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Philip Yancey on Writing

Philip YanceyThis is part of a much longer article at WORLD Magazine online:

You have been in the Christian publishing industry and the evangelical church for going on 40 years. What changes have you seen in that time? There are huge changes going on in publishing, in general, and in Christian publishing. The biggest thing, noticeable to me, is how Christian bookstores and general bookstores are departing one-by-one. I hear these statistics that something like half of the number of independent bookstores are in existence now that were even 20 years ago. People are buying online. They’re buying at Walmart, at Target, and Costco. It used to be if you wanted a Christian book, you would go to a Christian bookstore, browse around, see what caught your eye, and take it home. Now that doesn’t happen so much.

It’s harder, for sure, for younger writers to make a living. I feel very blessed to have lived in the period of time I did because I could make a living doing things I’d want to do apart from that. I worked out my faith in words, in print, and was able to make a living while doing it.

Tell me about when you are in the writing mode. Do you write a couple of hours a day? Do you research? Do you write for weeks on end and then don’t write for months? What does that discipline look like for you? A lot of people have the idea that you just kind of roll down to your desk and sit there and look up and think, “Hmm, wonder what I’ll write today.” It’s not like that at all, at least the kind of books that I write. Usually, when I choose to write about a topic—take prayer, for example—I’ll have been mulling it over for years, and I’ll have some fat file folders full of clippings. I’ll have an accumulation of books, a shelf full of books, and I’ll have been reading and thinking about it. Okay, so now I’m going to write about prayer. In that case, I spent probably six to eight months before I wrote a word. I interviewed a lot of people. What is your prayer life like? Why is it unsatisfying? What are your biggest questions about prayer?

I spent several months in seminary libraries, reading about what other people have to say. And then [there is] a period of time where I do outlining, organizing my thoughts. I’ve got all this data. Now, how do I make a book out of it? I often end up with an outline. Usually my outlines are about half as long as the chapter, so they’re pretty extensive outlines. Then comes that terrifying time when there’s the blank computer screen or the blank piece of paper. I’ve got these thoughts, but I’ve got to come up with words and sentences and transitions. That’s the terrifying, painful time. I try to get away somewhere, out to a mountain cabin, in my case, and get that over with as fast as possible.

I began my life as an editor for a magazine called Campus Life, and so as soon as I get the words down, then I can slip into that much more comfortable role of editing, trying to make some sense out of the words that I’ve got down.

Vanishing GraceOnce you have a draft, how different is that draft from what ultimately gets published? In What’s So Amazing about Grace? I cut 150 pages out of it. I realized this was a tangent. … The book I just finished,Vanishing Grace, had an outline of, I think, 12 chapters. In the final draft, only one of those chapters survived. I realized I was kind of cobbling together things that didn’t belong together, and other questions came up in the process of writing, so I just kept redoing it, redoing it. I keep all that stuff that I cut in a little file called junk, J-U-N-K, and I’ve got a macro that’ll just take whole paragraphs out and stick it in that junk file. I keep thinking, one day I can use that stuff. Then later, when I look at that junk file, I realize why I called it junk to begin with.

When it comes to the end for you, what do you want people to say about Philip Yancey? …I once likened my writing career to a jungle explorer and he’s got the machete out and he’s cutting through these thick vines, and he has no idea where the other side is. Then finally he gets through and says, “Oh, there it is. There’s the ocean. I made it.” Then to his surprise, he turns around and looks, and there is a whole line of people following him on that path. That’s how I feel as a writer. I’m not thinking about those people following me. I’ve got the machete hacking through the vines trying to get through to the other side. How can I get there? Then, to my surprise, and delight, I turn around and hear from people who say, “Thank you. I was on the same path. Thank you for showing me the way.”

Read the full article, click here.

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