A Fire in the Woods

By Patrick Cummings

Storytelling is simple. You need a character who wants something and who is willing to go get it. The more difficult it is to get, both externally and internally, the more interesting the story. 

In like manner, success is simple. All you have to do is want something more than you don't want it, and act accordingly.

It's easy to overcomplicate this, easy to find the gray area and wallow in it like a tide pool. But it really isn't any more complex than this: If you want something, you need to want it more than you don't want it. 

If you want to quit smoking, the desire to quit needs to be stronger than that not to quit. Same with if you want to learn a new language, write the perfect joke, or train elephants to ride bicycles.

The harder it is to maintain action toward satisfying that want, the higher potential there is for us to elicit evolution within ourselves. And evolution is where beauty hides. 

In the pursuit of our own personal evolution, we become authors of our own story. No longer are we windblown from one moment to the other, from one year to the next. "Human beings all change," Elie Wiesel writes. "Not what they are but who they are. We have the power to change what we do with our life and turn it into destiny."

In his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, author Don Miller chronicles the process he went through in adapting his memoir, Blue Like Jazz, into a screenplay. The Cliff's Notes is this: In turning his 'real life' into a story suitable for the screen, Miller realizes one can deliberately turn a story suitable for the screen into 'real life'. And this is what he does, writing, "Once you know what it takes to live a better story, you don't have a choice. Not living a better story would be like deciding to die, deciding to walk around numb until you die, and it's not natural to want to die."

Using the basic tenants of good storytelling, Miller begins re-designing his life in order that it tell a better story. To paraphrase, simplify and steal: It was life on purpose.

What struck me most was the simple fact, perhaps obvious, that I wasn't living deliberately. I wasn't pointing myself toward anything. I certainly wasn't telling a good story with my life.

I spent so much time during my teens and early twenties running from things--things that made me uncomfortable, things whose outcomes were unknown to me--that I had become lost in the dark woods of myself. This book lit a fire.

Million Miles allowed me to recognize I was choosing to stay there in the woods. It made me understand if I was unwilling to acknowledge how much I had allowed fear dictate my existence, I was unwilling to ever satiate the part of myself left unsatisfied. As Miller write, "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."

I've been far from wholly successful, though I am worlds from where I've been.

"Here's the truth about telling stories with your life," Miller writes. "It's going to sound like a great idea, and you are going to get excited about it, and then when it comes time to do the work, you're not going to want to do it. It's like that with writing books, and it's like that with life. People love to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen. But joy costs pain."

All I've done is begin.


Patrick Cummings is the Editor-in-Chief of Again Faster. Photograph courtesy of the author.