Dan Wakefield: Creating from the Spirit

Dan Wakefield is a novelist, journalist and screenwriter whose best-selling novels Going All The Way and Starting Over were produced as feature films; he created the NBC prime time TV series “James at 15.” A documentary film has been produced of his memoir New York in the Fifties. His non-fiction books on spirituality include Returning: A Spiritual Journey, Creating from the SpiritThe Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography, Expect a Miracle, and How Do We Know When It’s God?: A Spiritual Memoir.

Dan Wakefield was interviewed in August 2010 by M.J. Fievre for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

MJF: What basic philosophy do you try to express in Creating from the Spirit?

DW: The idea of the book is to try to see creativity in your daily life, in everything you do, not just limit it to writing, music, painting and “the arts.” I interviewed people from all different fields to ask how they used creativity in their own work—a yoga teacher, a businessman, a chef, a scientist, a singer, an architect, as well as writers and artists.

The other idea I wanted to express was that the mythology of alcohol and drugs being stimulants to creativity is just that—mythology. When you look behind all the “glamorous” stories of writers being inspired by booze and drugs you find that they weren’t actually doing their creative work while under the influence—they wrote about it afterwards. I have a whole chapter about this with specific experiences that we’ve heard myths about. The main way that alcohol influenced writers was to end their lives early—Dylan Thomas at 39, Scott Fitzgerald at 44, Jack Kerouac at 46.

MJF: Please discuss the ways that words and spirit intersect in your work, especially in regards to healing the wounds of the past through creativity.

DW: My experience has been that by writing about a painful experience, you can come to term with that experience. You incorporate it into your own consciousness and it’s a way of conquering the experience. Psychologists have found there’s a great difference between telling your story—speaking it out loud—and writing the story. We can become very glib if we keep telling our story. We probably told it so many times that we can tell it while thinking about what we’ll have for dinner. Whereas when you write a story,  you really have to deal with it and it’s a much deeper experience. Pulitzer prize poet Mark Van Doren once said that whenever you write honestly about your most horrible experience, that’s when you really reach people, that’s when you’re able to move people with your writing.

MJF: What most changed for you in the writing and completing of this book?

DW: When I started writing and thinking of the book, I imagined it would all be about the mythology of drugs and alcohol, and an editor told me I was only telling about what did NOT work—so what DOES work in stimulating creativity and how can one get access to that? My greatest answer to that was found in Willa Cather’s novel Death Comes For The Archbishop in which she gave the best definition of miracles I have ever encountered: “Miracles… seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices coming to us from afar of, but from our senses being made finer, so that our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.” This led me to the realization that the senses can be openings to creativity, to stories, images, and ideas. In my workshops, I give specific exercises in looking, hearing, touching, smelling, seeing, that open up this kind of creative experience.

MJF: So this wasn’t stream-of-consciousness writing?

DW: No. I made an outline before I started writing. I think it’s very difficult to use stream-of-consciousness when you’re writing nonfiction, unless you’re writing memoir and tap into some experience that way.

MJF: What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?

DW: A deadline is the most powerful motivator.  But there are other things. When I get stuck, I listen to music, I read passages from books I love, and I use the senses to bring things to mind. As I was editing Creating from the Spirit, I started thinking about the five senses as keys to creativity and I realized that many writers have been stimulated by some sense memory. Proust, for example, ate madeleines (cookies from his childhood) to bring forth the writing of Remembering of Things Past. When I was writing my own memoir, New York in the Fifties,  I played Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. Spain had nothing to do with what I was writing, but that piece of music, which I listened to in the 50s, brought back that period of my life and helped me remember people and places and events of those days.

I developed a workshop named after Creating from the Spirit, and in which I use (among other things) sense exercises that use the five senses to evoke stories. In Flint, Michigan, one man read a beautiful piece that came out of his remembering the smell of bacon frying. He said that when he was a boy, that smell in the morning let him know that it would be a good day—it meant his parents didn’t have hang-overs. If he couldn’t smell the bacon frying, he knew that his parents had gotten drunk the night before—there would be no breakfast, and they’d be in a bad mood all day. That’s one example of how, by just thinking about a sense, you can improve your writing.

MJF: How would you categorize your books?

DW: My books are hard to categorize because I’ve written four novels and four memoirs and about four books of nonfiction. Some people think there are two different authors named Dan Wakefield—one who writes the novels, and one who writes the spiritual books. I want to reassure everybody: it’s the same guy.

MJF: Which book was the hardest book to write?

DW: The hardest book to write—because it took so much time to get it started—was my first novel, Going All the Way. I started out making a living doing journalism for magazines, and my first three books were journalistic.  Since college, however, I had always wanted to write a novel. I made three or four false starts, and one great publisher, Houghton Mifflin, told me that I was not a novelist—that I was a fine, young journalist. This made me very mad that  somebody would try to categorize me in that way. They could have said, “We don’t want this beginning of a novel,” instead of saying, “You’re not a novelist.” Going All the Way became a best-seller and was later made into a movie. I was very happy to send a copy to the publishers who had said I wasn’t a novelist.

MJF: Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

DW: Yes! And I follow the advice of sociologist C. Wright Mills, who said that when you’re having writer’s block, you should write a letter to a friend. Writing a letter, the old-fashion way, putting it out on paper, putting it in that envelope, putting a stamp on it, putting it in the mailbox—it is to me a great and reassuring enterprise.

I think the greatest inspiration comes from reading books you love.  I’m rereading The brothers Karamazov. When I was in college, everybody—all my fellow students, the other English majors—read Russian writers, particularly Dostoevsky. I find that his insights about people are as good today as they were 200 years ago. I’ve also read The Great Gasby again and again, and I’m always thrilled by it. My favorite memoir is Name All the Animals by Allison Smith, who said that writing that book was the hardest thing she’d ever done. It took 16 drafts and 7 years. I really admire her for saying that because I think that some people get the idea that writing is supposed to be easy. It’s never easy. I think nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

MJF: A piece of advice to emerging writers?

DW: I will quote writer Scott Turow, who has written many successful novels, including Presumed Innocent, which became a big movie and best-seller. At a conference at Florida International University, Turow was asked by a student, “Mr. Turow, how does a young writer get a book published today?” And without hesitation, Turow said,  “Same old three things. Number one: you’ve got to have talent.  Number two: you have to be lucky. And number three: you have to be able to take rejection after rejection.”

Visit Dan Wakefield online at http://www.danwakefield.com/index.html.


  1. […] True stories by Andrea Askowitz / Jan Becker/ Kim Barnes / Tabitha Blankenbiller / Christine Butterworth-McDermott / Rebecca Cook / Elizabeth M. Dalton / Lisbeth Davidow / M. Evelina Galang / Nicholas Garnett / Lori Jakiela / Paul Lisicky / Dinty W. Moore / Russell Reece / Dan Wakefield […]

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