Write Your Own Story--The Next Chapter-Part 2

To show for my life, I have: a philosophy degree, a rocky relationship with my deceased father, a failed marriage and thousands of dollars in debt that is finally getting paid off. Why am I telling you this? Not to bitch, but to tell you that these things only define us if we LET them define us. Plus I just feel like I need to tell these things. I’m finding that life is much LESS about what happens to us, and more MUCH about how we react to it. We’re becoming today, who we’ll be tomorrow. For whatever reason, I believe many of the things in my life have happened to show me that this isn’t the story I was meant to live in, but that it’s time for me to start writing a new story; my own story.

Those were the words I penned a few months ago. It was toward the end of one of the worst times of my life at the biggest crossroads. Due to what were bad life decisions, I had lost all friends, I was working a job I hated in PR, and living in a small southern town in which I didn't know anyone. However, as a result of two things: 1) A few conversations at the Travel Bloggers Exchange and 2) Reading Donald Miller's book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, I resolved to change my life, because as friend Abby Tegnelia points out on her blog: "If you want to change your life, you must actually change...your...life."

Donald Miller isn't really a household name among travelers I meet. This is mainly due to his genre of writing, which if you were to put a label to it, would probably be referred to as "christian spirituality". If you've already checked out because I've used the term "christian", I strongly urge you to reconsider. While images of crusaders, fundamental bible thumpers, and right-wing politicians are circling your mind, you won't find this with Miller. As I've read Miller's words over the years, I've experienced a feeling of calm and refreshment that I haven't felt when reading other books on christian faith. You get the feeling that many of his statements are things that many within the community have wanted to say, but didn't have the balls to say because of concerns of backlash. And you almost get the feeling....wait for it, wait for it....that though he talks so openly about Christianity, that he's one of the cool kids.

million miles
million miles

I related so much to Donald Miller in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, because it was as if we were in a pub throwing back a few beers and talking about my own life. One of Miller's first books, Blue Like Jazz, was a bestseller, taking him from broke-ass writer to a best-selling author. However, what followed was the lowest point of his life, feeling an emptiness and dissatisfaction he had never experienced. When a couple movie directors approached him about making a movie out of Blue Like Jazz, it caused him to take a stern look at the story he had been living, and to make changes to live a better story. As Miller puts it:

If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you probably wouldn’t cry when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers. You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on and sit in a chair to think about what you’d seen. The truth is, you wouldn’t remember that movie a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back. Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo. But we spend years living those stories in real life, and expect our experiences to feel meaningful. In truth, if the stuff we are doing with our lives wouldn’t make a movie meaningful, it won’t make a real life meaningful either.

As Miller talks about, in any great story, it takes an "inciting incident", to thrust the main character into the story. Take a look at the big movie titles and you'll see it. Why else would we go see a movie if there wasn't conflict that pulls us into the story. Maybe it's the death of a loved one, a bad break-up, a natural disaster, losing a job, cancer, and so on. We sit on the edge of our seat, eagerly anticipating how the lead character will react. They are somewhat cornered, and there is no response but to act. If they just sat there on the sofa and watched porn and ate swedish fish, then the movie would be over, no longer than 30 minutes. But they never do that do they? There's a transformation that takes place. Miller describes it:

If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He's a jerk at the beginning and nice at the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end. If the character doesn't change, the story hasn't happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just condensed version of life then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another.

The inciting incident for me was 9 months ago. Piles of debt, kicked out on my ass, several months of working at a video store, and the loss of all my friends. That wasn't an inciting incident, that was inciting incidents; plural. It was obvious that the story I had written for myself hadn't worked out. So what was going to be the new story? I was cornered, and inaction wasn't an option. It was at that point I decided that although I felt like I had lived all 27 years of my life for someone else, doing what pleased others and what others expected, that it was time to do what I wanted to do. Here's what I penned 5 months ago:

So what about me? I’m about to write my own story. What will it entail? Not sure. But do we truly ever know? If we really knew where we were going to be months and years from now, would it hold the same allure and sense of adventure? I do, however, know that it’s going to involve moving; and more than likely out of the country, probably on the beaches of Central America. It’ll also involve traveling and writing about it, mixed with some volunteering. These are the things that I’m most passionate about in my life, and it’s about time I truly pursue those passions.

Day 1 as a Travel Writer at Meet Plan Go NYC
Day 1 as a Travel Writer at Meet Plan Go NYC

Six weeks after writing that, I quit my job to become a full-time location independent travel writer. Since September I've been traveling throughout the U.S., including a seven-day, 13-state road trip from the east to the west coast. Finally, I'm now just days from spending the winter living in Central America. I don't tell you this to hang it over your head or boast about what I can do. If there's anything that I've learned over the last few months, it's that if you really want to do something, you'll stop at nothing to do it. It wasn't pretty, but when is it? In another influential book, Randy Pausch in The Last Lecture, stated:

The brick walls are there to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want something badly enough.

I ask the same question I asked readers several months ago: what story are you writing for yourself? Are you happy? Are you doing what you want to do? Let me note, traveling does not, nor will it ever "heal" or make you forget things. What is done is done. If you're in need of editing your own life, it doesn't have to be the path that I've chosen. Maybe it involves volunteering or starting your own business. Maybe you need to re-connect with a loved one or need to start another career. Whatever, it is, go out there and do it.

I'll end with one more quote, another one from Randy Pausch. A few weeks ago I posted the following quote: "We can’t change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand." After I posted it, a friend responded with one of the greatest compliments I've ever gotten: "Spence, I think you've played your hand pretty well". Checkmate.

Photo at Meet, Plan, Go courtesy of Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads.