Copyright © 1996 Mars Hill Review 4 · Winter/Spring: pgs 101-116.
Dan Wakefield wasn't a typical speaker at the Tattered Cover bookstore's Sunday afternoon "Spirituality Series" in downtown Denver. In an atmosphere usually characterized by lofty discussions of the ethereal and mystical, Wakefield's presence was down-to-earth, warm and welcoming, full of pungent ironies and good humor. Most of the audience seemed refreshed-almost relieved-by his earthy, funny, self-effacing, yet critically earnest lecture on his new book, Expect a Miracle: The Miraculous Things that Happen to Ordinary People.
Wakefield's half-hour talk revealed both his intellectual curiosity and his fondness for storytelling. As he delineated America's spiritual evolution during the past half-century, he regaled his listeners with lively anecdotes from his firsthand observations as a journalist covering the country's significant events since the 1950s.
Indeed, Wakefield's own life seems to embody the American experience in the latter half of this century. He came of age as postwar America did, and his story could be written as the Great American Novel. His sense of wonder at the world-and his early sense of mission as a writer-prompted him to leave his Hoosier roots in Indiana to attend Columbia University in New York City, where he graduated in 1955. With Hemingway as a model for the kind of writer's life he wanted, Wakefield immediately hit the pavement to cut his teeth as a freelance journalist, writing for magazines such as The Nation. He blossomed into an acclaimed novelist in the 1960s and '70s, penning Going All the Way and Starting Over, among others. Eventually, his success led him to Hollywood, where he created the TV series "James at Fifteen."
But that's where the American dream ended. As Wakefield writes in the opening sentence of his spiritual autobiography, Returning: A Spiritual Journey, "One balmy spring morning in Hollywood, a month or so before my forty-eighth birthday, I woke up screaming." He was an alcoholic whose private life had been disintegrating for years. His dire condition drove him back to the East Coast-and, as it happened, to church. Upon hearing a Christmas Eve sermon that seemed written specifically to address his life, he returned to a Christian faith he had known only partially in boyhood and that later he had rejected by embracing the "intellectual atheism" in vogue during the 1950s.
During his "recovery" years in the early 1980s, Wakefield took a sober, yet no less wondrous, accounting of his life. In retrospect, he saw that spiritual signposts had been planted for him all along the way. Now, through new, spiritual eyes, he chronicled his life's journey in Returning. The book is a raw and yet hopeful narrative of the experiences to which his spiritual hunger led him-from his days at Columbia under the famous poet Mark Van Doren, to his disillusionment with Freudian psychoanalysis, to the awful circumstances that eventually-and providentially-led him to a supportive church community in Boston.
Returning struck a nerve in readers across the country, and Wakefield was deluged with mail. In the years that followed, probably to everyone's surprise but his own, he became an in-demand writing workshop leader on the subjects of "Spiritual Autobiography" and "Creating from the Spirit." To his old writer friends, this certainly didn't seem to be the territory Wakefield had staked for himself early on as a writer. (Indeed, Wakefield's new book, Expect a Miracle, sports a title a televangelist might choose-and, in fact, one did. Oral Roberts published a book under the same title, also in 1995.)
Yet, lest it seem to readers that Wakefield had forsaken the formative experiences of his life and career, he published a different kind of memoir in 1992, entitled New York in the Fifties. It's an affectionate account of his friendships and encounters with such writers as Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Joan Didion, and Allen Ginsberg, in the years when Wakefield was fresh out of college and getting his feet wet as a journalist. Like his other books, it has received acclaim and warm accolades from reviewers.
We spent an enjoyable two hours talking with Dan Wakefield at The Art of Coffee on Blake Street downtown, immediately following his address at the Tattered Cover. With his permission, portions of his lecture have been incorporated into the following interview.
Mars Hill Review: In your lecture, you mentioned your reaction to the recent Time magazine cover story, "Can We Still Believe in Miracles?"
Dan Wakefield: Yes-that cover is one of those stories all authors across the country know about. When I saw it, my mind flashed back to the cover of Time twenty-eight years ago. It was very famous at the time. It read, "Is God Dead?"
When you think about the great distance we've come in this society-from the concept of the death of God to a belief in miracles-you realize a lot of things have happened to bring us to this place. I graduated from Columbia in 1955, and at that time, if I'd have suggested writing a book about miracles, I would've been sent to Bellevue.
I think I can best sum up the attitude of the time with a story from my senior year at Columbia. I was very excited to be fixed up with a Sarah Lawrence student-because we all knew that women who went to Sarah Lawrence were the most avant-garde of all women, in all ways. [Laughs.]
We were at the White Horse Tavern, smoking and drinking madly and talking about the great issues of life, and somehow the subject of miracles came up. My date said she recently had gone to an "ethical culture" Sunday school in which the class learned scientific explanations for all the miracles in the Bible. I said, "That's interesting. What would be an example?"
She said, "For instance, when Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea."
"What's the scientific explanation for that?"
I think that sums up most intellectuals' attitude at the time.
MHR: What was your own attitude at the time?
DW: I was still struggling with Jesus as this figure I'd learned about in Sunday school. Then I encountered someone who would be one of the greatest influences in my life.
When I was at Columbia, I was privileged to take a class from the legendary professor Mark Van Doren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. He had influenced many generations of students, particularly writers. In Thomas Merton's great autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, he says Mark Van Doren was a professor whose standards and ideas had kept Merton from joining the Young Communists League in the 1930s-not because Van Doren talked about politics, but because of the stringency and clarity of his thinking. Merton also credited Van Doren with influencing his own career as a monk and a writer.
Later, there was a fellow attending Columbia on a football scholarship who took Van Doren's class in Shakespeare. He was so moved by it, he quit the football team to devote all his time to writing. His name was Jack Kerouac.
About that same time, a young poet came running into the Columbia English offices one day, saying excitedly, "I've just seen the light!" All the professors said, "Er, ah, excuse me-I think I have a class now. I'd better be going." The only professor who stayed was Mark Van Doren, who went up to the young Allen Ginsberg and said, "What was it like?"
Van Doren was a great figure in that regard. He had a great and deserved reputation as a teacher. The course I took from him was called "The Narrative Art," and in it he lectured on the New Testament. I would give anything if I had those notes now. As Van Doren put it, "In Sunday school we learn of Jesus as this wispy sort of character floating around Jerusalem in a nightshirt. In fact, he was the most ruthless of men. Anyone who could say, when told that his mother and sister were waiting to see him, 'They're all my mothers and sisters and brothers,' is ruthless."
He presented an image of Jesus as strength, as being powerful. And to me, that was a whole other way of seeing him.
MHR: I once read a poem written about Van Doren that really stuck in my mind. It was about his teaching. I wish I could remember who wrote it. The line went something like, "It wasn't what he taught-it was that he loved what he taught."
DW: Yes, let me tell you a story about that. In that course, "The Narrative Art," we read Homer, the Bible, Dante, Cervantes, and Kafka. On the last day of class, Van Doren asked us why we thought we had read those particular books. Being Columbia undergraduates, we all came up with these incredibly erudite, complicated answers. He would listen to each one of us and say, "Very interesting. But no, that's not it."
Finally, with one minute to go on the clock, he said, "Gentlemen, the reason we read these books is that these are my favorite books." Then he walked out.
I remember something else he said once, something more profound, which really stuck with me. He said, "If you look at the great literature of the past, you find that transformations in people's lives came through God or the gods [as in Greek literature]. But in American literature today, God is no longer a character. God isn't the person you read about influencing people's lives. Instead, when people's lives change, it's usually through the agency of psychiatry. And that's a big shift."
That was certainly true at the time. But about seven years ago, I began to notice new novels being produced by literary writers in which God was again present. I wrote a piece about it for the New York Times Book Review, which I titled, "God Returns with a Speaking Role." They retitled it, "And Now a Word from Our Creator."
I found that novels like those of Reynolds Price-whose I love in particular-might not have been what you'd call religious novels, but in the course of their characters' ordinary, daily lives, God was a presence. Again, this was part of the shift toward a new attitude about the spiritual, and away from the concept of the death of God.
MHR: What do you think has caused the shift back to this spiritual examination, or reexamination?
DW: I talked to many experts to try to figure out its roots. One of the people I contacted was a Columbia classmate, Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People. When I asked him what he thought contributed to this shift, he said, "I think people have become disillusioned with the rational."
I knew what he meant. He wasn't saying that people just went berserk and became irrational. Rather, in the fifties we had been taught what was known as the "scientific truth." This supposedly was the way things really were, as opposed to mythology. Science and psychiatry, as the science of human behavior, had the answers and could deliver the truth to us.
And science and psychiatry did deliver great things. But they did not include the spiritual dimension of life. It turns out that the spiritual is a very real dimension of life. And people have a need and a kind of hunger for it.
MHR: How has this new attitude played out in the scientific scene?
DW: I find a particular irony in one of the definitions of "miracle." That definition says a miracle is "an extraordinary event in the physical world that cannot be explained by the laws of science."
The hitch is that the laws of science keep changing. When I got out of college, the laws of science said I lived in a Newtonian universe, and everything was solid matter. The world was some sort of great mechanism. But now I'm told I live in a quantum physics universe, and everything is liquid. In fact, something may only be a wave or a particle-depending on who's looking at it and where they're looking from.
So, suddenly all of those immutable laws that were the "truth of science" have completely shifted around. And that's kind of odd and ironic to me. They all simply left out or ignored the spirit, which is very real and has to be acknowledged.
Interestingly enough, I think we've come to a point in time when a lot of spiritual things that previously were considered hokey or mythological have come to be recognized by medical science. You probably saw Bill Moyers's series on PBS, "Healing and the Mind." He talked about the uses of eastern medicine being brought into mainstream hospitals in this country, to be used as healing techniques.
Now the National Institutes of Health has an "alternative medicine" department. Their first grant was for a study of the effect of prayer on recovery from drug addiction. Suddenly, prayer is not just some ethereal thing, but is being studied by the government as possibly being a valid part of the healing process.
MHR: What do you see happening in people's personal lives to influence this shift back to the spiritual?
DW: I think another thing that's happened to raise our consciousness about the spirit in our time-perhaps ironically-is AIDS. Suddenly, with the onset of AIDS, a number of mainstream churches began offering healing services. My own church in Boston was one of a group of churches that took turns once a month holding an AIDS healing service.
When our turn came, our minister got up and said, "This church is more than three hundred years old. I've looked back in our history, and we've had almost every kind of service here, from weddings to funerals to secular services to political services. But we have never had a healing service."
It's kind of remarkable. Here is a religion that started out with healing and stories of healing, and yet that was never the case in our church's history.
That night, the church leaders asked people to come forward to the altar if they needed healing-and not just those who had AIDS, but anyone who needed healing of any kind, physical or psychological or emotional. Two of the ministers or laypersons would put their hands on that person's head and pray for him.
I have to tell you, this is a very conservative Boston church. And to our minister's surprise, the next day he received many calls from people saying, "We want more of these services. We want healing services not just for people with AIDS, but for us." Now it has become a part of our church's regular program-and not just in our congregation, but in mainline churches across the country. I know of a big Episcopal church in Washing-ton, DC, and churches in Pasadena that hold these kinds of healing services.
Again, I think that twenty years ago this whole idea would have been laughed about. Or, people would have been scared or nervous about it. They would have said, "That's some kind of fringe practice." But now healing has been brought into the mainstream.
MHR: How have your writer friends responded to this spiritual move in your life?
DW: [Laughs.] Some writers are appalled, and some are just very nervous. I think they fear that I'm going to try to convert them, which has never been my intention with anybody. My intention has always been simply to write about the things that have happened to me, and to say, "This is what happened to me, and it may not have any relevance for you." I'd never advise somebody to live as I did.
It's strange, but there's still a sort of "fifties attitude," as I might call it, among literary people about the spiritual life. I'd never been aware of some of the literary people who were involved in the spiritual life. One of my mentors-I mean, he's a mentor through his writing, because I've only met him once in my life-is Reynolds Price. He was already established as a literary novelist when he started writing in this realm of the spiritual. Well, maybe he's always had that in his work, in a way. And he's also written some nonfiction, wonderful stuff, in that realm. Also, I've met the novelist Larry Woiwode, who is very deeply into that.
You know, the one time on this whole book tour I felt like I had a chance to talk freely was when I was on Bill Buckley's "Firing Line." He titled the topic of that show, "Why Do So Many People Fear God?"
I started out by talking about an interview Buckley had done with Mal-colm Muggeridge, which I wrote about in Returning. Buckley had said to Muggeridge, "I don't know how it is in your country, but in New York if you mention God more than once at a dinner party, you're not invited back." Muggeridge replied, "Oh, more than once? I thought if it was even once."
A friend and I went out to a dinner one night with a couple in New York who are very literary and accomplished. My friend is in that world, too, but she is also on a spiritual path. The main topic of conversation over dinner that night was American Psycho, the novel which had just come out. It's a book that involves the dismemberment of human bodies and the most bizarre kinds of atrocities.
So there we are eating our chicken, carving along and talking about dismemberment. And that was okay-that was perfectly cool. But afterward, my friend said to me, "Did you notice there was a taboo subject tonight?" I said, "Yes-religion." She had felt it too. Somehow when the conversation would even approach the edge of that topic, there would be a silence. We really felt awkward, as if we shouldn't say anything. It was a very tangible feeling.
There's a great story about Flannery O'Connor, when she was in New York on one of her visits. She went to a literary party, and Mary McCarthy was there. McCarthy, trying to pull O'Connor into the conversation, said kind of condescendingly, "Oh, I think the Eucharist is a wonderful symbol." And O'Connor said, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it."
I sort of started out my career writing for The Nation magazine-and I still do-and they've been very broadminded in letting me write the sort of essay-review I did on Harvey Cox's latest book about Pentecostalism. But other than that, when it comes to the media, my liberal connections don't want to have anything to do with it. Buckley-who was in New York in the Fifties-was the guy I could call on.
MHR: Have you come across any writer friends who are on the type of journey you've been on but may not even know it? And are there others who are and have shared that freely with you?
DW: Expect a Miracle is dedicated to a writer friend named Sara Davidson. One of the reasons I dedicated it to her is that I feel she's my only literary friend who is also on this journey. We both believe our friendship has grown much deeper because we can talk about these things and our experiences. And there aren't many others with whom you can.
One of my old writer friends is Ivan Gold, a classmate at Columbia. We had coffee once when I was working on the miracles book. It had never occurred to me to ask Ivan about miracles, and he asked me what I was working on. I told him a book about miracles. He kind of smiled and said, "Well, as you know, that's not my field." I said, "On the other hand, you're a guy who had a twenty-year writer's block, and you went into the AA program (which I don't mind saying, because he's written about it), and now you've written a new novel. Isn't there something miraculous about that?"
He said, "As a matter of fact . . ." And he told me this very eloquent, moving story of his recovery. It's included in the miracles book. He wrote:
"The change comes when you're willing to do what AA tells you. They said to get down on your knees and pray. I said, 'I can't do that, I'm a Jew. We don't do that.' About a week later I was down on my hands and knees in my living room, trying to pray. You're willing to try anything to manufacture a life without alcohol. In the early slogging you gotta be open to anything-and that's a miracle. You know how closed I was when I was young, how arrogant I was.
"God is a relief-the idea that it's okay to believe. You spend your youth pushing away the God of your fathers, so you're left with nothing. AA gives you the opportunity to rethink that-to rethink your relationship to the cosmos."
It's a wonderfully eloquent piece-the kind of thing I wouldn't have thought of and he wouldn't have thought of. And yet, there it was.
After that, I asked everybody if they had a miracle. I figured, you never know where you're going to find one.
MHR: Ivan's story brings up another subject. How does suffering figure in the life of a writer? And does it lead a writer, as it has done with you, toward a sacred quest?
DW: In my book on creativity, I went into a lot of the mythology behind the subject. For example, the book begins with the myth of alcohol as a stimulant to creativity. That's a mythology I was brought up on in New York in The Fifties. Yet, I never heard the stories about the writers who quit and became more productive, writing their best stuff. All I heard was, "You have to suffer."
I think that because of this myth a lot of young people go out and try to suffer, not knowing that suffering is going to come to them anyway. They might as well sit back and relax. Suffering is a part of life. It's not only what makes us writers, but it's what makes us human beings and what makes us Christians. I think Christianity is powerful because it acknowledges that and deals with it.
My minister in Boston, Carl Scovel, used to always say you cannot separate the Crucifixion from the Resurrection-that they're both part of the same event. I've found that to be true. One way I see it as being true is whenever I give workshops on spiritual autobiography. At the very end, all the students draw a road map of their spiritual journey. Then I ask them to choose one of the turning points on the map and write a story about it.
One of the fascinating things is that the turning points that were most painful for people-the times when they thought, "Oh my God, I don't even know if I can go on"-inevitably led to the best results. But you can never see that right away. After you've gone through one of those disastrous turning points, you can't see that it's going to lead to anything good. Not even in the next year. But twenty years later, you can.
The low point of my life was in 1980, when I had a pulse of 120, both my parents died, and I broke up with the woman I thought I would be with all my life. That's what led to my going back to church and getting off of booze and to the whole life I'm leading now. I wouldn't choose to go through it again. But that whole experience led me to where I am now.
I've heard it said that you always start your spiritual journey either from a high point or a low point. The great example of the high point is Tolstoy, who became the greatest novelist not only in Russia but in the world. He said, "Is this all there is? Now what happens?" And that led him to his journey.
But I think most people start like me, from a low point. And sometimes it takes the low point to bring you back.
MHR: You wrote in Returning, "It came as a relief to me to understand that my religion was as real in times of anguish as it was in the fullness of joy."
DW: That's right. I learned a lot about that through my minister, Carl Scovel. He always knew what to give me, which book to suggest. At one point he gave me a book by Reynolds Price called A Palpable God.
Price had written a long essay called "The Bible as Narrative," and included with that he had translated some of the Bible's stories. He had done all of this because he had had his own kind of midlife crisis, in which he had questioned his faith. Also, he had questioned his vocation as a writer. He'd begun to think, "What's the point of writing novels for a diminishing audience?" There were fewer readers, especially fewer people who read literary fiction.
So he wrote this essay and did these translations as a way to try to deal with that crisis, to confront it. And out of it all, he came away with greater faith.
That was a wonderful lesson for me. It was also the first time I knew Reynolds Price was on that path. Later, I cooked up a writing workshop in Durham just so I could meet him.
Some of my richest experiences have come because I ended up at King's Chapel in Boston and had Carl Scovel, who pointed me to those kinds of things. I just can't imagine having landed anywhere else and finding what I've found there.
Once I was cochair of the religious education committee, and my favorite thing was to work on retreats. We started having retreats at Glastonbury Abbey, which is a Benedictine monastery outside of Boston, in Hingham. We got to know the brothers there, and they were very welcoming, just wonderful. Once, as we were leaving, one of the brothers said to me, "We always love having the group from King's Chapel. It's really a wonderful group. You know, you're really lucky that that was the church you found."
I agreed. And suddenly I remembered the line from Casablanca: "Of all the gin joints in all the world . . ." And I'd walked into that one! [Laughs.]
It was like that for me at every point. There was always the right person or place or experience just waiting for me.
MHR: Was it after you had returned to church that you saw these things begin to happen in your life? Or, once you'd returned, did you suddenly see that these things had been happening all along-and now you'd opened your eyes to them?
DW: In retrospect, I saw that they had been happening already. I mean, there I was, claiming my intellectual atheism-and at the same time I was writing about Dorothy Day and the East Harlem Protestant Parish, and traveling to the South to cover Martin Luther King.
Van Doren used to always talk about Thomas Merton. But at that time, I didn't want to read Merton's book, The Seven Storey Mountain. I mean, I didn't want to know about a guy who went to Columbia and lived in the Village and wanted to become a writer, but who ended up a Trappist monk. That was too frightening! It took me until 1982 to read that book.
So, on the one hand I was defending myself against it. But as I look back, I can see my life was immersed in things like that, which were happening at every turn. When New York in the Fifties came out, I appreciated a comment made by James Wall, the editor of The Christian Century. He interviewed me and wrote a wonderful editorial saying that this too was part of the spiritual journey he saw-and which, in fact, I see too. But, obviously, I didn't see it at the time it was happening.
MHR: Speaking of Van Doren, what did you think of the movie Quiz Show when it came out last year? Were you apprehensive about seeing it?
DW: I was in it! You'll have to see it again.
There's a scene when Paul Scofield, playing Mark Van Doren, is autographing his book and his wife has a book out also. He says something clever, and I say, "Can I quote you, Mark?" I'm off-camera when I say that. But right after that, you see me at the fireplace talking to another guy. The other guy says to me, "Did you hear the stock market went down today? And there's a rumor Eisenhower died." Then the woman playing Mrs. Van Doren says, "How could you tell he was dead?" (That actually was a remark made about Calvin Coolidge.)
Let me tell you the way that all happened. A few years ago I was about to go to Ireland when I got a phone call from a woman in a kind of monotone voice. She said, "We're in town shooting a movie. We're on location in Queens, and our director, Bob, wants to know if you'd like to come out. He read your book New York in the Fifties, and the movie's about a quiz show . . ."
I thought, "Who is this Bob guy? It must be some broken-down TV director I knew in my Hollywood days." So I said, "Look, I'm really busy right now-I'm going to Ireland next week. By the way, say hello to this guy for me. What's Bob's last name?" She said, "Bob Redford." I said, "Oooooohhhh-that Bob!" So I said, "Well, look, I think I can free up some time."
I went down to the set, and he wanted to know about Mark Van Doren. We had a great talk. In fact, I wrote a line for the movie. He asked, "What's something Van Doren would have said to a student?" They had a scene where Charles Van Doren is waiting for his father after class, and Mark is talking to some students. So I told Redford, "When he gave 'The Narrative Art,' he used to talk about Don Quixote. He would say, 'One of the lessons of this book is that the way to become a knight is to act like a knight.'" (In fact, Van Doren later told Merton, "The way to become a saint is to act like a saint.") So I wrote that down, and it stayed in the movie.
A couple of months later I got a call, asking me if I'd like to be an extra in a scene. They were shooting the book scene I was telling you about, so I went down there. When I arrived, they said, "Would you like to speak a line?" I said, "Sure."
I went to wardrobe, and I had to wear a fifties suit-a scratchy, wool suit. And I had to wear wingtips, which I'd never worn in my life. It was like carrying around iron bolts on my feet, or having cement blocks for shoes.
MHR: The experience of playing in that scene must have taken you back to that period in your life at Columbia. Did the moment have some immediacy for you, as far as reflecting on your own journey of thirty-five years?
DW: Talk about a strange thing of mixing up time. There I was, dressed up in an era I had lived through-and there was Paul Scofield, who in fact looks and sounds like Mark Van Doren, playing Mark Van Doren.
It was a wonderful thing, being in that scene. It was like this great circle coming fully around. As a result of it, I ended up writing a piece for the I about Redford and the movie.
MHR: The nature of the works that you wrote before Returning-including the TV series "James at Fifteen" and your novel Going All the Way-all contain a sense of wonder at the world. It seems to be present in everything you've written. That hasn't changed for you, has it?
DW: No. Going All the Way was my first novel. It was the most successful book I've ever written, in many ways, and I'm very proud of it. I just finished a movie script of it that may or may not be done.
I once gave a talk in New York at an Episcopal church where Jackie Kennedy used to go, Saint Bart's on Park Avenue. A woman in the audience asked, "Do you now renounce your earlier work?" I said, "No, not at all." I couldn't imagine doing that. The novelist Ron Hansen once wrote something in an article that I really liked. He wrote, "A book isn't spiritual or religious because you write about religion, but because you tell the truth. That's all you're called on to do."
In Going All the Way, I think I more deeply told the truth than in anything else I've written. When Mark Van Doren talked about Don Quixote, he said Cervantes had been a journalist and had never written a novel until he was sixty years old and in jail. As Van Doren said, "It was as if he tapped this rich vein in himself." That's what Going All the Way felt like. It felt like I'd finally opened up this thing I'd been struggling with for years and years. So that's the last thing I would renounce.
MHR: Your questioning of the brand of religion you knew in your youth was something of a catalyst for your search, wasn't it?
DW: I wrote a piece in The Nation in the fifties called "Slick-Paper Christianity." Let me give you an example of the kind of thing I was describing at the time. There was a new Methodist magazine called Together, and they had selected an all-Methodist football team. This to me represented the worst of the fifties' suburban ideal of religion. And now, as I look back on that article, I see it was a deeply religious piece. I wrote it because I was offended by the wrong notion of religion, the ludicrous interpretation of it.
Years later, in 1985, I wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine called "Returning to Church." That article talked about my years in analysis and all the sexual struggles. I received more mail about that piece than anything I've ever written. It also landed me an offer to write it as a book.
Later, as I was writing the book, I worked with a particular editor whom I'd known before. I told her, "Because of the sensitive nature of this, I want to send you one chapter at a time. In other words, I don't want to write the whole book and then find out I'm way off course from what you want."
Well, each time I sent her a chapter, she'd tell me, "This is wonderful." But when I finished the book, she sent the manuscript around the offices at Doubleday, and nobody liked it.
One day I went to lunch with the marketing manager, whom I also knew and liked. We spent the whole lunch not discussing my book. Finally, I said, "What did you think of my book?" Her face grew red, and she said, "I didn't know it was going to be so personal."
Then I got a note from my editor. She said the head of religious sales at Doubleday had told her, "We can't market this as a religious book, because it mentions masturbation." This was in 1988. I said, "I thought that whole attitude was over in the fifties."
Eventually, I met the woman who was the publisher at that time. (I can mention all of this because these people have all been fired since then.) I was in my editor's office, and she said, "Oh, Ms. So-and-So, I want you to meet Dan Wakefield." The publisher's face grew red, and she said, "Hello. I understand we know all about you."
I guess they thought I was just going to write about methods of prayer or something. The fact that I wrote about sex and sexual problems seemed absolutely shocking to them.
But it wasn't just the people at Doubleday who were upset about the sexual stuff. Other people were too. I know a man in Boston who's a big drinker, and he'd read the article I wrote for the New York Times Magazine. He asked me, "Why did you write that?" I said, "I thought it would be of use to people." He said, "You shouldn't write things like that. That's down where the clams are." [Laughs.] I'll never forget that one.
But I remember something Mark Van Doren said to his class, and it has stayed with me as a kind of guideline. He said, "Whenever you write the thing that's the most painful to you-the thing that is most embarrassing, that you would feel terrible about if other people knew it-that is when you really reach people. Because everybody has had his own version of it."
So, I've never questioned writing those things.
MHR: You seem very much to have your feet on the ground about the writing and publishing process. Yet, you also seem to have a reverence for what you're doing, which comes through in your writing. Do you think of writing as being, in a sense, a sacred act?
DW: Oh yeah. I mean, I don't get down on my knees and start thinking about the sacred nature of what I'm going to do. But when I'm writing, I really feel in tune to the deep source, to working. I really love it.
I also believe writing is a form of meditation. I was on a panel once where I said I thought writing was a form of prayer. Another writer on that panel got really mad and said, "It's not, either. It's just hard work." I answered, "Sometimes prayer is hard work."
Later that week, I happened to be at a used bookstore, and I bought a biography of Kafka by his friend Max Brod. In it Brod says that Kafka once wrote in his journals, "Writing is prayer." I thought, "Well, if Kafka said it, it must be true."
When I give the spiritual autobiography workshops, I say that by definition the whole idea of meditation is to clear your mind of all the running commentary and the junk. You need to set aside all the thoughts that say, "I should have done this," and "I wish I'd done that," and have a single focus.
When you're writing, that's what happens. You're focused on the thing you're actually writing. I've noticed in the last year that when I'm upset, or when there are too many things going on, I have an urge to sit down and write whatever piece is due-and it feels great.
MHR: One of the things that's very appealing about your writing is its straightforwardness. It's very plainspoken. How did that evolve? And how important is it to your message?
DW: I'm glad you say that with appreciation, because I've had reviews that sound as if I can't do any better or can't write fancily. My whole effort is to write the way people talk and think.
I had a friend from Denver who died a couple of years ago, John Wil-liams. I first bonded with him at a writers conference where he gave a lecture on style. He said, "There's the baroque style, and there's the modern style, and there's this style or that style. But what I like is the plain style."
He wrote a great novel called Stoner in the plain style. It was brought back into print by the University of Arkansas Press. It's a novel that all the writers I know truly love. Somehow the word about it never got out, though. It's only writers, and writers' friends, who know about this book.
MHR: How do you see Expect a Miracle fitting into your pilgrimage as a writer? You'd mentioned during our walk over here that things have changed for you since Returning-that the public's perception of you as a writer has changed.
DW: I don't worry about that anymore. I've gained a great freedom from that.
When the paperback edition of New York in the Fifties came out, it got a notice in the New York Times Book Review's "New and Noteworthy" paperback section. They'd quoted a nice thing from the book's hardcover. But they also had identified me as "Dan Wakefield, the journalist and social activist." I thought, "Social activist? Where did that come from?" I was very upset. They didn't say anything about my being a novelist-that I'd written five novels that were reviewed well in the New York Times.
Not long after that I had lunch with a guy I knew who'd led a seminar I'd gone to three or four years before. This seminar leader, John King, said, "Let me ask you something. Wasn't that notice in the Times helpful to your book?"
I said, "Oh yeah, tremendously, for the paperback edition. That's what called attention to it."
"Then it really doesn't matter how they identify you, does it?"
"Right, I just want people to get the book."
Then John leaned across the table and said to me, "So, what the hell do you care?"
You can go nuts worrying about all that stuff. Expect a Miracle is not going to sell by reviews anyway. It's going to sell by word of mouth.
MHR: How did you come to write Expect a Miracle?
DW: I was stuck on something and wasn't going to work for a long time. Then I got a call from a publisher saying, "Your name has come up here. Would you like to write a book about miracles?"
Now, I had literally said to somebody the week before, "I really need a miracle." But I didn't want to tell this editor his phone call was the first miracle. It would ruin the negotiations! [Laughs.]
One of the reasons I said yes to doing the miracles book was that I already had a head start. Because I'd been leading the spiritual autobiography workshops, I knew all sorts of people throughout the country who had had just these kinds of experiences. In fact, the first thing I did after deciding to write the book was to send a letter to the people on my mailing list, asking, "Have you experienced any miracles?"
The publisher must have thought of me because I'd written Returning. So, it was as though everything literally flowed out of the last thing and into the next. It feels really good to be in a flow like that, which makes sense and which moves. So, no, I don't worry about where my career as a writer is headed. You can't control it, and it never works out the way you want it-at least not in your image of the way the "great thing" is going to happen.
It's like the stock market-it goes up and down. At one point, during the whole ordeal with Returning, I met a guy from the marketing department at Doubleday to have lunch and talk about the book. He told me, "I went into your editor's office earlier and said to her, 'I'm meeting with Dan Wakefield for lunch today, so let me get this straight about his book. First you liked it. Then nobody liked it. And now everybody likes it.'" I told him, "That's true today. You'd better wait till tomorrow before you do anything." It was really bizarre.
MHR: When do doubts come in for you?
DW: All the time! I think that's true with everybody, unless you just numb yourself out. But then, even with all the doubts, there's the reality of what has happened in my life.
I know a nun in Boston who sometimes speaks in our church as a guest preacher. Her name is Sister Mary Hennessy. She once gave me a little card with a quote from Revelation that reads, "A door has been opened to you that no man can close." I love that. People say, "Everything that happens is chance." I've said it at times myself. But when I look at my life, and the circumstances of how I got to Columbia, and how I came to each of these books I've written, I think, "My God-I'm this guy from Indianap-olis. How could this be?"
It's like Marcie Hershman says in her piece in Expect a Miracle. She's a dear friend of mine, a writer in Boston, and she's written these very tough, very painful books on the Holocaust based on her own relatives' experiences, Tales of the Master Race and Safe in America. She says, "I know when I'm writing that I'm in the service of something. Why me? I'm from Shaker Heights!"
MHR: Where do you see your journey of faith heading? Do you see a pattern taking shape, especially since 1980-or since Returning?
DW: Oh, there's a pattern in the flow of the work, yeah. I wish I could say I see a pattern in my personal life. Or, I should say, I wish I saw one that I liked! [Laughs.]
I think the key is in realizing that it's really all one thing. Both the Crucifixion and Resurrection are in all of it. The question, "Where is it leading?" doesn't even occur to me. All I want is to be on the path. And where it goes is where it goes.