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.

Sean Kenniff: Stop *Effing Yourself

Sean Kenniff describes himself as an ordinary guy who has had some extraordinary experiences. He’s a neurologist, television journalist, author, radio host, and former reality TV show contestant. But above everything else he is a happy, compassionate and very thankful man. We asked him a bit about himself and also about his new book, Stop *Effing Yourself.

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

MJF: Sean, many people know you from the television show Survivor. How did you life change after your appearance on that show?

SK: I appeared on the very first season of Survivor on CBS, which is considered by many to be the grand-daddy of all reality television shows. Millions of Americans watched the series and for some it was almost an addiction. So things got crazy for a little while. It was very weird to be recognized by strangers—because in a sense, these strangers knew me. It was reality television; I was not acting. So at the very least the Survivor fans knew the parts of me that were depicted on television—the good and the bad. That was very odd. Every now and then I still get recognized from the show, which is really unusual considering the show aired ten years ago. It’s testimony to the potency of the show, I guess. From a professional point of view Survivor was an enormous springboard for my medical television journalism career.

MJF: How did you become a writer? When did you start writing?

SK: I have always wanted to be a writer. Every night when I go to bed I think of storylines as I drift off to sleep. That’s how I come up with my best ideas—semiconsciously. I try to string the narrative together night after night. I just pick up where I left off the night before. The process distracts me from my daily stress and it really helps me fall asleep. During medical school I would think of different scenes and dialogues for my novel MAD, knowing eventually I would put it down on paper. I had it all in my head before I put a single word on paper. I have a few other unfinished novels in my head too!

MJF: You have a new book out. “Stop Effing Yourself.” What is it about? Is it s self-help book?

SK: Stop *Effing Yourself can best be described as “self-help for self-sabotage.” We all “eff” ourselves from time to time. Some people sabotage their careers, their love lives, their finances, or their health. Others sabotage everything. Stop *Effing Yourself identifies the biggest mistakes people make in key areas of life (those are the “effing problems”)—whether it be money, love, health, or career—and it offers explicit and simple solutions (the “effing solutions”). So Stop *Effing Yourself is not only a self-help book, it is also a how-to book. It gives you concrete steps to improve your relationships, your finances, your health and your career goals.

MJF: What personal experiences lead you to the writing of this book, in which you explain the psychological underpinnings of self-sabotage?

SK: Like many people, I found myself coming really close to accomplishing a goal, but then I would suddenly back away or let things disintegrate. There is a fascinating psychological theory on why these “approach-avoidance” reactions occur. People are inherently ego-preserving and achievement often brings change. The ego—or the self—resists change. We are more comfortable staying the same, even if a change would be positive. As you come closer to your goal the negative feelings about the changes that will have to be made become more significant, and you unconsciously begin to back away or sabotage yourself. For other people, self-doubt, fear of success, and feelings of unworthiness may also be playing a role.

MJF: What’s next for you?

SK: I have no idea. Keep working, keep creating, keep thinking–it has served me well so far!

Sean Kenniff’s Healthapalooza.com is a website where you can find the hottest stories about health, diet, fitness, medicine and sex. It’s a news aggregate website with a healthy sense of humor.