Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Philip Yancey on Writing

One of my joys in Australia is the public library system which has given me a chance to borrow books I've lusted after. I used to spend hours looking at books at National Bookstore but couldn't part with my money to actually purchase them.

One drawback though is that when you really like a book, it's hard to let go and I've already reached the borrowing limit on Philip Yancey's Soul Survivor. In this book, Yancey writes about the lives of 13 men and women who have inspired him and kept him going in the faith. The way he wrote about them is good because he showed both their incredible achievements and great flaws. One example is Martin Luther King, Jr. who showed tremendous courage and yet had extra-marital affairs.

I did learn a lot from this book about faith but I also learned about writing. I have always loved reading and appreciate the power of words but I've always been insecure about writing. That's one reason why I chose to take Communication Research as major instead of Journalism (which I actually wanted). Gryphon started this blog last year but I only started writing near the middle of this year, due in part to Soul Survivor. Yancey addressed two issues I have thought about and used as reasons not to write:

1. I have not had anything extraordinary happen to me, my life is ordinary. All I can write about is ordinary things.


James Joyce said, 'Literature deals with the ordinary, the unusual and extraordinary belong to journalism.' Yancey wrote about Frederick Buechner, a critically acclaimed novelist and a minister. 'He writes not about Iraq, China or the crisis of postmodernism, rather about the faint memory of his grandmother Naya, or about the old mill down the road...' One of Buechner's books, The Alphabet of Grace picks throught the events of one day: 'shaving, getting dressed, staring in a mirror, starting the coffee, dressing the kids...'

Frederick Buechner found that he could write and ponder on the material of his life. He found that God can use the ordinary events of our life to convey Himself to us. Yancey agrees that we can observe the daily occurrences in our lives and have an attitude set forth in the Bible--'Be still and know that I am God.' He said that even in writing fiction, one should be still. Don't try to impose too much on the characters but let them breathe and see where the story goes. Yancey concludes, 'We can only write with passion about our own experiences, no one else's. I find that readers respond not to the specifics of my experience, rather to what they summon up. In the reader, words work a different effect than they worked in me as I composed them.'

2. Why should I impose what I've written on people? I'm no better than anyone else.

Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize in her early twenties. One advice she gave to a fellow writer: 'Everyone feels like a fraud ... Separate yourself from your work. A book you have made isn't you any more than is a chair you made, or a soup. It's just something you made once.' Henri Nouwen, another Christian writer said: 'Most students think that writing means writing down ideas, insights, visions. They feel that they must first have something to say before they can put it down on paper. ... But with this approach true writing is impossible. Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us.'

Throughout the book, Yancey also told about his own doubts in imposing his writing on other people. And I thought, if this great best-selling author has his doubts about his own writing, then it's okay to have doubts. In the end, he still wrote books like Disappointment with God and What's So Amazing About Grace that a lot of people can relate to and have helped strengthen them against the small waves and tidal waves of life.

So for those of us who have doubts about our own writing abilities and what we have to say, it's a comfort to hear from these great writers. For me, it's incredible to know that the doubts that plague me are not unique, even the great writers have these same feelings and thoughts.