Note from the Author
YES, IT’S THE SAME DAN WAKEFIELD!
On one of my book tours a publisher’s representative said he’d had a little difficulty getting some bookstore managers to have both my books available that were recently reissued in paperback—Creating from the Spirit, and my first novel, Going All The Way. “That’s not the same writer,” one bookstore manager said. “There’s one Dan Wakefield who writes spiritual books, and another one who writes novels.”
The publisher’s representative assured him, “It’s the same guy !”
I’m here to testify that I’m indeed “the same guy.” I’ve written five novels, none of them focused oft “spiritual” themes, except in the deepest sense that any honest work that attempts to get at the truth of existence is spiritual. I’m proud of my novels, as I am of my non-fiction books of the spiritual realm. My novel Starting Over was made as a movie starring Burt Reynolds and Jill Clayburgh, while Going All The Way became an independent film, with Jill Clayburgh (again !), Lesley Ann Warren, and marvelous newcomers like Ben Affleck and Rose McGowan. It premiered at The Sundance Film Festival and was released nationwide by Gramercy Pictures. I had the pleasure of writing the script of this one as well.
Going All The Way is a coming of age story of two young men in rebellion against home, family, religion, and God, when they come home to Indianapolis in 1954 after serving in The Korean War. The language is frank, explicit, and so is the treatment of sexuality as the young men struggle to find themselves. If you’ve read and enjoyed contemporary novels like those of John Updike, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer, you won’t be offended by the language or subject matter of the novel, but if you’re offended by these contemporary approaches to fiction, I can’t recommend this novel, OR the Audio Cassette of it read by the rising young screen star Ben Affleck.
If, however, you don’t feel those warnings apply to you, I hope you’ll enjoy this novel which was a best-seller when it came out in 1970, a main selection of The Literary Guild, and nominated for The National Book Award.
A Shift to Memoir
After I wrote my first memoir, Returning: A Spiritual Journey, I had no idea that most of my next books would become memoirs instead of novels, as well as a variety of other nonfiction books. The progression seemed natural.
In many ways the memoir as a form has taken on the weight and popularity that the novel carried when I was starting out as a writer. I don’t mean for a minute to “downgrade” the novel (just because I haven’t written one lately!) but rather to point out the “upgrade” of regard for the memoir and the public’s greater interest in it. Back in the 1950s when I started writing, memoirs were mostly written by generals, presidents, movie stars, and other public figures. It would never have occurred to me to write a memoir in those days.
I date the contemporary wave of interest in memoirs—both for writers and readers—with the publication of Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club back in the Eighties, though memoirs go back to one that is still read today, The Confessions of St. Augustine, written in the Fourth Century. I have always believed that the staying power of that book is due to the remarkable honesty of the author. Writing candidly of his wild youth, which included many mistresses and more alcoholic spirits than religious spirit, Augustine wrote that his prayer of those days was “Lord. Make me chaste and continent—but not yet!” And he wrote hisConfessions after he was the most highly regarded Christian prelate of his time.
The big controversy over current memoirs is whether they are really “telling the truth” or the author is simply writing fiction and trying to pass it off as fact (as in A Million Little Pieces.) After that is the issue of how much the memoir writer is allowed to edit his or her own experience, restructure and merge time and events, add or subtract from memory, or invent dialogue that is based on real people and situations. There are no official rules, and a wide range of writers hold a widely differing set of standards.
Some critics simply believe it is impossible for anyone to accurately recreate one’s own experience, so even with the most sincere intent to “tell the truth,” such an effort is impossible. One of my former colleagues, himself a fiction writer, seems to derive pleasure from telling his classes “I don’t believe in non-fiction,” claiming that all memory is faulty and therefore all memoir writing is fictional.
I can only testify to my own writing experience, and say with confidence I have never consciously “made up” anything in writing memoir—that is, I have never written dialogue that is not true to my on memory, or created experience I conjured up because it suited the story. One of the reasons I believe I became committed to the memoir form is the pleasure I took in writing about my experience in Freudian psychoanalysis back in the 1950s in the chapter “The Couch” in Returning. I had always thought I would someday use that horrific experience as the basis for a novel. But when I finished the chapter that preceded it in that memoir, the thought came to me that my psychoanalytic experience seemed to follow, seemed to want to come next. The idea that I could write of that experience as non-fiction, that I could try to convey it as honestly and truly as I remembered it and had experienced it, was a revelation that gave me both a sense of challenge and a sense of relief. I wanted to be able to write it so that I could look anyone in the eye and say “This is what happened to me, this is not fictionalized—as it would be if I wrote it as a novel—this is an account of my experience, as in Walt Whitman’s phrase “I am the man; I suffered; I was there.”
I realized that if I used the experience as the basis of a novel, people could say “Oh, it’s just fiction—he made that stuff up.” The only thing I knowingly changed was a single word, which came at the request of the publisher. That word was the first name of the two analysts I was “in treatment” with (coincidentally, they both had the same first name.) That chapter was published in The New York Times Magazine before the book came out, and it got more letters than anything I had ever written. This was in 1985, when most people still wrote letters rather than sent emails, meaning they had to go to the trouble of writing out their response by typing it up on a typewriter or printing it out on a computer, then putting it in an envelope, putting a stamp on it, and dropping it in a mailbox (imagine the intentionality and commitment it took to convey one’s messages in those days!) More than three hundred letters were sent to The Times Magazine in commenting on that chapter, called in its magazine appearance “My Six Years on The Couch.”
The magazine printed a whole page devoted to the response, which was almost evenly divided between psychiatrists analyzing and diagnosing me in some negative way, to former analytic patients saying, in essence “You think that was awful—wait till you hear my story!” My favorite response of all was not a letter but a message left on my answering machine the day the article was published. A male voice said “Mr. Wakefield—I went into the same kind of Freudian psychoanalysis you had—I was in for twenty-four years. The way I got out was, my analyst up and died on me.” (This kind of psychoanalysis, so popular in that time and place—I wrote about its social influence and the experience of friends with it in my memoirNew York in the Fifties—required four or five days on the couch for four to five years at a minimum, and is not commonly practiced any more.}
Writing Returning was a great experience, and led not only to writing more memoirs—New York in the Fifties, How Do We Know When It’s God?—but also to other nonfiction books that grew out of the workshop that followed Returning, including The Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography, Creating from the Spirit, and Expect A Miracle. (The origin and description of the workshops is on this website in “Workshops in ‘Spiritual Autobiography’ and ‘Creating from the Spirit.’”)
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle…”
—Philo of Alexandria
“Nothing belongs to anyone, keeps running through my mind.”
Account of trip to Ireland where her ancestors lived before coming to America.
MYTHS OF CREATIVITY
“Myth #1, Creativity is only for the artistic elite. This myth tells us that a few special people have been blessed with the mysterious gift of creativity, and everyone else was passed over when God was giving out these valuable prizes ! While every one may not be a master or a Pulitzer Prize winner, everyone does possess creative power, a force that may be articulated in many different ways, from cooking and gardening to painting and writing.”
—Dan Wakefield, from Creating from the Spirit
AUTHOR’S FAVORITE LIST
- Memoir: Name All the Animals by Alison Smith.
This memoir is not about animals, but about the author’s loss of her brother (who was also her best friend) in a car accident when she was thirteen, and her own coming of age and “coming out.” At the end of the paperback edition is an interview with the author that is the best advice for writers I know.
- Essays: “Indiana Winter,” by Susan Neville.
A collection of “everyday” events like a potluck summer in a small town, a visit to a women’s prison, thoughts on a wedding—all made memorable by the author’s quietly evocative prose that makes personal experience into a kind of scripture.
- Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut
This collection of essays and sermons (!) by a famously non-religious humanist (and great American novelist) have insights and humor and wisdom that will light up your day and brighten your night.
- Novels: The Sleeping Father by Matthew Sharpe.
A contemporary Catcher in the Rye and just as funny and insightful, with the double bonus of being told from the points of view of a brother and a sister, so you get the female as well as the male version of adolescent angst and confusion.
- Short Stories: Three Balconies, by Bruce Jay Friedman
One of the funniest and best writers of our time turns his wit onto men “of a certain age” who would rather be known as “slightly older guys” rather than “old guys.” His classic story “The Heartbreak Kid” has twice been made as a movie, and he wrote the scripts for the movies Stir Crazy andMermaids; Steve Martin’s movie The Lonely Guy was based on Friedman’s non-fiction book of the same name. Friedman’s prolific career has ranged from novels (Stern) to Broadway (“Scuba Duba”) to Hollywood, to magazines including The New Yorker, Playboy, and The Antioch Review. His Collected Fiction has some of the best laugh-out-loud stories I have ever read, like “Brazzaville Teenager” and “Far From The City of Class.”
- Movies: Assassination Tango starring Robert Duvall and Luciana Pedraza.
I am not a fan of either assassinations or dancing, but this marvelous film starring Robert Duval has a riveting story, and the Argentinians dancing their version of the tango—especially the transcendently graceful and gorgeous Luciana Pedraza—is so fabulous it can hypnotize you. (When I read that Duval was smart enough to marry Pedraza after the movie was over, I gave him my Academy Award for Wisdom.)
- Documentaries: New York in the Fifties.
Of course, because it is based on my own memoir of the same name, and besides that, it features great interviews with Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Nat Hentoff, David Amram, and many other outstanding people of the era, as well as archival footage of James Baldwin that is breathtaking in its power. The filmmaker Betsy Blankenbaker also made a powerful documentary called Something to Cheer About that tells the inspiring story of the first black high school basketball team to win the state championship (in basketball-mad Indiana), and in doing so changed the whole pattern of race relations and segregation in Indianapolis, once the home of the largest Klu Klux Klan north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
- Book About A Healing Experience: A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing by Reynolds Price.
In middle age the novelist Reynolds Price was suddenly hit with cancer of the spine. This is the most honest, searing experience I have seen described. His account of the experience and how he dealt with it, and went on to be even more productive as a writer, is a moving and powerful story.
- Contemporary Writing on Christianity: Three Gospels by Reynolds Price.
This novelist who died in 2010 is one of the only contemporary writers I can stand to read on the subject of Christianity. In his early forties he questioned his faith and to deal with it he translated the books of Mark and John from the Greek (of course it was lucky he knew Greek!). In this book are his translations of those two books, as well as his own version of the gospel story. He taught writing at Duke all his life and he gave his class an assignment to read the gospels and write their own version of the story—he did the assignment and includes his own telling of the story in this book. What he says in the book about the gospel writers (which was also in his book A Palpable God and the essay “The Bible As Literature”) is the most clear and powerful description I know of the phenomenon of their writing.
- Contemporary Writing on Judaism:
To Life: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking by Rabbi Harold Kushner.
This book by the best-selling author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People not only presents the clearest and most insightful appreciation of Judaism and its history, but also the best explanation of the roots of Christianity in Judaism. It should be required reading for Christians who want to understand the origins of their own faith.
- Unsung Movie of The Spiritual Quest:
The Razor’s Edge, based on Somerset Maugham’s classic novel of the spiritual quest, was largely misunderstood and misjudged by critics when it came out in the Eighties because it was the first movie starring Bill Murray that was NOT a comedy. Murray had wanted for a long time to make a movie of this great (and now seemingly forgotten) novel by one of the greatest (and now seemingly forgotten) English writers had wanted for a long time to make a film of this story, but his fame as a comedian made movie companies shy away from it. But a studio was trying to lure Murray at the height of his comedic fame to be in the movie Ghost Busters and he finally said he would do it if they allowed him to play the lead in a movie of The Razor’s Edge. That’s how the movie came to be, with Murray in the role of a young man disillusioned by the carnage he saw in World War I and unable to return to the social and business path of success laid out for him by his wealthy family, he left everything behind to go on a search for the “meaning of life” that took him around the world. My favorite forgotten actress, Theresa Russell (The Black Widow), co-starred with him in the movie and is heartbreakingly wonderful.
- Movie Re-Make of a Great American Novel:
The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald, his last novel and one of his greatest, was made as a wonderful movie starring Robert DeNiro as the wunderkind producer “Monroe Stahr,” with Jack Nicholson as the head of The Writers Union battling the studios for recognition in the 1930s; Tony Curtis as an insecure movie star, Robert Mitchum as the movie company’s New York president and financier, and Theresa Russell (hurray!) as his daughter who has an unrequited crush on “Monroe Stahr.” The script was written by the great playwright Harold Pinter, yet in spite of all the major talent and a great production, this 1976 movie didn’t get a big play with the critics. (Never trust them unless they are named Roger Ebert!)