Talking with Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey is a respected Christian author and editor at large of Christianity Today. Yancey’s most recent book is Prayer. His other books include Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995) and Where is God When It Hurts (1990). He gave this exclusive interview to ChristianWritingToday.com editor Donald L. Hughes.
Editor’s note: Philip and I were students at Wheaton Graduate School at the same time, but we did not meet on campus. We were both working our way through grad school, and our first meeting was at Urbana ’70, the triennial missions conference sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the University of Illinois at Urbana. I was covering the meeting for Christian Life magazine, he was covering it for Campus Life. Recently Philip told me that covering Urbana ’70 had special meaning for him. He said, “That trip led to my very first published article.”
Yancey: I’m afraid it was nothing so spiritual. Putting myself through Wheaton Grad School, I needed a job! In those days many Christian organizations were headquartered in Wheaton (before they saw the light and moved to Colorado). I went up and down the doors, and the only job offer I had came from Harold Myra, then Publisher of Campus Life. That first year I filed reports on things like campus issues and Urbana, as well as writing brochure copy, organizing photo files, anything else that came along.
Harold had created an ethos that valued writing above all else, and I aspired to it. The process of mulling over life experiences and spitting them out on paper appealed to my introvert personality. I literally learned on the job, working on active verbs, then sentence structure, then paragraphs and article structure. Writing can be learned—I knew almost nothing about it when I started.
Only later did I find my own voice, which is the voice of an earnest pilgrim, wounded by the church, sifting through faith matters and finding my way back. That’s authentically me, and I feel blessed to have found a calling that mirrors exactly my own biography.
CWT: We Evangelicals say the Holy Spirit directly inspired writers of the Bible, but that contemporary writers are only illuminated by the Holy Spirit. How do you feel the Holy Spirit works through you as you write?
Yancey: The New Testament applies the word “Counselor” to the Holy Spirit in one place and “Comforter” in another. Those two words give a clue. A good counselor doesn’t give orders or even direct advice. Instead, a wise counselor summons up a response in the person being counseled. They are the ones living the life under scrutiny, after all.
Almost never do I sit at my desk, pray, and have an epiphany on exactly what word or thought to write next. However, many times I’ll know that next week I have to give a speech or write an article, and in quiet, unobtrusive ways I’ll notice what otherwise might have gone unnoticed, or make an unlikely connection, or see in something I’m reading or watching an insight or detail that may help me. Perhaps the Spirit is at work there? By definition, the Spirit works invisibly, and without much notice. And always the Spirit works in a way appropriate to the individual. Comforters do that.
CWT: Do you think anyone can learn to be an effective Christian writer or is it an unnamed spiritual gift?
Yancey: I’m tempted to say anyone can learn, because I’ve seen it happen. Yet I’ve read too much bad writing in unsolicited manuscripts to give an unqualified answer. Perhaps it’s like music. Anyone can learn to carry a tune, and virtually anyone can learn to play an instrument. But a real musician, my that’s a rare thing indeed. And when you throw in “Christian writer,” that narrows the field even further. Evangelicalism tends toward message, even propaganda rather than discovery and art. Look at the passages preached on in evangelical churches: most come from the Epistles, which represent only 10 percent of the Bible. What of all the rest—poetry, psalms, history, story? Sadly, Evangelicals tend to neglect all that.
CWT: What is your normal writing day like?
Yancey: Let’s think in terms of an article. If I write a feature for Christianity Today, I allot about five days: two to get ready to write (interview, research, planning, outlining), one to compose the first draft, two to clean it up. I began my career as an editor, so I emphasize that editing process. Now, expand that over a year or more, and that same proportion applies to book writing. I spent months researching and interviewing before tackling a subject like Prayer, for example, the subject of my last book. During those days, my word count was zero.
For me, all the pain comes in that composing process. I hole away somewhere, work twelve hours a day, and write between 8,000-10,000 words a day (mostly drivel) just to get through the pain. Then I spend whatever time it takes cleaning up. Most books, I throw away about 100 pages before sending final copy to the publisher.
I find that writing is so internal, so in the head, that I need exercise to reconnect with the planet. Fortunately, I live in Colorado. In the summer I mountain bike, run, kayak; in the winter I ski, snowshoe, ice-skate. I do this at the end of the day, hoping to purge my mind and get ready for an evening shift.
I do first drafts on the computer. I bought my first computer in 1980, just when p.c.’s were coming out. I wondered whether they would affect the writing process, and so I tried an experiment. For one book I wrote a chapter in longhand, then one on computer, then longhand, etc. At the end, I couldn’t tell much difference, so I stopped the longhand. Computers make revision so much easier.
CWT: What obstacles and opportunities do you see for Christian writers in the years ahead?
Yancey: Opportunities are as great now as at any time. The Internet has opened up a whole new universe for publication. Christian magazines are struggling, partly as a result of the Internet, but book publishers are doing well. The field of fiction has mushroomed for Christian writers.
Obstacles? The same as always, I suppose: dealing with issues of controversy, fending off pressures toward conformity and the tendency toward propaganda, a seduction to produce what sells rather than what truth-tells. When a writer encounters these obstacles, I point him or her to the Bible. I know of no more wise and honest book. It tells all the flaws, but somehow redemptively. We have a great model.