Interview with Faculty Member: Jim Watkins
Jim Watkins currently wears more hats than his Aunt Luella. He is associate acquisitions editor for Wesleyan Publishing House, a conference speaker throughout the U.S. and overseas, director of programming for St. Davids Christian Writers’ Conference, and editorial advisor for ACW Press. He’s also served as an editor/writer for the American Bible Society, full-time editorial director at Wesleyan Publishing House, a monthly columnist for Rev. magazine, and weekly columnist for three secular newspapers for 15 years—but not all at the same time.
You said that you wrote Communicate to Change Lives specifically to change lives. How do you do that, and what inspired you?
Well, first you need to buy the book! Second, it’s so important to know your audience’s “felt needs” and offer to meet that need in your writing and speaking. What is the practical “take-away”? So, it’s all about knowing your audience: their felt—and faith—needs, and then showing them how your message can meet that need.
What is your background in writing? How did you get the “bug”?
I knew I wanted to be a writer when, as a second grader, I rewrote the ending of Pinocchio. I could “suspend disbelief” so that a wooden marionette could come to life—no strings attached. But to believe that the “live” puppet could become a real boy? That was too much for me. So, I rewrote the ending and had the wooden Pinocchio die a painful, prolonged death of Dutch elm disease.
Fortunately, I had teachers who encouraged my so-called writing talent. By the time I had written plays for the elementary school to perform, journaled my deep, dark, depressed life as a junior higher, and become the editor of the high school paper, I was hooked on writing!
I dabbled in writing for several years with a real job, then became an editor in our denomination’s publishing house, and eventually became more and more of a full-time writer.
You’re probably best known for “Hope & Humor.” How did you discover that you had that gift?
My dad had a very dry, English sense of humor, which I loved. I found that by adding a little “snark” to that, I had the opportunity to write a humor column each issue of the high school newspaper. A professor in community college gave me a C in Freshman Composition, so I didn’t really write for ten years. Then, when I became the editor of our youth department’s magazine, I started writing a humor column again, and this time got wonderful affirmation. I went on to be editorial director of Wesleyan Publishing House, so continued writing columns with hope and humor. Then later, I had a humor column in three secular papers for fifteen years. Since then I’ve written and taught humor at conferences and Taylor University. My textbook, Writing with Banana Peels, teaches the principles, practices and pratfalls of writing humor.
Here’s my P-A-T answer for discovering your writing and speaking sweet spot. Where do your passions, others’ affirmation, and your talent intersect? That’s very likely your area of ministry.
Where do you see that fitting with the Christian worldview?
Hyperbole, or intentional exaggeration, was the hip humor in first-century Palestine. So, Jesus would have had them rolling on the hillsides with his comments about looking for a “speck of sawdust in a brother’s eye” while having a “plank” in our own. And I can just imagine the multitudes roaring when he told the Pharisees they would “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Or how ’bout camels squeezing through the “eye of a needle”? Or putting a lamp—an open flame—under a bed—a flat, flammable mat at the time. Unfortunately, a literal translation of Christ’s words doesn’t capture the cultural comedy that’s really there.
That’s why all my articles, posts and books—with the exception of The Imitation of Christ: Classic Devotions in Today’s Language—are filled with humor. I heard someone at a youth workers’ convention—way back during the Polyester Age—say, “It’s a sin to make the gospel boring.” I’ve always instinctively known that humor was a powerful method to share the gospel. The speakers I remember most—and who had the greatest impact on my life—were sort of stand-up theologians. So, that’s always been my approach in my writing.
Check out Jim’s class, From Concept to Contract at this year’s conference.