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[7] The Writer as Journalist

by Philip Yancey

I stumbled into my career in journalism quite by accident while looking for a way to pay graduate school tuition bills.  Although for the past twenty years I have worked mainly on books of popular theology, I approach each topic from the stance of a journalist.

Annie Dillard once remarked that writers keep revisiting childhood because that’s the only time they have ever lived.  I agree, in part: writers lead a sheltered and boring existence in which we spend our days in utter isolation, shuffling electrons around a computer screen or sliding a pen across paper.  Yet we of the journalistic breed have the advantage of leeching life from others.  We may not pilot jet planes or croon before thousands at a rock concert, but at least we can sit in the cockpit jump seat or on a chair backstage and take notes, basking in the glow of those who actually do lead exciting lives.

As a journalist I became so fascinated with one of my subjects, Dr. Paul Brand, that I followed him to such far-flung places as England and India and ended up co-authoring three books with him.  We rode the London tube together, toured the Royal College of Surgeons, dissected armadillos and rabbits, tinkered with computer programs at a leprosarium.  He even let me assist alongside as he treated patients under a tamarind tree in India.  Yet I did not have to spend the rest of my life wearing scrubs in the daytime and scouring medical journals at night.

Other writers often view journalism as a poor stepsister.  Marcel Proust sniffed, “The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance.”  James Joyce proposed this condescending formula, “Literature deals with the ordinary; the unusual and extraordinary belong to journalism.”

In the decades since Proust and Joyce, the ground has shifted.  Indeed, a reader who turns from Vanity Fair and Esquire to the novels of Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel García Márquez, and Salman Rushdie might almost reverse Joyce’s formula.  Increasingly, literature has moved away from realism toward the fanciful and magical, whereas journalism focuses on the ordinary, the quotidian.  And though journalism has metastasized into newly disposable media—reality shows on television, websites and blogs, MP3 downloads—it has also given birth to the field of creative nonfiction.

I resist that word nonfiction on the grounds that a major endeavor should hardly be defined by what it is not; we do not, after all, call dogs noncats or men nonwomen.  In my more defensive moments, I would suggest a moniker like “the literature of fact.”  Some university Associated Writing Programs acknowledge a new species of “factual and literary writing that has the narrative, dramatic, meditative, and lyrical elements of novels, plays, poetry, and memoir.”  That describes journalism at its best, as practiced regularly, for example, in The New Yorker.

Newspaper journalists have the singular goal of communicating information efficiently, hence the inverted pyramid structure that begins with the most important facts and moves toward the more trivial.  The kind of narrative journalism that appears in the better magazines and often expands into book length has a very different goal.  We are more interested in telling a story rather than communicating information.  I would summarize my writing goal in this way: to cause the subject (which may in fact be a person) to stand out in relief, in a kind of silhouette, for the benefit of a particular audience, and to do so in an engaging way that holds the reader’s interest.

I have written for magazines as diverse as Reader’s Digest and Books and Culture, National Wildlife and The Reformed Journal.  Each time, I enter into an implicit contract with the readership, acting as their advocate or representative to investigate what I project as their possible interest in the subject I have chosen.  I want to probe and delve into that subject so that my audience goes away with a clearer understanding, both in context and in relation to themselves.

Even as I am writing, I hear an inner voice saying, “That’s enough theory, Philip.  You’re a journalist.  Get on with the story.”

Since I began writing for teenagers, many of my first articles developed out of interviews with shy and socially awkward kids.  Very quickly, I had to learn some interviewing skills.

Tell me what happened.

“Well, uh, I ran into this grizzly bear.”

And then what…

“It—she, I guess—kind of attacked me.”

How big was it, or she?

“Pretty big, I reckon.”

In interviewing teenagers, I devised a fill-in-the-blank method.  Was the sun shining?  What was the temperature?  Describe the bear.  Where did she bite first?  Tell me about the pain.  What went through your mind?  Did you fight back?  Did you yell?  Did your life flash in front of you?  In essence, I had to imagine the story (good practice for a budding writer) and then backfill it with the corrected facts I managed to drag out of my interview subject.

Upon going freelance, my range expanded to include an entirely different category of interview subjects: people of some renown who had learned to respond with canned answers.  Bono, Bill Clinton, Billy Graham, Jimmy Carter—any question I might think up, they had already been asked somewhere along the line.  As experienced public figures, they knew exactly how to fend off a probing journalist who might threaten their carefully protected image.

Once, while interviewing Billy Graham, I felt a sudden wave of sympathy for him and others under constant public scrutiny.  If I were to ask, “Mr. Graham, honestly, off the record, could you tell me what you really think about gay rights, or the tricky issues surrounding abortion?” I’m not sure he could truly answer.  He had learned over the years what to say and what not to say, and in matters of controversy his public persona had swallowed up his private person.  He couldn’t think certain things, and if he did, he certainly wouldn’t tell some nosy journalist.

Every journalist who deals with famous people faces this barrier.  Upon agreeing to interview the novelist John Updike onstage at a writer’s conference, I spent a week studying some 200 interviews he had given, and carefully crafted my questions to pry into the cracks he had left unfilled.  But as we sat before a crowd of several thousand of his fans, when the eloquent and erudite novelist responded to my questions, guess who controlled the content?  No matter what I asked, he steered his answers toward more comfortable waters.

To get something novel, I must somehow establish a position of strength.  A few journalists do so by direct confrontation.  The famous Italian journalist Orianni Falacci made her reputation by badgering and sometimes insulting her subjects. As she once said, “I’m not an interviewer, I’m a playwright.  I just get the person I’m interviewing to say the lines.”  That style worked for Falacci, but not for me.

Instead, I developed a style I call the Columbo method.  In the television show by that name, the winsome Peter Falk would soothingly win the trust of a murder suspect and then, just as he opened the door to leave, would turn, rub his tousled hair, and say, “You know, everything fits together except this one thing.  Maybe I’m just dense but you said you were at the neighborhood bar that night, and, correct me if I’m wrong, isn’t that bar closed on Sundays?”

Rather than direct confrontation, I often bring up criticism through the words of another person: “I see that the Times really roasted you for that speech you gave in San Francisco.  They can be so unfair.  I imagine you read that critique—how would you respond?”  Like Columbo, I only expose my background knowledge when absolutely necessary.

Toward the end of Francis Schaeffer’s life, I accepted an assignment from Christianity Today to do a comprehensive profile of him.  Schaeffer was living near the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, undergoing treatment for the cancer that would eventually take his life.  Because of the fatigue factor, he asked if we could do the interview over three afternoons, rather than all at once.  The first day, I felt completely stonewalled.  His son Franky hovered over us, interrupting, answering questions for his dad, warding off anything that might seem controversial.  The second afternoon went little better, and despite my best attempts I had gained nothing from my questions but prepackaged speeches.  Desperate, I used a Columbo-like subterfuge.  I left behind a published article containing scathing criticism of the elder Schaeffer, with many of my notes and questions penciled in the margin.  If he saw that marked-up piece, and realized that as a writer I had the power to slant my profile any way I wanted, perhaps then he would take my questions more seriously.  It worked.  The next afternoon, for the first time Schaeffer seemed genuinely to listen to my questions and give thoughtful, authentic replies.

Janet Malcolm has written about the sense of betrayal that may steal in between the journalist and his or her subject. “The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her.  Of course, the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.”  I experienced this tendency often enough that gradually I moved away from the kind of investigative journalism and toward investing my time in people I wanted to learn from positively.  The book Soul Survivor includes the resulting profiles of some of these people: Dr. Paul Brand, Dr. Robert Coles, Annie Dillard, Henri Nouwen, Dr. C. Everett Koop, Frederick Buechner.

Good journalism tells a story.  As Reynolds Price says, “the need to tell and hear stories is the second most important need after food.  People are going to tell stories.”  And participatory journalism affords me a chance to live a story before I tell it.

Early in my career I met a young man named Peter Jenkins at a writers’ conference as he was working on the book A Walk Across America.  As he recounted some of his adventures on a long walk across the country, he said, “I get tired of these reporters flying down from New York, renting a car, then driving out to meet me.  They hit the electric window button of their air-conditioned car, lean out, and ask, ‘So, Peter, what’s it like to walk across America?’  I’d like a reporter to walk with me for a while!”  Thoughtlessly, I volunteered.  Even more thoughtlessly, I agreed to join him in Texas during what turned out to be the hottest summer on record.

For several days Peter and I hiked together, swatted fire ants, bargained with farmers for watermelon, chased snakes (and were chased by them), and endured the abuse of cruising Texas teenagers who had nothing better to do than harass the outsiders setting up tents in their town.  I collected far more material in those days than I could ever include in an article.  To complicate matters, Peter gave me a manuscript of more than 200 single-spaced pages recounting his experiences along the road before I joined him.

Several weeks later I flew to Washington, D.C., to sort through several thousand photos which Peter had taken and was storing at the offices of National Geographic.  That magazine’s two-part write-up on Peter’s walk had attracted a higher reader response than any article in their history.  “How in the world did you decide on what to use from the mass of material Peter had written?” I asked the editor.

“It’s like this,” he replied.  “I went home early, sat down with a beer, and read all 200 pages as fast as I could.”  Then I put the manuscript down, drank another couple of beers, and fixed a barbecue dinner for my family.  I went to bed early that night, got up, and made some coffee.  Then as I sat at the breakfast table I made a list of the scenes from the book that stood out in my memory.  Those are the very scenes that made it into the article.”

Though I don’t necessarily recommend the libations, I did learn an important lesson that day.  Often we journalists slip into the “strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father” role and want to write about weighty matters of significance.  Most readers want stories.  Several times in my young career I had sat with other editors and colleagues during coffee breaks and recounted entertaining incidents from my writing assignments.  One droll editor would come to my office later and say, “Philip, that was a great story you told at coffee break.  Why isn’t it in your article?”  I began to think of myself as carrying a tiny video camera on my shoulder as I gathered material for my articles.  I had to start assuming that what catches my eye, what interests me enough to recount the scene to my wife and friends, is a good clue into what might interest my readers.

Before leaving investigative journalism, I visited the PTL Club at the height of its prosperity in the late 1970s.  Jim Bakker claimed that God had revealed to him the architectural plans for a television studio complex in the form of a miniature version of colonial Williamsburg, and he proceeded to build just that.  As he and his wife Tammy Faye tearfully plead for funds to support their enterprise, donors (many of them elderly and needy themselves) would cash in their life savings or mail in their wedding rings.  Meanwhile the Bakkers lived lavishly.  They once held a wedding ceremony for a poodle and a Yorkshire terrier, complete with bridal gown and tuxedo, and installed them in an air-conditioned doghouse.  Because I represented Christianity Today, the PTL Club gave me the run of the place, letting me interview employees and even volunteer for the telephone lines to counsel call-in viewers.  I faced ethical dilemmas in writing that article, but in the end decided that my primary responsibility was to inform my readers about what was going on behind the scenes.  (Bakker was later imprisoned for defrauding contributors and to his credit wrote a book with a title that says it all: I Was Wrong.)

Some journalists specialize in participatory journalism.  George Plimpton courageously donned a Detroit Lions uniform and nearly got himself knocked silly as an NFL quarterback.  John McPhee took a raft trip down the Colorado River with the head of the Sierra Club and his arch-foe, a builder of gigantic dams.  When I read their accounts, I see them as my representatives, my surrogates who go places I will never go and do things I will never do.  Through them, I live vicariously.

Effective journalism needs narrative drive that pulls the reader from the beginning to the end.  Sometimes what takes place inside the writer supplies that narrative drive.  The story unfolds internally: the feeling of guilt and helplessness as I stood in a refugee camp swarming with 60,000 Somalis waiting for food while I strolled around snapping pictures; the sense of astonishment when I watched through a window on Red Square as the flag of the Soviet Union came down and the flag of Russia, banned for seven decades, rose to replace it; the prickly sensation of fear as I challenged the African-American leader John Perkins to prove to me that racism was still alive in Mississippi and we entered a never-before-integrated restaurant and every white patron fell silent and left their seats to avoid eating with us.

Recently I read a striking article in The Atlantic by a mother who wondered about the vulnerability of children in the age of cyberspace.  She went on MySpace and picked at random a girl named Jenna.  Without much trouble she tracked down Jenna’s school, learned her interests and daily routine, and found herself stopping by her favorite hangouts, hoping to catch sight of her.  She, a perfectly harmless and responsible mother, found out how easily a predator could prey on her own daughter.  In doing so, she evoked, even personified the fears of readers concerned about their own children.

I read a powerful account by an Israeli journalist who visited Palestinian refugee camps.  He listened to stories of brutality from refugees who had no idea that he also served as a member of the Israeli army reserves and had himself participated in such raids.  They told of beatings, of late-night searches by armored soldiers shining flashlights into their eyes, of Israeli bulldozers destroying their homes. These are the new Jews, he thought to himself—an uprooted and despised people yearning for their homeland—an astonishing admission for an Israeli soldier.

An inner tension lies at the heart of each of these pieces of journalism.  In the act of reading, that tension gets transferred from the writer to the readers, who are moved to a place of discomfort and recognition.  The struggle, the irresolution in the writer provides much of the narrative drive.  And that may be one reason why propagandists, whether religious or political, produce so much feckless journalism: they perceive the dynamic as existing between the message, accepted in advance, and the unconverted reader.  They forfeit the power of suspense.

Narrative drive need not always come from the writer’s inner dynamic.  Think of the flood of articles that appeared after September 11, 2001.  We the readers supplied the dynamic in our confusion and our thirst for any facts or insights related to that momentous event.

Sometimes an exterior setting provides the narrative drive.  I once read a profile of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft.  The writer conducted the interview mostly by email, amazed that one of the richest and busiest people in the world would actually answer his emails, and usually without delay.  The writer did not encounter Gates in person until the end of the article.  It surprised him to meet a passionate man who curses, loses his temper, yells, and laughs lustily.  He had seen none of that in Gates’s electronic messages—which was the point.  Only then did the writer surface the article’s underlying theme: as more and more human interaction is handled electronically, will actual personal encounters become distilled, even exaggerated versions of the real humanity?  Will our personalities evolve to fit the age of cyberspace?

In northern Wisconsin, a prison ministry sent a dozen juvenile delinquents and a dozen federal prisoners on an Outward Bound-type week in the wilderness, and I went along to record the results.  For the juveniles, the experiment proved spectacularly successful.  Loud-mouthed bullies were exposed as whining crybabies as the leaders made them rappel off a hundred-foot cliff or run a marathon.  For the prisoners, the experiment proved a spectacular failure.  If a federal prisoner who is six-foot-eight and two-hundred-and-fifty pounds doesn’t want to wind a rope around his waist and step off a cliff, there is nothing that the most highly skilled wilderness guides in the world can do to make him do it.  In this case, nature was the star, providing the dynamic that at once melted the juveniles and hardened the adult prisoners.

On international trips I have seen irony provide the narrative drive.  One memorable night in Chile I ate dinner with representatives of Prison Fellowship International in one of Santiago’s finest restaurants.  The restaurant presented a floor show based on Easter Island themes, and soon the stage was alive with beautiful women dressed in brightly colored skirts and coconut-husk tops.  Shouting through translators over the din, we tried to discuss prison policy with government officials in bedecked uniforms who were, in fact, responsible for the torture of prisoners under General Pinochet.  Prison Fellowship needed their cooperation and approval in order to bring humanitarian services into the prisons.

On the same trip I had a gourmet dinner in a spectacular restaurant in Lima, Peru.  Unexpectedly, the inside cover of the menu began with the words, “Jesus lives!  For this we are happy.”  And as we ate the waitresses appeared together to sing a vespers hymn for their patrons.  The restaurant, it turned out, was run by an order of nuns who cooked, waited on tables, scrubbed floors, and worshiped, and did all these things to the glory of God.  But these nuns introduced a modern twist to the Brother Lawrence style: they proffered gourmet meals in order to serve the poor of Lima.  All proceeds from the restaurant went to fund their social programs among the poor of Lima.

The scenes in Chile and Peru point to harsh ironies from which we cannot escape.  In our upside-down world, that which most helps the oppressed and suffering often begins with a stab of conscience in those who know little of either.  The context itself makes the point.

Meanwhile, the deepest, underlying irony traces back to the very heart of journalism.  It is, after all, an act of vicariousness that leeches life from others and inevitably distorts it in the process.  When it comes to issues like world poverty and justice, I contribute best vicariously, by shining a spotlight on those who serve on the front lines.  I rage against injustice by sitting in my Colorado office moving electrons around on a screen and arranging words and phrases.

I never get it right; none of us journalists do.  The act of writing involves selection, editing, point of view.  When I report on a trip, I cannot include every detail of every person I meet, every conversation, every complexity.  I reduce my experience to what fits within the page requirements, as seen through my filter.

I love my work, but I realize we writers are little more than peeping toms at the keyhole of reality, and there is an essential difference between fiction and journalism.  Fiction creates a universe and characters that exist only on the page and in the author’s mind.  Journalism has the audacity to record on the page what purports to be real, but is actually a reduction of the real as told through one person’s limited point of view.

I once wrote about Larry, one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever known.  A bisexual, he has a history of liaisons with people of both genders.  A recovering alcoholic, he attends AA sessions almost daily, has twenty years of sobriety behind him, and has gone on to become a substance abuse counselor for others.  Raised Mennonite, he rebelled by serving in Vietnam, but has since become a pacifist.  Along the way, Larry became a Christian.  He says he was converted by two hymns, “Just As I Am,” and “Amazing Grace.”  As he heard their words, it sunk in for the first time that God really did want him just as he was. God’s grace was that amazing.  In his own way, Larry has been following God ever since.  Larry states his dilemma this way, “I guess I’m caught somewhere between ‘Just as I am’ and ‘Just as God wants me to be.’”

I wrote about Larry briefly in Christianity Today, disguising his identity.  A few weeks later I got a phone call from my friend.  “I saw the article,” he said.  I waited.  And then came these devastating words: “Philip, I’ve lived all my life trying to be a real person, a three-dimensional person.  You’ve reduced me to a two-paragraph illustration.”

Larry was right.  He had identified what we writers do: we reduce.  We reduce the magnificence of human beings to statistics, and illustrations, and article leads.  Journalism—and indeed all art—is not reality but a mere portrayal or depiction that will never do it justice.  I realize that as try to do my best to render truth, I will fail.  I will never get it right.  That is part of the pilgrim journey of this calling.

Philip Yancey is among the most famous contemporary Christian writers.  This is adapted from an article of the same name published on his website.  We thank him for granting us permission to publish this. 

[6] The Writer as Artist

by Philip Yancey

I wonder how much difference Christians are making through the arts.  All the words pouring forth in our magazines and books, for example—are they making a perceptible difference on culture at large?  Do we not end up goading mostly each other?

It seems the church, like government, prefers propaganda to goads.  The same church that commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel later hired a man called “the Trouserer” to clothe the nude figures.  In modern times, we impose limits on our artists, and as we do so we draw walls around our subculture.  The Christian soldiers of political correctness march onward: articles on abortion published in Christianity Today 25 years ago could never be published today; a writer who dabbles in fantasy literature gets branded New Age; the Christian Medical and Dental Society in the U.S. dares not publish the works of some of its devout British counterparts; Christian leaders jeopardize their careers by speaking favorably of Barack Obama; Tony Campolo loses speaking engagements because of his wife’s views on homosexuality.

I remember one vivid scene from Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs The Oak and the Calf.  For a brief period even the communist government of the Soviet Union acknowledged the genius of Solzhenitsn’s work, and thought (fatally, as it turned out) he might be a goad they could control.  Write moral and uplifting literature, they admonished him; be sure to exclude all “pessimism, denigration, surreptitious sniping.”  I laughed aloud when I first read that scene.  The advice Solzhenitsysn got from the communists bears striking resemblance to what I sometimes hear from evangelical publishers.  Every power, whether Christian or secular, desires moral, uplifting literature—-as long as they get to define what constitutes moral and uplifting.

We cannot expect art always to educate and inspire as well as to portray.  In the words of Alan Paton, literature “will illuminate the road, but it will not lead the way with a lamp.  It will expose the crevasse, but not provide the bridge.  It will lance the boil, but not purify the blood.  It cannot be expected to do more than this; and if we ask it to do more, we are asking too much.”

Keats said that literature sometimes demands of us Negative Capability: the ability to accept multiplicity, mystery, and doubt without reaching out for the illusory comforts of certainty and fact.  Faith, too, demands a kind of Negative Capability, and that does not always sit well with the folks who distribute “Christian art” or those who consume it.  For this reason, among others, some necessary goads never find their target.  Like the works of Solzhenitsyn’s anonymous comrades, they remain buried in the tundra.

There is a time to be a goad, and a time to be a firmly embedded nail.  A goad prods to immediate action, but a firmly embedded nail settles deeper, as an indelible marker of what T. S. Eliot called “the permanent things.”

Toward the end of his life, Paul Gauguin painted a huge triptych pulling together all his styles of art.  In an extraordinarily unsubtle move, he scrawled across the painting, “Who are we?  Why are we here?  Where are we going?”  That triptych, now hanging in the Boston Museum of Art, poses a grand summation of Gaugin’s work and of the questions to which modernity has no answer.  Soon after completing the work, Gauguin attempted suicide.

Loren Eiseley, who demonstrated skill both in science and in art, suggests few answers to Gauguin’s questions are discernible from science. Eiseley sees us resembling croaking frogs, “We’re here, we’re here, we’re here!” We do not know why we croak, or who indeed is listening; like frogs, we croak by dumb instinct.

In one of Miguel de Unamuno’s ironic stories, a character confronts the author with this startling fact: he, a creation of human thought and genius, is more demonstrably real than the author, a product of blind animality.  Unamuno thus diagnosed a fatal flaw in modern humanity’s conception of self.

Civilization once looked to art as the means of passing on wisdom from one generation to the next.  The act of writing was invented, after all, to convey the sacred: permanent things must be passed on in a permanent way, hence the hieroglyphs on Egyptian tombs.  But a civilization that no longer believes in permanent things, one that holds to no objective truths, resorts to de-construction, not construction.

David Remnick contrasts the modern writers in Russia with the tradition of the Great Russian Writer, figures like Tolstoy, Gogol, and even Solzhenitsyn who represented both sagacity and idealism.  Nowadays the liberated writers, free to join the decadent chorus of modernity, are deliberately destroying that tradition, brick by brick.  One recent story begins with a mythic scene familiar to all Russians, an old man describing to a young boy the Nazi siege of Leningrad.  The story ends, though, with the old man raping the young boy.  No convention, no memory is safe from assault.

T. S. Eliot, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor have reminded us that we must look to Christians, who stand virtually alone in seeing the need for (or even believing in) firmly embedded nails.  On the modern landscape of a decaying Western civilization, Christians still cling to a view that ascribes meaning and worth to individual human beings.  The novelist Reynolds Price once said there is one sentence above all that people crave from stories: The Maker of all things loves and wants me.  Christians still believe in that story.

Perhaps the very existence of art can be a pointer to a grand Artist, a rumor of transcendence.  Five hundred years ago the Renaissace scholar Pico della Mirandola delivered his famous “Oration on the Dignity of Man” which defined the role of humanity in creation.  After God had created the animals, all the essential roles had been filled, but “the Divine Artificer still longed for some creature which might comprehend the meaning of so vast an achievement, which might be moved with love at its beauty and smitten with awe at its grandeur.”  To contemplate and appreciate all the rest, to reflect on meaning, to share in the power and exuberance of creativity, to revere and to hallow—these were the roles reserved for the species made in God’s image.

When I look back on my own conversion, nature, classical music, and romantic love formed the channel of grace that awakened my senses to perception of God.  Through that channel I came to believe, first in a good world and then in a good God.  It is a terrible thing to feel gratitude and have no one to thank, to feel awe and have no one to worship.  Gradually, prompted by beauty and by art, I returned to the castoff faith of my childhood.

“The Catholic writer,” said Flannery O’Connor, “insofar as he [or she] has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.”  Modern humanity does not perceive the world as worth God dying for.  We Christians must demonstrate it.

I have a hunch that as history looks back on the twentieth century, Christian artists will endure for having hammered in a few firmly embedded nails.  Creation is beautiful and good, and humanity upholds God’s image within it; creation is fallen, evil, corrupt; creation can be, and will be, restored—that triune intuition of Christian faith provides a template of meaning that at least attempts an answer to Gauguin’s questions.  Who else is even offering one?

Note the clues to this triune intuition in Vincent Van Gogh’s revealing letter to his brother Theo: “I feel more and more that we must not judge of God from this world, it’s just a study that didn’t come off.  What can you do with a study that has gone wrong—if you are fond of the artist, you do not find much to criticize—you hold your tongue.  But you have a right to ask for something better…. The study is ruined in so many ways.  It is only a master who can make such a blunder, and perhaps that is the best consolation we can have out of it, since in that case we have a right to hope that we’ll see the same creative hand get even with itself.”

Although Christians believe, of course, that the master was not the one who blundered, (the lapsed minister) Van Gogh’s instincts are deeply Christian.  This world bears the stamp of genius, the stain of ruin, and the promise of restoration.

Fray Luis Ponce de León, a master in literature from Spain’s Golden Age, barely survived the Inquisition.  He had offended authorities by translating the Song of Songs into Spanish and criticizing the text of the Vulgate, and was dragged from his classroom in the midst of a lecture at the university in Salamanca.  Four years of prison and torture followed.  Then hysteria faded and the stooped, nearly broken professor was allowed to return to his classroom.  He shuffled in, opened his notes, and began his lecture with a phrase that became legendary in Spain: “Como decíamos ayer.”  “As we were saying yesterday,” he began, and continued his lecture where he had left off before the rude interruption.

Those words was heard in Russia at the collapse of the Soviet Union.  A regime that tried harder than any other to kill off God, instead ended up committing suicide.  I believe, truly believe that sometime in the future, as civilization continues to collapse into an intellectual and moral vacuum, other voices will take up Fray Luis’s refrain.  Como decíamos ayer.  “As we were saying yesterday.”

What writers will endure?  Surely the poets T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden will make the list, both informed by Christian sensibility.  Solzhenitsyn no doubt will, albeit more for the raw force of his words than for their craft.  Perhaps J. R. R. Tolkien will, what with his invention of another world still shedding light on this one.

T. S. Eliot, stands out.  Faced with the political crises of communism and nazism, for twenty years he wrote little poetry, concerning himself instead with more “urgent” matters such as politics, economics, and pragmatic schemes to improve society.  In such works as Idea of a Christian Society, After Strange Gods, and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, he turned away from firmly embedded nails and toward goads.  Yet who reads those works today?  Eliot’s poetry easily outlasted his well-intentioned ideas.  Can we learn a lesson from Eliot?  Perhaps the best way to achieve the values we approve is not to talk about or legislate them, but rather to create literature and art in which they are placed as firmly embedded nails.

There is a time to be a goad and a time to be a nail.  Lest we get too inflated with our own significance, we might recall the Teacher of Ecclesiastes: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”

Philip Yancey is perhaps the most celebrated of all contemporary Christian writers.  This is adapted from an article of the same name published on his website.  We thank him for granting us permission to publish this. 

[5] The Dual Citizenship of the Christian Writer

by James C. Schaap

Several years ago my wife told me the story of an old high school friend of hers, who had, back then, become pregnant and quit before graduating.  In the years that followed, this woman suffered more than her share of marital woes at the hands of the father of her children, the man she’d married and stayed with, even though his behavior frequently didn’t warrant her devotion.  Then something happened.  At mid-life, the woman’s often prodigal husband finally began to see the error of his ways with such clarity that he wanted to tell the small church in which he’d been born and reared that he had truly left the old man of sin somewhere behind in the dimly-lit haunts of his sad past. “Sam’s going to make a ‘re-profession’ of his faith,” my wife told me.

It would be a Sunday night worship, she’d said, and even though I didn’t know the man or his wife, the idea of this Sam confessing in this striking setting seemed too rich to miss.  “Let’s go,” I told her.  “It’ll be a nice drive.”

“Nah,” she said.

I was surprised.

” If we go,” she said, not spitefully really, “you’ll just write about it.”

She didn’t say that angrily.  She said it emotionlessly, as if the fact were as much a given of her life as her shoe size.

I’ve lived with that line for years, and often, even today, it hits me in a way it wasn’t meant to–as a scolding.  The line “You’ll just write about it” has come to characterize, for me at least, some of the reasons why a small community, proud of its devotion to the Christian faith, can have so much difficulty producing writers and artists of significant quality, writers who hold to their task as deeply as they hold to the faith.

I don’t think I know the whole answer to questions about the writer and his or her relationship to such matters, but I would like to pose a few that, for me at least, are not at all academic, questions such as the one suggested by my wife’s line–“you’ll just write about it.”  One I’ve wondered about myself, for instance, is this:  when, in the name of art, do writers simply “use” people, people with real human souls?

Writers who are serious about their faith are not the only ones writers plagued by such questions, of course.   Those with no deep commitment to God or his people can still feel the pangs of conscience when “using” people.  A few years ago, Connie Chung was roundly criticized for reporting a remark made to her in confidence, when the mother of Newt Gingrich mentioned in an interview–“off the record”–that her son had once used a common nasty slur in referring to the wife of the President of the United States.  Mr. Gingrich, I’m sure, is not alone in that opinion; but his mother’s mention of her son’s remark was gloriously scandalous and therefore imminently newsworthy, and very much worth breaking the trust Mrs. Gingrich invested in Ms Chung with the “off the record” remark.  When Ms. Chung used the line, she lost her job; such a breach of confidence is assumed more than

But every journalist knows that in order to get the real goods for a story, one wears two hats:  one of them personable, reassuring, friend-like to the person being interviewed; the other scheming and devilish.  But imaginative writers often find themselves in a similar predicament.  John Gardner tells a story of happening on an over-turned pick-up in a gully off a lonely road in the hills of upstate New York.  When he opened the drivers-side door, he found a woman pinned between the seat and the steering wheel, blood all over.  He claims he had to remind himself to be human, because his mind immediately began scribbling details on to an imaginary pad so as to help him remember the situation with the exactness necessary to render it convincingly in a story.

At least one of my own problems with “using” other human beings stems from the act that I believe I can easily by guilty of breaking God’s command to love one’s neighbor.  I tell myself, of course, that my using material and characters from life around me is really simply writing “the truth.”  In Sam’s case, I would have made my snooping morally responsible by claiming that what happened in that church is a microcosmic study of what happens in the experience of all many of us–husbands, wives, and children.  We come to understanding something of our own folly.  If we’d gone that night, I would have sat in that church, trying to absorb every look, every smile, every wary eyebrow, in order to universalize the event into all of our experience, to tell the thematic truth about the human condition.  But my wife wasn’t wrong–I would have “used” poor Sam the sinner/saint to that end.

I know very well that I’m far from pure, that daily I must fight the good fight of faith, not only as the forces of contrary spirits assemble in the world around me, but also as those spirits wing themselves hither and yon within the chambers of my own heart.  And I wonder sometimes whether God Almighty looks down on me and sees my eavesdropping as righteous explication of his world–the truth, in love–or simply skullduggery brandishing an artistic license.

Besides, isn’t it really a species of pride to believe that my higher goals here–a rendition of the human character universal–somehow excuses me from seeing people as human, and not fictive constructs?

One more anecdote.  A few years ago, an old friend of mine, the Western novelist Frederick Manfred, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died six weeks later.  In many, many ways, Fred Manfred was my hero.  Born and reared in the Dutch Calvinist ethos at the beginning of this century on the Great Plains, he wrote books that made me think seriously about writing.

Accompanied by a long-time friend of his, I visited Fred in the hospital in his last days.  On the drive up, his old friend told me how disappointed he had been in Fred, who had not really taken the time to visit his brother–also in his eighties, but marginally retarded–just before his brother had died.  “And Fred doesn’t even live that far away,” the man said.  “My goodness, it was his own brother.”

Then we visited Fred.  We talked for an hour, our last conversation with him before he died.  When the death of his younger brother came up, Fred turned to me.  “You know, Jim,” he said, lifting his hand as if he were holding a pen, “I could never get him just right on paper.  I always thought it would be great to write a story from the point of view of someone like him–to catch his unique way of seeing things, of thinking.”

Here was the old novelist on his deathbed, talking about his recently deceased brother, lamenting not so much his brother’s death as his own inability to bring his brother to life on paper.  It seemed to me then that the novelist loved the imagined version of his brother more than he loved the man in the flesh.

Thus can writing–and art–whenever it locates its materials in human behavior, by its very nature, isolate those who take up the pen from those with whom they live.  Furthermore, my faith in a loving God makes the equation even more difficult for me than it does for those who don’t share a similar faith.  I know who it is I’m using.

Let me add a second troublesome conflict.  Does the process of writing, by its very intense nature, take one out of the world around us?  Someone once said that the novel, of the forms of narrative, is the only sizable manifestation of an individual vision.  Writing for stage or screen or tube requires the interplay of other art forms–the actor’s response to character, the cinematographer’s use of setting, the director’s overall vision of the piece.  Novelists construct stories very much alone–in my case, in a basement.  A novel is an individual act.

Perhaps there is something romantic about the process, fleshing out an entire world from the confines of one’s own mind.  Dozens of times people have asked me how I do it in the tone of voice one might use when addressing a magician.

The process may not be as mystifying to those of us who write as it seems to those of us who only read, but the loneliness and isolation it requires can be a threat to someone who believes that loving God is one-and-the-same as loving one’s fellow man.  In the quarter century I knew him, I believe Fred Manfred was likely more at home in the world of his novels than he was in the community outside his door.  His immersion into the imagined worlds he was creating, an immersion required by the craft, worked unrelentingly to keep him out of the real world.

People wouldn’t write if they didn’t love it; but most novelists would say, I think, that writing a novel is hard work, if for no other reason than it makes intense demands on the life and soul.  My wife knows the syndrome well, understands the degree of absorption required to create a world which can be known only, in the process of its creation, to the single human resident who lives there.

I’m trying to cast the old issues of the relationship between writer and community in ways they aren’t often addressed when Christians in the arts talk about our work.  What I’m interested in is what keeps the work of Christian writers from being as strong and vital as we might think it ought to be, and it seems to me that sometimes the work of writing itself is simply going to be more difficult to those writers who are serious about their faith as they are serious about their craft.

A Christian artist holds dual citizenship in a manner that can be singularly difficult because the Christian faith carries the commandment to love and care for other human beings–the required characteristics of living in community–while writing demands an isolation that is both required by and a result of our locating the raw materials of story in the lives of those around us.  Writing requires a subtle positioning–not unlike the Christian life itself, I suppose–to be in the community, but not exactly of it.

But there is more to the problems facing Christian writers than the two I’ve just attempted to explain.  I’m going to continue to use my friend Fred Manfred to define a third.  He used to say that writers needed to nurture a specific voice within them, a voice he called the “internal commentator,” an inner voice I can explain only by example.

I have taught writing and literature to a variety of audiences and have found that only the young and old dare ask one question when they meet me.  Most teenagers and adults are courteous and civil when we shake hands, but children and old people are far less concerned with decorum.  When, following a speech or reading, I ask for questions, little kids, like their great-grandparents are likely to dispense quickly with propriety and move immediately to what is most striking about my appearance.  “How’d you get that scar?” they say, pointing to what has been a notable part of my appearance for as long as I can remember.  That’s often their number one question.

Those immediate questions are illustrative of what Manfred used to call “the internal commentator,” a voice in all of us that, without hesitation, sidesteps social propriety.  No matter how interesting my speech may have been, no matter how captivating the story, what little kids and old people have been thinking about is the scar on my face; they fashion their question from an inner voice all of us share and most, politely, repress.

That voice, Fred Manfred used to tell me–the one that dives beneath the subterfuge–is a voice that must be developed in a writer.  If his or her work is to be true to what it means to be human, then that voice and that vision, that bottom-line truth-seeker must be heard.  I believe Manfred is right.  But as a Christian, I think that voice sometimes rises from attitudes that war against trust and faith.

Dr. Schaap is an award-winning novelist.  You can see his excellent work on www.siouxlander.blogspot.com 

[4] Self-Censorship and the Christian Writer

By James Schaap

In “The Dual Citizenship of the Christian Writer” I stated that I hold to a Covenant theology, one in which the story of the Creator of the Universe is the story of his relations with his people–his long-suffering grace extended to those who never seem to get it right.  The relationship between God and man, mediated by Christ Jesus our Savior, while personal, is certainly also communal:  “On this summary, the whole law hangs–love God above all, and your neighbor as yourself.”  It’s taken me almost fifty years to recognize something that to me seems inescapably true:  living in loving community may well be the most difficult enterprise any of us face.  That’s why the Bible both commends and commands it.

The Christian writer lives in community, yet wishes to be honest and uncensored as he discusses truth as he sees it.  This tension is ongoing and cannot be avoided.

Let me share a story which speaks to this tension.  It is one of growth and maturity at the expense of an alienated but fellow member of the community in which we both lived.   In 1970, I was a senior in college, living in small Iowa town, in an off-campus apartment of a couple deeply concerned, legitimately so perhaps, with the spiritual health of the boys who lived in their basement.  Our rent paid some of their bills, but they didn’t like us.

Every Sunday morning we used to hear Christian music coming from upstairs–galloping silly music composed of equally noxious parts of barbershop harmony and cheap grace–from upstairs.  We were sure that it came through the heater vents to wake us to our duty of worship, their music their weaponry in the battle with the devil who’d secured a beachhead in her basement.

We quite regularly received telephone calls from someone we didn’t know, calls which had begun already a year earlier when we lived in a different apartment.  At first, those calls were simply silent; then, when we began to talk, a hesitant voice emerged–a man’s, a voice that wanted to engage us as males. The calls continued for more than a year, and we came to believe that this caller was not some kooky friend of ours–someone who would, someday, spring the whole truth on us and laugh.  That’s what we’d thought at first, when we’d started talking back to this guy in the sexual lingo he desired.  We started feeding his frenzy for kicks–ours.  But when the calls kept coming, what had seemed a joke, became a strange and dark mystery.  All of us wanted to know who the caller was, and the only way to do that was to draw him out of his cover.

Sometimes we’d talk him into a rendezvous–time and place–where a sexual event we’d described lusciously would finally transpire.  “I’ll meet you a mile out of town, at the hatchery, in half an hour,” the voice would say.  We’d put down the phone, laugh, and watch the clock; then pile into a car, two in the back seat with baseball bats, another driving, often enough me.

Why did this nameless person call our apartment?  I suspect I carried a jaunty rebelliousness which this man quite likely thought emerged from a willing soul and body.  I was anti-war in the tight Calvinist and Republican culture of northwest Iowa, and, rebellious as we were, fit subjects of his fantasies.

The thirty minutes he would set for our clandestine meetings was long enough for his conscience to work; he never showed up.  We’d be sitting out on some lonely country road, laughing, really–at ourselves, at the image of two guys with baseball bats in the back seat.  We had nothing to fear, but the man did scare us.  He was, after all, a mystery, someone so cranked with libido that he couldn’t stop calling or talking dirty.   None of us wanted a thing to do with his fantasies.  But we kept playing him, like a fish on a lightweight line, because we wanted to get to the bottom of this eerie mystery.

But there were other reasons to discover his identity.  I wanted to authenticate for all the world that beneath the pseudo-righteousness of the small-town Dutch Calvinist life lay a seething pit of demons straight from Pieter Brueghel the Younger.  Our caller was  clear evidence of real and desperate sin in Zion–the Zion that had attacked me by way of Sunday morning musical grenades and its zealous support for the Vietnam war.  Exposing this libidinous creature from the underworld would show a chink in the armor of righteousness.  

So the night came in which I wouldn’t let the man talk about any half hour deals.  “Five minutes,” I said.   “I’m sick to death of your saying a half hour and then not showing up–five minutes, that’s it.”  I called the shots.  “I’ll meet you out at the road east of town in five minutes.”

“Twenty minutes,” he said.

“No,” I told him.  “I’m saying now–you hear me?”   He consented.   “Now you be there,” I said.  “Don’t go thinking about this, you hear?  Get in your car and get out there.  I’ve had enough of your promises.”
Again he consented, and the conversation ended.

We took off.  Two guys stooped in the back seat, once again armed with baseball bats.  I was in the drivers’ seat.  Though he never used anyone’s name, we assumed he knew us individually–our faces, our voices.  We assumed that, if he showed up, he’d be looking specifically for me because that night I’d spoken to him.

For ten minutes we waited, as a couple dozen cars, maybe more, went by.  Then a Country Squire station wagon–I had spotted going bye previously—went by.  Distinguished by a doused back light, it went east, then came back west into town, then went back east again and turned on to a gravel road and stopped, a half mile away but very visible on the treeless prairie landscape.
“This guy that went by before–” I said, “he stopped.  He’s parked up on the next road.”

The guys in the back looked for themselves at the place where a single taillight lay a red cloud behind a black spot in the night.  Out front, the funnel of his headlights jutted out over the road.
“He’s just standing there.  He’s not moving.  It’s like he’s waiting,” I said.

“Go on,” one of my friends said.  “Take it slow.  See what happens.”

I edged out on to the blacktop road, turned toward that Country Squire, then crept up the road; he moved forward just as slowly as I was approaching him, measuring our pursuit.
“It’s gotta’ be him,” somebody said.  “Got to be.  Get him.”

So I tromped down on the accelerator of that old Buick, equipped with an engine big enough to power a half dozen cars today.  We blew down the blacktop toward the gravel road where he was accelerating just as quickly as I was.

By the time I turned, he was already a quarter mile ahead of us, that single taillight burning through a cloud of gravel dust.  I wasn’t at all accustomed to driving on gravel, and once the speedometer reached a bit past fifty I started to feel as if the wheel could jump out of my hands and catapult the three of us to ignominious death on a secluded country road.  The guys in the back seat told me to go faster, because we were losing him.  Whoever was at the wheel of that station wagon was more acclimated to country roads than I.  I flew over eight miles of gravel, blew through intersections, climbed hills, and then bellied out below.  By the time we came to a highway, we’d lost him.

We had no more than a week of college life left so we weren’t about to give up.  What seemed clear to us was that if he’d come back to the town where we lived, he’d take the highway, rather than gravel again.  So we parked the Buick at a spot where we could see the cars that passed on highway.  We’d never been so close to him or so sure this mystery voice was about to be outed.  I honestly believe I was not a homophobe.  I didn’t hate this man or his voice.  To me, he was more fascinating than repulsive, more victim than a criminal.

Twenty minutes later a wood-paneled Country Squire with one doused taillight passed our corner and we took off in pursuit.  With an Iowan at the wheel this time, I was in the back seat.  I don’t think I had a bat in my hand, because by this time our proximity to the climax of the mystery had already changed us.  It wasn’t sport anymore, and we certainly didn’t fear him.  We simply wanted to know who he was.  He floored that Country Squire so that all the way back home we were going at speeds far beyond those printed on the speedometers of today’s cars.  We got behind him, but from the back he was little more than silhouette.  I can only guess at his fear at that moment, for when he’d slow down before passing a car, we’d come up right behind him and throw our brights all over him.

We drove right through town, following him, until we reached the only stoplight in town.  It was red.  He could have run it, but maybe he simply decided the chase was over.  I wish I knew what was in his head, because if I did, I’d understand him better today.  I think I know something about the aggression created by repressed passion, and I think I understand something of his own rapacious hunger to satisfy something in himself–something that must have been more than simply sexual.  But what I do remember is that when we pulled beside him he never once looked at us even though he knew exactly who we were–he had to.  He didn’t turn his head.

What I felt at that moment can only be described as horror.  We knew who he was, but what I will never forget is the shape of a baby carrier, the kind that once hooked over the front seat, juxtaposed against his profile.  No child occupied was there, but in my mind there was a child seated there, a child whose father we’d unmasked, a child whose father would never be the same, a child who would never be what he might have been had we not chased the man down.  That baby carrier silhouetted against the gaunt face of a local businessman, a deacon in a church I occasionally attended–that image I’ve never forgotten.  Two years of obscenity—on both sides–ended when the mystery was solved with a face we knew without him ever looking at us.  When I saw that baby seat, I knew that what we’d outed was much more than a voice and an obsession.  I’d gained exactly what I’d wanted–in-the-flesh proof of an unseemly world beneath the surface of good Christian living we had always been led to believe was the very path of righteousness.  But having found the proof of sin, we were the ones who wanted to repent.

But the story isn’t over.  Our guilt prompted immediate contrition.  All three of us knew that something had to be done the moment we’d drawn the veil away from that gaunt face.  Even though we were in the middle of exams, the three of us went directly to the office of the campus pastor; and we told him, just as openly as I have told you, what had happened.  We were sickened by what we’d done and what we’d seen in that Country Squire.

There are moments in this story when I recognize how adolescent I really was.  What I remember best of that meeting with the college pastor is his lack of surprise.  I had thought of the campus pastor as the high priest of  innocence, but the man had obviously known the obdurate nature of the human heart long before.  He showed no shock, only sadness.  We told him we were sorry for what we’d done and that we thought the man in the Country Squire needed counseling.  He assured us he would talk to the man, and get back to us.  He did, a day or so later.  He told us the man had confessed that he’d been our caller and had accepted his need for counseling.
And that ends that chapter of this long story.

When I left college a few days later, I knew only that I wanted someday to write stories.  I had no job, no girlfriend, no sense of where I’d go that summer or the next year, but I did have the odd conviction that someday I’d return to the Iowa town which I’d spent a good deal of my time deriding for its prudish provinciality.  That summer I found a teaching job in rural Wisconsin, the state where I’d grown up.  I married to a girl who had graduated from the same college, one that asked me to return to teach.  Many Christian people must have shook their heads at the prospect of my return.  I know that’s true–they’ve told me.

Later I learned that the man who drove the Country Squire had divorced his wife, and left his family and the community.  I eventually told this story to a friend in a late-night conversation, and he told me the man in the Country Squire was his relative.  He said the man had become an alcoholic and lived on the street.  My friend told me that more than once he and his wife worried about whether or not they should respond when this man would call from a city nearby and ask for help.  They didn’t know if they were “enablers,” cleaning up messes that required the man in the Country Squire to take up the cause of rebuilding his character and his dignity on his own.

 In the ensuing years I saw the man very infrequently on the streets of the town where I now live. I spotted him once, I remember, walking behind the community center, gray and balding, still tall and gaunt and stooped, a man marked forever by my mistreatment of him.  I never saw him face to face.  I know people who are related to him.  I know people who likely know his story better than I.  I don’t know his wife or his children or where they live.

A month ago, hungry and in a self-pitying mood, I went to the convenience store at the end of the block because in the inside the door of the milk cooler there are cellophane-wrapped pieces of cake–banana, butterscotch, and carrot.  I wanted, to salve my self-pity with a fat piece of cake.

When I walked in the door of that convenience store, I saw the man in the Country Squire standing behind the counter–twenty-seven years later and just one block north of the spot where his profile against the silhouette of a child’s safety seat was set forever in my conscience.  My roommates and I came to understand something of why he called us all those nights in 1970.  We had often stopped in at his place of business–not the convenience store–at a time when he was just closing up shop.  We’d drop in to buy something, and in those moments I’m sure we’d talk to him, even though I don’t remember what I said.
So when he spoke to me that night just a few weeks ago–the night I saw him for the first time in 27 years–what he said was not the first word he’d ever spoken to me face to face.  But it was the first time he’d said a word since a night we’d both never forget.

“Hello, Jim,” he said.

He named me.  Without hesitation, without reluctance, without dropping his eyes, with no seeming guilt or shame, he named me, just like that.  Just as if Adam and Eve were naming zebras and tulips, horned toads and the cedars of Lebanon, he named me; and with that name created a control that overpowered me because I wouldn’t and didn’t name him.  I know his name very well, but I couldn’t bring myself to address him because right then I was the one who refused to acknowledge my sin.  I bought my cake and left.
Just a few nights ago my wife hung up the phone and said mentioned the availability of Caller ID, a technology that would have made that long chase completely unnecessary years ago– technology that would have ended a mystery much, much sooner.

We had been getting calls again–often between five and six.  No one spoke when we answered; often the line went dead immediately.  But a few days later there were two calls–one of which I took.  The caller didn’t say anything, but neither did he or she put down the phone.  “Hello,” I said, conscious of my wife on another line.  “Hello?” again, and then again a third time.  Then, a pause, and then finally, the click.  That’s what made my wife nervous.

 I didn’t think of it right away–as you likely are now.  It didn’t dawn on me to call all of this old story together like I have.  The man in the Country Squire is well up in years as am I.  The surges of passion that once prompted him to pick up the phone and call us had to have diminished.  What’s more, I can’t believe that anyone would be that foolish.  But then, during my college years I couldn’t believe that anyone would put his whole life on the line for what seemed nothing more than shock talk and heavy breathing.

But years ago I led him to believe something which perhaps his tattered psyche and addled emotions haven’t allowed him to forget.  I led him on.  Maybe these calls weren’t his.  Maybe our digits were close to some family’s whose phone rings off the hook.  I don’t mean to indict this man again.  To me, it seems almost impossible for him to be the cause of our anxiety.
So what brings him to the forefront of my consciousness?  Simple, guilt, the gift of a Christian ethos I was reared with.    The still, small voice of my conscience shivers yet at his image in that station wagon, the child’s seat in front of him.  But his naming me two months ago in the convenience store is to me just as haunting as seeing him at the downtown stoplight.

“I don’t even dare to say it,” I told my wife, when we were talking about the phone calls.

Anxious as she was, she looked at me in complete innocence.

“You remember I told you who I saw at the store–“

“You don’t think?”  She wondered aloud.

“I don’t want to think,” I said.

And, of course, I don’t know.

What I do know is my guilt–the gift, as Garrison Keilor says, that keeps on giving.

Anyone who knows fiction understands that in most first-person narratives the story-teller becomes the central character because he or she is the mode of our perceptions.  The long story I just told you does not belong only to the man in the Country Squire–the alien, the outcast, the marginalized, the man who does not or can not live up to the community’s sense of righteousness created in part by the fervent and fearful couple who owned our basement apartment.

I am the central character of the story, and what I’ve told you amounts in a way to a public confession of sin.  This is a story told to a community I think I understand, a community who, because of a shared faith, will believe the odd story I’ve just told you, including the fact that the man in Country Squire had suddenly, after an absence of almost thirty years, made another significant appearance in my life, in a the same town, just a block away from a moment neither of us will likely ever forget.  You trust me with your faith in my version of the truth.  And my joy in telling you grows, in part, from my belief that you believe me.  That makes us, in a way,  community.

What is a community?  For me it is a group of people who share an unwritten system of beliefs and values, despite the fact that those values are not codified.   My guilt in that story is itself the real story, a guilt that prompts me to read the furtive silence on the other end of the phone today as a ghost, 27 years old.  That guilt stems from more than the way I toyed with passions.  It arises from a deeply embedded sense of sin and darkness, and I’ve outed it tonight because I knew you would understand, and, in the manner of classical tragedy, experience your own catharsis for secret sins uniquely your own.  But I know also that I am telling the story to an audience who will not only feel pity and fear for themselves, but also extend forgiveness in a pattern that is more clearly that of Christian tragedy than Aristotelian.

If you understand the story I’ve told, it’s likely that you too are drawn to the twin principles of the darkness of the human soul and the brilliant because divine light of grace.  You too understand that neither is cheap, that neither is cute, that neither can be quickly understood or ever satisfactorily dismissed.

I live today in a community of 6000 people.  By definition, communities have walls, restrictions.  Although the standards for admission change in time, there are standards.  Communities, whether they are based on creed, gender, race, shared experience, or profession, make demands upon us.  They require a form of servitude, of servanthood.  They require us to give.

I could not read this essay at the college where I taught, not because of what it says about me, but because the history it publicly dredges up is the same history a man from whom I bought a piece of carrot cake is likely trying very hard to put behind him.  That I’ve told it to you at all is a calculated risk I’m taking–that neither the man in the Country Squire nor his relatives will ever see the story I’ve told you.  But that I couldn’t tell the story here is fact of life in this community, a fact I think I have to live with if I want to stay a part of what Wendell Berry calls “the beloved community.”

Do I?  Reluctantly, sometimes even angrily, I have to answer yes, for some truths in my heart–and a conscience created by a commitment to the Christian faith–weigh even more heavily upon me than my desire to tell the stories my judgment tells me are the best that happen, day-to-day, in the lives of people with whom I live and pray.  My own believing heart tells me it is simply wrong, sinfully wrong, to violate the dignity of another human being in the quest for a great story.  What I’m confessing to now is a form of censorship, self-censorship, which limits my freedom on one hand, but allows me the benefit of a blessed community.

But I’ve already told the story.  If you’ve come this far in the essay, it’s already behind you.  I’ve broken my own code–in a way, violated my own standards and theirs.

Why?  Because each of us lives in more than one community.  And while the house in which I live stands in a small Iowa town, what I’ve written has, if I’ve done my job, come to life in minds thousands of miles and likely many months away.  For you, too, as I’ve said, form a community, a community perhaps not quite so literal and omniscient as my neighbors, my colleagues, and the members of my church; but a community nonetheless, a group who share certain interests and, I’m quite confident, a belief that there are greater truths than the ones we ourselves create and define.

James C. Schaap is Professor Emeritus of English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and an award-winning author.

[3] Yancey on Writing

By Philip Yancey

I write books to resolve things that are bothering me, things I don’t have answers to. There are some people who, once they find an answer, decide to write a book about it. I’d be bored very quickly if that were true. My books are a process of exploration and investigation. So, I tend to tackle different problems with faith, things I wonder about or struggle with.

I write books for myself, a great way to explore issues. I sense a kind of calling, though, to people for whom the faith formula hasn’t worked. I was one of those people, and I have a strong resistance to propaganda from the church because I heard a lot that just wasn’t true. The only thing I have to offer, really, is honesty, and if I hold to that then maybe the reader can trust me. I’ll say, “Okay, this is the way prayer is supposed to work and the way the Bible says it works, but you know what? It doesn’t work like that for me.”

I grew into writing because it fits my personality.  I’m an introvert, and I like to sort things through internally and process them.  I have described an unhealthy church upbringing.  Writing gives me the ability to go back and reclaim some of the words that were used, and abused, in my childhood.  Also, I look on other writers, such as C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton, as my “pastors” who brought me to faith, so I’m a strong believer in the power of words.  Writing reaches people at a different level.  It’s less threatening to many people than a sermon or even a conversation, because with writing the reader is in control.  You can sample one of my books, and if you don’t like it you just stop reading it!

Writing Ability

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 about all the rest—poetry, psalms, history, story?  Sadly, evangelicals tend to neglect them.

Journalism gave me a safe, outsider’s point of view.  I could interview, evaluate, sort through my reactions to people while maintaining professional distance as a writer.  Eventually, though, I had to lower those barriers and come to terms with my own faith.  Writing allowed me the opportunity to work out my faith in a quiet environment, on my own.  Even today I cling to that stance, of a solitary pilgrim struggling through difficult questions of faith—not an authority figure dispensing the church’s official position.

As a writer, however, I have the opportunity to self-reflect, to revisit the experiences of a younger age.  Do we ever recover from the scars of childhood?  Probably not.  I used to feel resentment and anger, and that faded away long ago.  Instead I feel pity for some of the misguided folks in my past, and compassion for those still stuck in an uptight, legalistic system.  I find that I need to concern myself more with avoiding the same trap.  It’s tempting for any of us to look down on others, assuming we have an enlightenment that they lack—the very pattern I experienced in my fundamentalist past.

Subjects of Interest and the Call for the Christian Writer

I write about questions I have.  I always write about subjects that are unresolved for me.  If I knew the answer before writing a book, I’d be bored within two weeks.  Instead, I have the luxury of spending a year and more on a vital question, interviewing people, studying the Bible, doing research.  Writing is my way of struggling and seeking resolution.  Always, when doing so, I try to maintain that stance of an ordinary pilgrim sitting in the pew, asking the same questions other pilgrims ask.

I believe it was Kierkegaard who first used the image of Christians as spies.  Think of the Old Testament stories of the spies sent to scout the Promised Land.  By all appearances they blended into the background of markets, conversations by the well, ordinary life in Canaan.  But they had a different set of eyes—two of them did, anyway.  They saw the cities of Canaan not as an impressive and sophisticated civilization but as a future home of God’s kingdom.  For those two, the imposing walls of Jericho inspired no fear.

In my own country, Abraham Lincoln commented that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin did more to turn the United States against slavery than all the politicians combined.  Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago almost singlehandedly exposed the lies of the Soviet Union.  In the West now we idolize wealth, fame, and power; we’re a celebrity culture.  Just look at the movies we see, the magazines we read.  They don’t feature homeless people, ugly or even ordinary-looking people.  Yet Jesus held up the poor, the persecuted, those who mourn, as blessed, as heirs of the kingdom.  We’re called to see the world with different eyes, God’s eyes, and then present that vision in a convincing way.  That’s subversive.

I see my writing as spiraling in from the margins of faith towards its center.  I began in the margins with books like Where Is God When It Hurts and Disappointment with God because my nascent faith was barely hanging on at the margins.  But look at the topics of my recent books: Jesus, grace, prayer.  Those are pretty central.  If anyone sees me as pushing the envelope in those books, I’d tell them I’m not the pusher, the content is.  I’m not radical, Jesus is.  I try to take an honest, authentic look at our faith and, frankly, it’s radical stuff.  It’s an all-consuming life, not something you can get away with in an hour on Sunday.

A lot of Christian book-buyers look for books so that they can nod their heads and say, “Yes, Amen,” as they read.  What’s the point?  Why read something you already agree with?  I’d much rather a reader of one of my books scratch his or her head and say, “Hmm, not sure, I’ve never thought about that.”

The only writing worth writing (and reading) comes from your passion.  Many times I work out my confusions and doubts, or wrestle with God, through my writing.  That is what touches other people, too.

Mistakes to Avoid

P. D. James was asked what advice she would give to young writers.  James replied, “You must write, not just think you’re going to.  It doesn’t really matter what you tackle first, novel, short story or diary. And you must widen your vocabulary, enjoy words.  You must read widely, not in order to copy, but to find your own voice.  A student of architecture has to work at other buildings, see what other architects have done and ask why they were so good.  It’s a matter of going through life with all one’s senses alive, to be responsive to experience, to other people.”

Yet writing should come with a label, “Do not practice this alone.”  Starting out with an ideal of self-expression is suicidal because the writer daily fights isolation and loneliness.  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).  Having to expose your work while it’s in process is a good way to get you out of that isolation and shine some other light on it.  Otherwise, you’ll likely give up.  There are many of these groups online.

The Future for Christian Writers

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 relatively well and finding ways to adapt to the digital age.  The field of fiction has mushroomed for Christian writers.

Obstacles?  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.

Christian Writer or a Writer Who is a Christian

Yes, there is [a difference].  Take a parallel example in the world of music.  Most of the members of the band U2 are strong Christians, especially the lead singer and lyric writer Bono.  His faith permeates everything he writes.  And yet you wouldn’t call most of Bono’s songs “Christian.”  Early in their careers, the band made a deliberate choice not to specialize in “Christian music.”  Although as Christians they see the world from a point of view, they do not assume their audience shares that point of view.  I see something similar in the world of writing.  I know Christians who write romance novels, and some who write science fiction.  Those are very different books than the kind I write, and although the writers’ faith affects their products, that faith is not the main point of what they write.  Primarily, I write books that do focus on my faith.  I’ve tried writing other kinds of books, but they always feel like they’re leaving out something important to me.  So maybe I am a “Christian writer.”

Other Writers

I read less poetry than I should, though Rilke, Yeats, and Auden can transport me.  I try to stay acquainted with modern fiction, occasionally reading winners of the Booker Prize, for example.  John Updike is hard to beat as a pure stylist and master of the English sentence—though as one critic complained, never has a person written better sentences about matters of less import.  Arundhati Roy  teaches me about point of view, J. M. Coetzee is a master of minimalism—I try to learn from everyone I read, noting images, sentence structure, unusual constructions.

I was in my early 20s, and had not had a good education in literature.  Everyone kept telling me that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were the greatest novelists who had ever lived.  I was shocked when I bought my first book and found a verse from the Bible as an epigraph.  As I read the novels, I was amazed at how thoroughly both authors’ perspective on the Christian faith infused them.  I learned much about how to write, and much about how to think Christianly, from these men.  They stood at the very threshold of the momentous changes about to occur in Russia, and predicted much of what would happen.  As many have noted, their novels kept alive the essence of Christian faith among the intelligentsia, in a time when that message was under attack.  Like many Russians, I suppose, I began reading them out of a thirst for great literature, and ended up being moved by a hidden Gospel message as well.

Frederick Buechner’s little book Telling the Truth rocked me when I read it.  An ordained minister and polished fiction writer, Buechner managed to bring new life to the old story of the Gospel.  That is my goal, in a sense: not to propose new ideas but to find new ways of expressing old truths.  Buechner does that consistently as well as anyone I know.

Both [imagination and creativity along with the fruits of the Spirit] seem to represent a combination of gift and hard work.  We abide in the Spirit and gradually fruit such as love, peace, and faithfulness grow within us.  Likewise, we abide in the Spirit and find ways to express that reality creatively and imaginatively.  Yet both processes involve tedious work.  Gifts of creativity and spiritual gifts rarely feel like gifts to the one who has them; mainly, they feel like burdens or obligations.  Only as we exercise them do they assume the appearance of gifts.

Philip Yancey is arguably America’s foremost Christian writer and a personal friend.  This slightly edited for length article is reprinted with his permission from his website, www.philipyancey.com.

[2] The “Limits of Faith” for the Christian Writer

By James C. Schaap

In college, I thought the world of Stephen Crane.  I liked the terseness of his line, his impressionistic eye, and his journalistic determination to get the facts and get them right.  I admired The Red Badge of Courage, but for reasons I don’t understand very well today, I loved Maggie, A Girl of the Streets.  Oddly enough, what also drew me to Crane was that he was a marvelous baseball player, and I’d loved baseball long before I loved reading or certainly writing stories.  But Crane lived a short and tempestuous life, whose frenzy was created by his own will to burn himself out, a man, in part, in search of love, the kind of love I believe one can receive most fulfillingly from his or her “beloved” community.  He died of tuberculosis before he reached thirty.

Sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, I sit before my computer typing electronic blips on a lit screen that can, at a touch of a button, vanish.  I field ideas and situations from my experience, from life around me, from the community of which I am a part.  I let those characters and situations play in my imagination, filter them in some ways unknowingly through what I am and what I have become, allow them to be shaped and controlled in some determined way by unwritten values deeply embedded in me in an effort to investigate the very crucial issues of the human heart.

And in those moments I wonder what I could be if I would simply toss my faith and the restrictions it plies upon my craft.  I wonder if I could reach a higher level, if I could be a Hemingway or a Twain.  I wonder if my profession of faith doesn’t limit my professional abilities.  But then again I know how much that very commitment–by virtue of its graces and its restrictions–has given me more than I’ve ever estimated–not only character, but, just as importantly, theme.Listen to Flannery O’Connor in “The Fiction Writer and His Country”:   “I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.  This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.  I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction.”   She reanimates me, gives me strength and courage, like community can.  She is my sister.

As are, in a special way, those of you who listen and believe.

Dr. Schaap is an award-winning novelist.  You can see his excellent work on www.siouxlander.blogspot.com

[1] The Writer as Pychotic

By Philip Yancey

It is not natural to write.  We are created to run and hunt and swim and make love but not to sit hunched with a piece of paper and some ink scribbling hieroglyphs. And when we do it, it is an act of rebellion against God himself, who did not design us to do that. —Carlos Fuentes

Once I joined a group of 20 other writers for a weekend gathering.  A nerdy bunch, we discussed such matters as the books we’d recently read, our daily schedules, and the eccentric behavior we revert to in order to surmount the dreaded writer’s block.  toward the end of the gathering one of non-writing spouses, Thanne Wangerin, commented: “For the first time in my life I realize that Walt’s not the only crazy one!”

Ever since that weekend I have made a study of the craziness of writers, a project vastly simplified by my being a writer.  I look in the mirror; I listen to my wife describe my life to other people; I talk to other writers. I also read books about writing.  writers seem irresistibly drawn to writing about the act of writing, as if in tacit acknowledgment that they must defend and explain their aberrant behavior.

All my research points to a common diagnosis.  Like Carlos Fuentes, I believe writing to be an unnatural act, possibly a psychotic act, the kind of act our children should be protected from.

Do I use the word psychotic merely for dramatic effect?  I have chosen that word for its clinical accuracy.  A psychotic cannot separate a false reality from true reality; this “impaired contact with reality” may express itself in delusion or hallucination or some other altered state experienced only by the psychotic person—a precise description of the writing act!  We writers make our living by creating a false reality.  Often we get so caught up in the false reality that we lose track of which reality is real, or even which one we want to be real.

I remember working on a short story early one morning.  For three hours I strained to develop three-dimensional characters and purge all clichés from their dialogue.  I was getting a terrific headache from the effort.  Naturally I used the excuse to stop writing and walk across the street to a coffee shop.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that all the people in the coffee shop were two-dimensional characters who talked in clichés!  None of them seemed nearly as interesting to me as the people who populated my story.  I fled back to the security of the false reality awaiting me (and only me) in my basement office.

It should surprise no one that the life of the writer—such as it is—is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.  This explains why so many books describe the author’s childhood.  A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience. Writers read literary biography, and surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper.   —Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard knows that those of us who write about life have little energy left to live.  We prefer sitting in small rooms in the company of pieces of paper.  Writing is “a way of escape,” says Brian Moore: “It’s a way of not thinking about what I haven’t done with my life.”

people have a glamorized image of a writer’s life.  These people have never sat and watched a writer staring at a thesaurus for fifteen minutes in search of one word.  Philip Roth, in Zuckerman Bound, gives a perfect description of my daily routine.  “I turn sentences around.  That’s my life. I write a sentence and I turn it around.  Then I look at it and I turn it around again.  Then I have lunch.  Then I come back in and write another sentence.  Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around.  Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around.  Then I lie down on my sofa and think.  Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”

there are exceptions—Hemingway fighting the bulls and George Plimpton fighting the Detroit Lions—but in general very little happens to a writer.  Now do you understand why we put so much emphasis on artificial reality?  Our actual reality is insufferably dull.  A Federal Express delivery is far and away the most dramatic event in my day.

The psychosis involved in writing, in fact, spins off from this collision of realities.  good writing must incorporate materiality.  “Use image-bearing words!” cries the professor.  “Make the reader see, smell, taste, touch, hear.  As Kafka said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of moonlight on crystal!”

good writing [also] involves a narrative thread, usually woven in with time cues.  Once upon a time the classic myths begin; In the beginning opens the Bible.  These time cues build in suspense and pull the reader along.  Because we want to find out what happens next, we turn the page.

The very act of writing jumbles both these elements.  First, we work in dull offices, void of materiality.  Windowless concrete-block cells work best; anything more might distract.  From this deprived reality we weave the rainbow of our artificial universe.

Annie Dillard advises,

Describe Norway as Ibsen did, from a desk in Italy; describe Dublin as James Joyce did, from a desk in Paris.  Willa Cather wrote her prairie novels in New York City; Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in Hartford, Connecticut.  Walt Whitman rarely left his room.

we concoct a narrative sequence while living in a time warp.  A dialogue that actors recite in ten minutes may take a playwright ten days to polish.  Thus we fabricate the semblance of time and materiality while disconnected from them.  Alas, writing is perilously counter-intuitive.

When a person writes about religious faith, new complications arise.  The two realities strive mightily against each other, for writing requires an obsessive self-centeredness.  The act of writing interferes with pure mysticism just as in physics the act of observing interferes with molecular activity.  Ever try writing a prayer to God without wondering how it will sound to potential readers?

We writers, like monks in caves, cannot avoid sneaking a thought or two about the visitors outside our caves.  What will they see when we invite them in?  And do we decorate our caves with them in mind?

Dr. Johnson needed a purring cat, orange peel and plenty of tea…Zola pulled the blinds at midday—wrote best in artificial light…Proust constructed a soundproof room…Schiller kept apples rotting in his desk…Descartes worked in bed; Immanuel Kant was quite disturbed when some trees grew up and hid the tower which he used as a mental focus while writing Critique of Pure Reason so the authorities cut down the trees.            —T. Sharper Knowlson

Writers cope with psychosis by becoming eccentrics.  We develop odd, unnatural habits to help ourselves deal with this odd, unnatural act of writing.  Many writers smoke, drink coffee all day, or become alcoholics; perhaps in an attempt to reconnect to the world of materiality, our hands instinctively want to grasp some real object.  “I drank coffee in titrated doses,” writes Annie Dillard.  “It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgment of a skilled anesthesiologist.  There was a tiny range within which coffee was effective, short of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal.”

Every writer refines time-wasting techniques to delay the writing process.  Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein: “I turn the typewriter on and immediately realize I must get up and change bathrobes.  The one I’m wearing is far too itchy…Obviously I have to spend 30 minutes looking for my moley Dartmouth sweatshirt, the really comfortable one, the only one I can write in.”

When I lived in Chicago I would set out on a “short stroll just around the block” that would turn into a two-hour urban adventure.  Or, I would decide to write in a coffee shop suffused with the sounds and smells and sights of humanity in hopes that the ambience would help me re-connect to the real world.  This rarely worked, because of all the distractions.  Then I would return to my basement office and light a fire in the fireplace.  I had paid an exorbitant amount of money to install this fireplace because I wanted it to produce a nice smell and give my body something to do every half hour when the logs needed poking.

Now that I live in Colorado, I study weather patterns on the mountains, jump up to identify every new bird on the birdfeeder, change the water in the birdbath, and take two-hour “short strolls” on the hills behind our home—anything to avoid writing.  (I have just interrupted this paragraph to watch two innings of a meaningless Atlanta Braves baseball game).

Flannery O’Connor used to say that she spent three hours a day working and the rest of the day getting over it.  We desperately seek ways to bring together our real and artificial worlds, yet in the end we must simply abandon the effort, withdraw from the external world, and climb inside the sealed spaceship that is our article, poem, novel, or essay.  We live on its artificial oxygen until we can tolerate it no longer, then we emerge gasping and choking to find that the real world has gone on without us.

After a week of intense writing, I feel a need for “social re-entry”: on Friday I go out to dinner with my wife and another couple and find that I have lost the skills of knowing how to slide in and out of conversation.

Brain scans reveal that aloneness is central to the creative impulse; sensory deprivation allows the synaptic loops in the inner brain that lead to creativity. Yet that very aloneness feeds the psychosis. Writers present themselves as ornery characters who don’t like to be disturbed, but most writers I know work with one ear cocked toward the phone and read the mail within an hour of its arrival.  Our heart’s desire is to connect to people out there even as our heads remind us that the more we do so the less we write: in the cure lies the disease.

The movie Shadowlands showed C. S. Lewis tutoring a wild young student whose father had told him, “We read to know we’re not alone.”  From my writer’s perspective I edit that to “We write in desperate hope that we’re not alone.”

When one stands as you do in so intensely personal a relationship to one’s lifework, one cannot really expect to keep one’s friends… Friends are an expensive luxury.   —Henrik Ibsen

each of us must bear both mother and father in the creative womb.  We need the warm, supportive, forgiving mother who encourages us to make it through the first draft no matter how lousy it reads; yet we cannot succeed without the harsh authoritarian father who makes us go over and over the manuscript until we get it right.

And [there is] the life of a disembodied observer.  You are who you are, one hopes; but a writer dare not attain such normalcy.  We cannot freely project our own personalities onto the world, for that would interfere with our craft.  Thomas Mann on this particular dilemma:

As a man, you might be well-disposed, patient, loving, positive, and have a wholly uncritical inclination to look upon everything as all right, but as artist your daemon constrains you to “observe,” to take note, lightning fast and with hurtful malice, of every detail that in the literary sense would be characteristic, distinctive, significant, opening insights, typifying the race, the social or the psychological mode, recording all as mercilessly as though you had no human relationship to the observed object whatever.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described the flip side of this self-repressive syndrome.  Serving time in a minimum-security prison, he found himself thrust in with a despicable roommate, a kleptomaniac former KGB colonel who now acted as a stoolpigeon for the guards.  Solzhenitsyn got himself transferred to another room, only to regret it mightily when he realized he needed exactly that kind of slimy character for a novel he was working on (The First Circle). He had just forfeited his best chance to observe a human slimeball at close range.

The Christian writer may find this posture of merciless observation troubling.  French playwright Jean Baptiste Racine wrote wicked dramas about the deviance of his worldly friends until contact with the pious Jansenists persuaded him to change his friends.  Abruptly, he quit writing, unable to combine his art and faith.  Critics view T. S. Eliot’s plays a failure, in contrast to his poetry, and one of them speculates: Eliot fell for one of the occupational hazards of the Christian artist.  His harsh, cynical laughter at human stupidity and pride gave way to compassion, and good drama can only be forged from conflict.

my conscience—reminds me that the whole attempt [at neutrality] is delusional.  Though I may cast myself as objective, the very I who does the casting is blinded by prejudice and subjectivity.  John Cheever the alcoholic writes about his alcoholism; clinically depressed William Styron writes about his depression.  And I, as a Christian, write about sin and doubt.  How do I keep from sinning and doubting as I do so?  How would I know?

The writer, according to Shusaku Endo, must “look at things that are best left unseen.”  Yes, that is why I write about my sin and my doubts.  The process takes a toll [for] the artist who gives himself wholly to his work.  When I write about myself, I feel as if I am donating body parts in advance, before death.  Yet I cannot stop the donations.  That which cuts most deeply into myself is what the readers want and also, perversely, what I want.

“All sorrows can be borne, if you put them into a story or tell a story about them,” said Isak Dinesen. Everything that happens becomes subject material.  Bernard Malamud was asked about suffering.  He said, “I’m against it but when it occurs why waste the experience?”  After reading that, I recalled that I have written three books about pain.

I used to be normal.  For eight years I worked as an editor in a magazine office.  I went to work and collected a paycheck.  People surrounded me, some of whom reported to me, and some of whom supervised me.  Never did I go home tormented by ultimate questions about my identity.  I knew who I was, and the title on my door proclaimed it to the world.

Now I must invent my identity anew each day.  I am surrounded by birds and chipmunks, but no people.  Only I can measure my productivity, and that is a daunting task: if it takes me two years to write a book, I must gauge whether or not I fulfilled 1/730th of my task on a given day.

I have been working at this strange career for almost 20 years.  I have learned to live with the permanent state of discontent that plagues every writer, with the sense of alienation from people, with a terminal case of self-doubt about my identity and productivity.  I have even learned to turn my paranoid self-reflection into material for my writing.

Along the way, my writer’s life has taken over my real life.  I sometimes wonder, If I did not write, would I even exist? often I find that my life takes on existence only as I write.  How do I know what I think or feel unless I open my laptop and begin to write about it?

By journalistic background, I have a more eventful life than many writers.  I have traveled to places like Somalia and Russia and India and New Zealand—always to collect material for writing, of course.

But vicariousness is, after all, a writer’s business.  Although not everyone can visit a refugee camp in Somalia, if I do my job well enough you will have the sense of what it is like.  You also may be motivated to give money to help the relief workers toiling there—or at least to pray.

“The aim of every artist,” said William Faulkner, “is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.  Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move.  This is the artist’s way of scribbling ‘Kilroy was here’ on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion  through which he must someday pass.”

Faulkner is eloquent, but I prefer John Updike’s image, of a snail excreting a faint thread of itself for others to come across and study.

First of all, if you want to write, write.  And second, don’t do it.  It’s the loneliest, most depressing work you can do.   —Walker Percy

So why do we persist in this psychotic act?  I tend to think the reason is primal: like any psychotic, we do it because we can’t help it.  Psychotics think you’re the abnormal and deprived one because you cannot penetrate their hidden, private world.

Kierkegaard: “A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music…”  Occasionally the very escaping of the sighs and cries can serve as balm for the poet himself or herself.  Sometimes the disconnected act of writing allows the writer to connect fragments of childhood, shards of relationships, splinters of faith, and mend them in a healing act.

We are all disconnected beings—from God, from each other, from ourselves.  Writing does not cause disconnection, it merely exposes it.

“Writing is a form of therapy,” said Graham Greene.  “Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.”  Now there’s a novel way of looking at it…is not writing the truly psychotic act?

Philip Yancey is arguably America’s foremost Christian writer and a personal friend.  This slightly edited for length article is reprinted with his permission from his website, www.philipyancey.com.


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