The last person I expected to see at an inspirational conference was, well, me. I’m too cynical. Too sarcastic. If you talk to me about a self-help book, I’m going to tell you that you’re cheating—that’s book-help. So you can imagine how I might scoff at an entire conference worth of feel-good, motivational, self-empowerment mumbo jumbo, right? And yet, this past October, I found myself driving 700 miles to Chicago for just such an event: Storyline Conference.
- Storyline was inspired by the art of writing for film: screenwriting. That wouldn’t matter to most people, but I actually majored in screenwriting, so maybe this conference would validate that impractical high school decision.
- Musician and filmmaker Steve Taylor was hosting a day-long film festival to kick off the conference. With his off-the-wall sense of humor, it was guaranteed to be a weird and memorable experience.
- Donald Miller, founder of Storyline Conference and the author of Blue Like Jazz, was devoting the final day to a writing workshop. It just so happens I’m a writer (as you may have guessed while reading this thing that I wrote), and I’m a fan of Miller’s books.
- Chicago seemed like a neat place to visit.
I couldn’t argue with my own reasoning (that’s a good way to look like a crazy person), so I decided to approach the conference with an open mind. It didn’t have to be a Life-Changing Experience™ to be worthwhile. I might even learn something.
Story of Your Life
Have you ever seen a movie that was so good, you sat through the end credits? I don’t mean Marvel movies, where you know there’s a post-credits scene, but the times that you’re reluctant to leave the theater because you don’t want the film to be over. The goal of Storyline is to encourage everyone to live that kind of story, the kind that other people will feel so much a part of that they’ll stay through the credits. Even if there isn’t shawarma afterward.
“Who are you?” Donald Miller asked the thousands of us gathered in the auditorium. “What do you want?” A story begins with a character who wants something. You know that Luke Skywalker is a farm boy who wants to become a Jedi. You know that Batman is a billionaire with a utility belt who wants to stop crime in Gotham. Their stories have purpose and direction because they know what they want. Ours can, too, he told us.
To want something, however, is to invite conflict. One does not simply walk into Mordor; hurdles must be leaped, obstacles must be overcome, Balrogs must be told they shall not pass. “Beauty, truth, and creation always face resistance,” said Miller, “but resistance creates lift. A tapestry of bruises and hand-crafted scars” is woven through every hero’s journey. We can let them discourage us or, as psychologist Viktor Frankl suggested, we can redeem them.
“Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning,” wrote Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. Despite his own terrible losses and suffering, he believed that good things come out of every misfortune, and that identifying them is how we can heal and move on with our story.
Guided by Choices
After character and conflict, the third common element of screenplays is a guide. The guide could be God or Morgan Freeman, or Morgan Freeman as God, or even LEGO Morgan Freeman, but his role is to help the hero overcome conflict and give him a plan (element #4) to reach his or her goal.
It occurred to me that hundreds, if not thousands, of people had come to Storyline Conference looking for a guide. Even me. How did Donald Miller go about becoming a bestselling author? How did Steve Taylor shift his career to filmmaking? How did Seth Worley go from backyard movies to making viral videos? I wanted to see the road map. I wanted to see the plan.
I knew better, of course. There is no universal path to success, or even a universal definition of success. It’s not the guide’s job to write your script for you—only to lead you in the right direction. You’ve got to find the story in yourself. Glennon Melton of Momastery said this: “Don’t change your life to write…just look closer at it.” Instead of trying to be someone else, “be your favorite future version of yourself.”
The fifth element of screenwriting that’s incorporated in Storyline is a crucial one: action. You can have a character, a conflict, a guide, and a plan, but if you choose to sit on the couch each day instead of acting on the plan, then you don’t have a story. Nobody exemplified this better than Bob Goff, bestselling author of Love Does. Bob sees a hurt, a need, and he acts on it, quicker than you can think of an excuse not to.
You’d never guess that Bob was a lawyer for 30 years. He has a gleeful personality, cartoon levels of energy, and a way of making everyone in the room feel like they matter. I’m pretty sure he hugged everyone within a 2-mile radius of the building. Each story he told was about finding bold, new ways to show love to people in everyday situations. The man is a menace to skeptics like me—so much for my immunity to motivational speakers.
So much happened at Storyline Conference that I’m still processing it now, seven months later. They say it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant, and I get that now. Movies and guest speakers and concerts and Halloween in Chicago—did I mention deep dish pizza? I met cool people from all walks of life and even a few from right here in Lancaster County—we should have carpooled, guys!
The final two elements of Donald Miller’s Storyline breakdown are an either/or: the protagonist’s success or the protagonist’s failure. I label this story a success, not because I had a Life-Changing Experience™, but because I had an authentic experience that I’ll never forget, with open-hearted, encouraging people. It gave me a lot to think about.
Storyline Conference didn’t change my life…but I might.