A Conversation with Donald Miller, Author of Father Fiction
1) Early in the book, you mention a collection of mentors who influenced you. How would your life be different if these men hadn’t invested in you?
It's a bit hard to say. I think I would be cynical and bitter, and less mature, for sure. My main mentor, David Gentiles, taught me to love, to side with love, to be forgiving and gracious. I am not great at it now, but I know I would be terrible without his influence. I also think I wouldn't be very spiritual, I wouldn't think as much about God, and that makes me sad. My mentors showed me that spirituality and masculinity go hand in hand. I owe a great deal to these guys.
2) What did you discover about yourself as you wrote this book? What have you had to unlearn from the experience of growing up without a father?
No book I've written has changed me as much as this book. It was a healing experience, for sure. I learned I had issues from growing up without a father, and this book put me on a path toward healing. I am grateful, personally, for the experience. I would say I am stronger for having written this book, more tender, less filled with self-pity and more confident.
3) You quote President Eisenhower, who said his parents believed “the world could be fixed of its problems if every child understood the necessity of their existence.” If mentoring became prominent theme in our culture what problems would be solved?
I don't think they would be solved, no. But I think our culture would be significantly different. I think we'd have fewer people in prison, and women would be happier because men would have better character. To say that a mentor can replace a dad is to say too much. But a mentor can change a child's life, for sure.
4) The act of writing this book provoked a personal response from you. Tell us about The Mentoring Project?
As I was working on the book I realized the issue needed more than a book, that kids needed positive male role models. We have a serious masculinity crisis in this country for lack of positive male role models. And having grown up in the church, I realized we had all these churches embedded in communities across the country and I realized the infrastructure was there to reach out to all these kids. There are 27-million kids growing up without fathers and 360,000 churches, so the church is poised to help on this issue more than any other institution. So we started a little mentoring program in Portland, at my local church, and that spread to another and another and another. Now we are mentoring lots of kids in Portland and looking to branch out across the country.
5) How has serving on President Obama’s National Fatherhood Initiative shaping how you view the crisis of American fatherlessness?
At first it was disheartening, because I realized the problem was enormous, but the more we talked, the more we realized the issue could be confronted in a realistic and effective way by the church. I think it could be one of the most powerful initiatives the church has embraced, to mentor fatherless boys and shut down prisons. I also realized that the government didn't have a lot of solutions. They are doing a remarkable job helping single moms, but they are unable to provide positive male role models, which is the root of the problem. We can do that through the church.
8) Don, you have pretty minimalistic definition of what a man is (a person with a penis). Why do you think there’s a whole industry of books and media aimed at helping males understand manhood if it’s so simple?
Well, I actually don't think it's that simple. Many of those books are good, and I encourage young men to read them, but it's true that when I read them as a kid I felt left out. I was trying to encourage the young men who feel left out, who doubt their masculinity. But manhood is complicated. I do believe a person with a penis is male, and there's no refuting it, but to be a good man, we have to work on ourselves and become men of good character. That takes effort and wisdom, so those books are appropriate.
9) What are some of the best examples of mentoring that you’ve observed in our culture?
I think youth pastors are our best mentors. They are great. They are some of the most important people in our culture, and I love them. They can be treated like second-hand citizens in churches, or just passers through on the way to a more prominent position in a church, but there's no question they are affecting the future of our country. Teachers are also influential, but youth pastors can engage the heart in the way a teacher is limited, and real healing comes when you embrace the heart.
10) You said in an interview that it will be a long time before you write another memoir. So what new direction do you see your creativity taking?
I'm writing a book about story, now, about how to shape your life like a story. It's a follow up to A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I am not sure what will come after that. Perhaps a more creative project, or even a book of poems. Something more literary. But I want to get this story message out first. I love talking about it and thinking about it.