nothing.

As usual, it almost always comes down to fear. I have this personality quirk where I’m always worried about doing the wrong thing and screwing something up, so I find it easier to avoid change, even if it means missing out on good opportunities. (This is also one of the reasons I have such trouble with decision making in general; if I order a cheeseburger at a restaurant, for example, I’m immediately plagued with the thought, WHAT IF I SHOULD HAVE ORDERED THE SHRIMP INSTEAD?!?! Yeah. It’s hard to be me.)

Anyway, I’ve had this tendency my whole life. But then, earlier this year I discovered a book. And everything changed.

It started when Brandon Vogt left this comment to my post asking for book recommendations. He raved about Donald Miller’s memoir A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, listing all the changes he and his family had made after Miller’s book had prompted them to wonder how they could turn their life into a great story (which now has included building a computer lab in Africa). Intrigued, I read the book.

It begins with Miller stuck in a funk after writing his smash bestseller,  Blue Like Jazz. He’d written a couple of other books that didn’t do so well, and his life was at a standstill. Then he got a call from some producers who wanted to make a movie out of Blue Like Jazz; and since it was a memoir, that means they’d be making a movie of his life. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is the chronicle of what he learned in the process. Two guys named Steve and Ben came out to write the screenplay with him, and in one of the book’s first scenes, Steve mentions that they’ll need to take some liberties with his story in order to make it a good movie. Don asked why they couldn’t just use the facts of his real life. Steve replies:

Steve sat thoughtfully and collected his ideas. He scratched his chin and collected some sympathy. “In a pure story, ” he said like a professor, “there is a purpose in every scene, in every line of dialogue. A movie is going somewhere.”

That last line rang in my ear like an accusation. I felt defensive, as though the scenes in my life weren’t going anywhere. I mean, I knew they weren’t going anywhere, but it didn’t seem okay for someone else to say it. I didn’t say anything; I tried to think about the philosophy of making movies so my face would look like I was thinking about something other than the fact that Steve didn’t think my life was going anywhere.

This prompted him to start asking: What does a great story look like? What would my life look like if it were an amazing story? He writes:

In creating the fictional Don, I was creating the person I wanted to be, the person worth telling stories about. It never occurred to me that I could re-create my own story, my real life story, but in an evolution I had moved toward a better me. I was creating someone I could live through, the person I’d be if I redrew the world, a character that was me but flesh and soul other. And flesh and soul better too.

He learns a lot about what it means to live a great story, but the lesson that most resonated with me was the one about fear. There’s never been an Academy Award winning movie about someone who lived his life cowering in fear, never taking action because he’s worried about messing something up.

The great stories go to the ones who don’t give in to fear.

The most often repeated commandment in the Bible is “Do not fear.” It’s in there over two hundred times. That means a couple of things, if you think about it. It means we are going to be afraid, and it means we shouldn’t let fear boss us around. Before I realized we were supposed to fight fear, I thought of fear as a subtle suggestion in our subconscious designed to keep us safe, or more important, keep us from getting humiliated. And I guess it serves that purpose. But fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.

This was a profound insight for me. Reading of Don’s metamorphosis from couch potato to a risk-taking man of action inspired me to do the same in my own life. My decision-making flowchart used to begin with the question, Is there any risk involved? And if I could imagine the slightest thing that could go wrong, I usually wouldn’t do it. Now I begin with the question, Would it make a good story? And if the answer is yes, I usually do it.

Obviously, asking ourselves if it would make a good story is not the only litmus test we should use for decision-making. We need to consider if it’s prudent, if it’s God’s will, etc. And, as Brandon points out in one of his (excellent) posts on the book, we need to make sure we’re living our story with God, not seeing him as an uninterested editor. But incorporating that question into my thought process has changed my life. Stories inevitably contain both ups and downs, challenges as well as triumphs, and thinking of it this way has helped me get over my fear of making mistakes. Rather than thinking of a risk that didn’t pay off as the end of the world, I now see it as just another part of the story.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald MillerDon Miller rewrote his life story by searching for his father and asking a cute girl he barely knew to hike the Inca Trail with him in Peru. What would it look like for me, a suburban housewife with five young kids, to live a great story?

I’ve started saying yes to more social invitations. When I’m pretty sure God is calling me to do something, I just do it, without the usual detour down Overanalysis Lane that leads me to talk myself out of it. I’m less likely to decide to do something out of guilt alone, so I’m better at saying no when I need to. Ironically, it’s made me take myself less seriously (in a good way), since thinking of the events of my life as part of a grander story helps put them all in perspective.

What I learned from this book was to not let fear hold me back; to think big; to expand the scope of what I believe it’s possible for one person to accomplish. I’ve learned to put 100% of myself into every moment, and to let go of worries about whether everything will turn out perfectly.

At the end of the book, Miller talks about a great movie he once saw about a real football team. To his surprise, the screenwriters chose to cover the year they almost won the state championship game, rather than the year they did win it. The screenwriters understood that that year they lost was the better story, because that was the time the team had tried hardest and sacrificed most. As Miller points out: It’s not necessary to win for the story to be great; it’s only necessary to sacrifice everything.


  1. Katie "Wellness Mama'

    I love this! It really hit home for me today, as I do this a lot also! It also seems that many people, even good Christians, tend to hold back out of fear (or mislabeled prudence) and miss out on things that God may be calling them to. On that note, I’m off to finish those things I’ve been procrastinating on…

  2. Allie

    This pretty much encapsulates what probably became my favorite homily from daily Mass last week. Father was going on about how prudence is all well and good, being a virtue and all. But, as he so eloquently put it, no one was ever canonized for being prudent. Sure, it’s a great virtue, and it’s understanding of it helps is with all the other virtues. But, in the end, our actions (among other things) and the general throwing caution into the wind are what helps to change the world. As Father put it during Mass, God will stop you if what you’re doing is wrong.

    I never got into Blue Like Jazz, but I’ll have to pick this up!

  3. Kimberlie

    I just put this book on request at my library. I think this lines up with the tug that I have been feeling lately to step out of my comfort zone more, take a few risks, but also to start living my life more purposefully rather than just letting it happen. A lot of times, I feel God’s tug at my heart to do something, but then out of fear or my perfectionist personality, I convince myself that I didn’t hear (whatever it was) from God or that I am completely incapable of doing whatever it was that God was urging me to do. I think it might actually help my marriage too. And help me be a better mother.

    If you need another book to read, I just finished reading Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys by Kay S. Hymowitz. It’s not an indictment of feminism but it has a lot to say about how women and men interact today (or don’t), about how many men feel they have become disposable/expendable because they aren’t really needed anymore (women don’t even need them to have children except as donors of sperm) and therefore don’t feel the need to “grow up,” and she talks about how educated women still want the husband and children but in pursuit of their careers may have left it until “too late.” Gosh, there are so many good nuggets in it. Even if all you do is read the Intro, the first chapter, and the last chapter, you will get a good sense of the author’s thesis for the book.

  4. Steph @ Moving to MD

    Was planning on going to the library after work today, and now I am most definitely checking this book out. Thanks!

  5. nancy

    I bought this book when I first saw it mentioned on your blog several months back. I’m thinking that it might be time to actually read it! Fear is a powerful – and very common – de-motivator.

  6. Gillian

    ” I’ve learned to put 100% of myself into every moment”

    Woah seriously? Or is this more of a general thing? I find myself even with good things sometimes feeling like I wasn’t really there… I’ve been working on it but it takes real conscious effort…

  7. Eva

    Oh No! My comfort zone is miniscule, yet I know that i have to do, and be, more. I’m managing to avoid the persistent and nagging voice yet I keep getting nudges. I want to yell ‘I DONT WANNA!!’ yet I also dont want to live a life of ‘quiet desparation’. Argh.
    Clearly need to read this book.


  8. Patty

    As part of coming to term with turning the big 5-0 back in May, I decided that if there was one thing I’ve learned in 50 years is that God is trustworthy so I can live the rest of my life without fear. Loved your post. I’ll have to check out the book, although I think my reason for living without fear is good too. It works for me.

  9. paige

    Fantastic post… The more i come here- the more interesting, thought provoking things i find.
    fwiw – can i point out that you have been incredibly courageous by *writing this blog*? You speak out on things that make others cringe – you take chances of getting criticized every time you voice an opinion or *truth*. i have been deeply encouraged by your interesting “story”.

  10. Lacia C

    I too agree with Paige above about how you’ve got the guts to write (and post publicly) the things you do. I’ve been inspired by MANY of your posts, I think the one that hit home the most (besides today’s post) was the one about trying to be come friends with the Emperor. I actually got chills after reading it because it was so TRUE.

    P.S. I can’t wait to read your book once it is released!! I think you have an awesome life story (so far)!

  11. Kelly the Kitchen Kop


    You have given a perfect overview of the book! I have only one chapter to go and have loved it so much except for one thing: I have no idea how I’m supposed to be living a better story… The only thing I can come up with is the main thing that I believe gives life more meaning anyway: finding a way to help people more on a regular basis. But I’m just not sure if I should cram one more thing into my already-overwhelming-at-times life.

    So for now I’m staying open and praying.

    Thanks so much for telling me about this book way back when! 🙂


    • Carrie

      Me too! I really loved this book, but I have been having trouble implementing it into my own life. I have looked for a good organization locally that I could volunteer my time with, but it really feels like places have plenty of volunteers, and they don’t need any help. If I had more money I could go to Peru or somewhere else exotic for an incredible adventure, but then I think I could use that money (it I had it!) for a much better cause like sponsoring children or something. I have been really trying hard to make my life better in light of this book, but I feel like a failure so far!

    • Steph @ Moving to MD

      Not sure if you two are still checking the replies on this post, but I just finished the book and I have a few thoughts on this subject. One, I think that by the end of the book Miller came to the conclusion that living a good story does not necessarily mean riding a bike across America or walking the Inca Trail.

      If you look at his stories about Bob (whom I think Don believed was the best example of a great storyteller), you will see that while Bob did a lot of good and helped a lot of people, his most interesting stories were the funny, quirky things he did with his family. Start a parade. Jump off the dock to say goodbye. Etc. Also, most of Don’s anecdotes about friends living good stories were about similar small things that they did with their families. Take a photo with your daughter in her prom dress and dance all night long.

      If anything what I got from it is that we create great stories with the people who are around us. By loving them and spending time with them and coming up with memorable scenes in our every day lives, we live great stories. Yes, some great stories occur in far away places and helping people we do not know by volunteering. But I believe that Miller says it best when he says he believe God’s intention with man may have been to chase sticks and ducks, name animals, create families, and keep looking back at Good to feed off his pleasure of our pleasure.

      • Kelly the Kitchen Kop

        (I just found this buried comment reply, yes, that’s how behind I am on my inbox!)

        This makes so much sense, Steph! And recently I have been powerfully called to do something absolutely *crazy*. Something right here at home. (I’m announcing it on my blog next week and don’t want to say what it is quite yet.) So I am remaining open to wherever the Lord is taking us, but I feel confident that it’s the only way I’ll be able to someday look back and know that I lived a good story. 🙂


  12. Becca

    Wow. I think you just wrote this post for me today. My husband and I have recently moved and there are plenty of times when I let fear dictate my decisions. Now that I’m in a new place I’m determined to make it an amazing new experience. However there is always that “detour down overanalysis lane” as you call it, that trips me up and stalls progress. I need simple things to help me out. I think the “Will it make a good story?” is EXACTLY what I need right now to help me in the decision making process. Because I will certainly take God into account, out of habit, but the question will help me to make the most out of my day! Thank you!

  13. Ann-Marie

    I needed the reminder, “Be Not Afraid” so much that I engraved it in Latin inside my wedding band. Every day when I look at my ring, I get a subtle reminder to not let the fear keep me from being the person God desires for me to be.

  14. Momma in Progress

    My comfort zone is pretty small. I know a lot of people have trouble saying “no” to things and get overwhelmed; I have the opposite problem. I’m not sure if it’s fear or genuine disinterest. But sometimes I just have to say “yes” first and think later.

  15. Michelle

    I know how I can start living a better story. Act on the inspirations I get immediately! I waste so much time arguing with myself. Like right now I’m arguing with myself about why I should/shouldn’t go put the chicken in the crockpot so I can shred it in the morning and have it ready to go for tomorrow’s meal. Obviously I should, I know I should but I keep delaying. If I just keep doing nothing, like you said, I know it will become much to late, I will be exhausted and then I will just crash into bed and have to deal with shredding the chicken tomorrow evening when the kids are whining and starving for attention. Then I will beat myself up over my laziness, my fear over my inadequacies will build and the crazy cycle will continue over and over again. The author/speaker Matthew Kelly always says, “Just do the next right thing”. But, what if you always argue with yourself about what the next right thing is? I think the trick is to trust God and our conscience more, moment to moment. If we are earnestly trying to seek God’s will in our life and are not living in any repetitive mortally sinful situations, I think we can be assured that God is not trying to confuse us, the Holy Spirit just doesn’t work that way.

  16. amy2boys

    I LOVED this book! I’ve given copies to several people. It’s easy to read, fun, and yet still insightful and inspiring.

  17. Andrea

    I think for two only children to have five kids is a wonderful story in itself.

  18. Headless Mom

    I love this, Jennifer. Thanks. Buying the book now!

  19. Laura M

    Great post! I know exactly what you mean about staying at home ratjer than going out. I need to think about this more

  20. Michael

    I want to get a copy of this book…Thanks for the idea…

  21. Lauren {}

    I especially love this post. It was just what I needed tonight! Matt walked in the room and said, “What’re you doing?” I answered, “God is speaking to me through Jennifer Fulwiler.” LOL 🙂 Thanks!

    • Gillian

      I want to click the like button haha!

  22. Briana

    I need this book. Every day I feel successful as long as nothing terrible happened. Which meant I would not do anything where something terible could happen. With four kids I knew there were ample opportunities. Terrible being pretty much all the examples you listed plus a few of my own. Just starting to step/live outside of all that and it is so freeing. But still very new and I could use all the help I can get. Thank you for the recommendation.

  23. Mary

    I have a Holloywood star on “Overanalysis Lane”. Thanks for this post.

  24. Lucy

    I’m going to read this post to my 10yo son. He’s struggling right now with school (we start early – he’s five weeks into his quarter) and while we’re working on the situation, he’s unhappy (it could be way worse than it is – he’s bored and is not clicking with his old friends. He’s not being bullied or anything.) and it’s stressing him. We talked about it last night and he made the comment, “I’m really glad that I know that being miserable in school is part of God’s plan.” I think the idea of this being part of his great story will be meaningful to him (it also helps that we believe that everything is for our salvation – especially the hard things. We’re EO – suffering is part of the package. :)).

    Thanks for yet another great post – I don’t know how you do it with a new baby!

  25. arthurmac8

    woah! i think you made a point about the inertia thing, but isn’t that living a little dull because you’re just waiting for some force to act on you?! isn’t that fatalism?! regardless of the inertia thing, i like your post! it’s awesome! and the way you laid out your thoughts for the readers is just so awesome,your ideas, it is not just explained in a scattered manner but it was laid out in an organized way, which is so cool!! i like your perspective! thanks for the post!!

  26. Alexis

    Totally blessed by this post. I have not been giving God 100% due to this type of fear and the encouraging thing is that we all face it! I’m not in this by myself which I am so susceptible to believing sometimes. Lately I’ve been on this journey to expose my fears and overcome them. And I read something yesterday that encouraged me as well on Billy Graham’s website. It was explaining that we should not allow the fears to keep us from doing exploits for God, but we should use the fear all the more to our advantage to go after the things of God. This is encouraging, I look forward to more blogs on things in this vein, Jen.


  27. Diapeepees

    Just reading through some of your old stuff. This piece is definitely one to ponder. Also really liked the antagonist article the other day — I’ve been thinking about my own antagonist the past few days. I see so much of you in me (both 35, 5 kids, anti-phone but social, Catholic, homeschoolers, writing types), that it’s funny to read your viewpoints…I often relate. So, thanks for these pieces. I’m always amazed at the impact something you read can have on your thought process and the way you develop new perspectives.

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