Philip Yancey is a lot of things—a “writer’s writer” who has received awards, accolades, and praise for his books. He is also the editor-at-large for Christianity Today. His vulnerable and personal writings have touched the lives of over 15 million people. To be sure, Philip Yancey is gargantuan in the writing world.
But that’s not why I asked Philip Yancey to do a Take 5. I asked him to do a Take 5 because I am one of the 15 million whose lives have been touched. Yes, I remember the moment I first laid my eyes on a Philip Yancey book.
It was 1997 and I was a troubled 17 year-old girl struggling with depression, anxiety, cutting, and of course, issues of faith. The Jesus I Never Knew stared at me from our living room coffee table. Literally, stared at me! Intrigued by the cover (who says you can’t judge a book by its cover?), I picked up the book and began reading.
The Jesus I never knew became the Jesus I started to know in a whole new way. So I read more of Yancey’s books—Soul Survivor, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Disappointment With God, and many more including another favorite, Reaching For the Invisible God.
Yancey managed to reach into the heart of a very confused teenage girl. His honest reflections on faith helped a young woman cling to her own faith in the midst of heartache. And the fact he answered my e-mail and agreed to do this Take 5 made my dream of interviewing Philip Yancey a reality. Thank you, Philip—for everything!
On Backseat Writer, we write a lot about music and books. So what music are you currently listening to and/or what books are you currently reading?
My music answer is always the same: old fogy that I am, I only listen to classical music. I did a three-year project of digitizing all my albums and (yes) reel-to-reel tapes, so I can order up “Symphonies” or “String Quartets” or any individual composer and then music plays all day in the background. I’m afraid that when I hear about the GRAMMY Awards I haven’t heard of two-thirds of contemporary musicians. Oh well, somebody’s got to support the classics.
My next book is a kind of memoir, so I’ve been reading almost nothing but memoirs for the last year or so. I must have read at least 100, simply to study the form and see how it’s done. Some are juicy, some are boring. I’m gradually preparing to make the transition from an essay writer to one who works with narrative and dialog–that’s my hope anyway.
On average, how long does it talk for you to write a book? How much research goes into a Philip Yancey book?
It would take about a year if I did nothing else. I travel quite a bit, and do other projects on the side, so it ends up taking 1.5 or two years. I figure the ratio breaks down like this: 40% preparation (including research, interviewing, outlining, all those writing-avoidance tactics); 20% composing (all the paranoia and psychosis occur here); 40% cleaning up what I wrote (I began my career as an editor, so I truly value this editing process.) While doing my book on Prayer, for example, I spent about six months in libraries before writing a word.
With all your success, how do you keep stay humble?
I play golf. Seriously, though, nothing that happens on the outside helps when you face that blank page or blank computer screen. Writing is the most humbling act I know. Nothing that has happened with prior books offers any guarantee that my current or next book will work, will connect with anyone, will show that I’ve lost whatever spark I may have had. Writing is a lonely, demanding craft, and the longer I do it the worse I feel, in a way, because I recognize more mistakes as I make them. My job is to produce the best book I can; the publisher and readers determine what happens to that book, and that world seems very far apart from how I spend my time.
Young writers often make foolish mistakes. What is a mistake I should avoid?
Writing should come with a label, “Do not practice this alone.” Starting out with an ideal of self-expression is suicidal. Writing is communication, connection. And when you begin, it’s best to find a supportive community, or writers’ group, who can point out what you’re doing wrong (feedback you need) while encouraging you to keep going (feedback you need more). Otherwise, you’ll likely give up.
How does your writing affect your relationship with God? (The reason I ask is this—I feel so close to God when I’m writing or taking pictures, the act itself turns into worship.)
God doesn’t seem to give me great words or great thoughts. Rather, prayer helps remove the distractions that interfere with mental focus–the most crucial ingredient in writing. “Cast all your anxieties upon him, because he cares for you,” the Bible says. That takes on stark reality in the composing process. I have anxieties bubbling up–over deadlines, creativity, finances, a million other things–and they can prove paralyzing. I bundle them up and present them to God. Then I trust God with the result. I hear later from people who have touched by my words, but in the process I simply commit them to God as an act of faith. God knows better how to use my words than I do, and I trust God with that part of the process.