“The phony glamour of the stoned, smashed, self-destructive artist still has tremendous appeal,” says novelist and journalist Dan Wakefield. It’s a timely observation, given how drug overdoses seem almost de rigueur for young actors and musicians today. To Wakefield, whose latest book, Creating from the Spirit (Ballantine), examines the sources and varieties of human creativity, the myth of narcotic inspiration seriously distorts the real nature of creativity. For example, Wakefield points out, the giants of nineteenth-century American literature — Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, Whitman, and Twain — were neither alcoholics nor drug addicts. But Edgar Allan Poe, an arguably lesser talent whose tragic life was ravaged by drugs and alcohol, has been the subject of the most books and biographies. Says Wakefield, “The world seems to love the story of the suffering artist.”
Wakefield, whose own literary output encompasses sixteen books over four decades, might seem an unlikely advocate for the idea that sustained and significant creativity arises from physical health and mental clarity. After all, his most popularly successful works, including the bestselling novels Starting Over (which spawned a 1979 hit movie) and Going All the Way (which has also been made into a film, to be released this year), were written during the period when Wakefield believed “booze and the muse” were closely related spirits, if not one and the same. Indeed, the jacket photograph on the original 1970 edition of Starting Over showed Wakefield posed with three bottled companions: wine, vodka, and bourbon.
As a young writer from Indiana coming of age in New York City, Wakefield recalls, he made a pilgrimage to see the “holy of holies” — the table at the White Horse Tavern where Welsh poet Dylan Thomas had his last drink before staggering toward the door and collapsing; taken to a nearby hospital, Thomas died of alcohol-related illness shortly thereafter, at the age of thirty-nine. “I was thrilled,” says Wakefield. “Maybe I, too, could someday be a great writer and romantic figure . . . and die of alcoholism before the rotting old age of forty!”
Instead, after an unhappy sojourn as a Hollywood screenwriter, Wakefield began gradually to dry out during his late forties, his doctor having alerted him to the danger signals his body was sending. Rather than going cold turkey, Wakefield weaned himself from alcohol and regained his physical health over a period of years. During that time, to his surprise, he found himself returning to the spiritual inclinations of his youth, which he had put aside in college in favor of “a sort of atheistic Freudian optimism spiced with a gloomy stream of Hemingway bravado.” Since Wakefield has been both an acute observer of and a literary participant in American cultural life since that time, it’s more than a little symbolic that his most recent books, including Expect a Miracle (HarperSanFrancisco) and Creating from the Spirit, deal so openly with spiritual themes.
Miller: Many people have to confront their dark side in order to find their source of creativity. What would you say to young artists or writers seeking to face their dark side? You went the route of addiction before you rediscovered spirituality; why shouldn’t they do the same?
Wakefield: First, you don’t have to go looking for your dark side; it’s going to find you, regardless. Second, if you experiment with drugs or alcohol, make sure you’re educated about the risks and dangers. But you’re foolish if you think they’re going to lead you to creativity or spirituality. You can drink or do drugs as part of your own search for experience or entertainment — I wouldn’t tell you not to — but it will probably set you back if you do it too often.
Miller: I know a drug counselor who used to be a heavy marijuana user. He says drugs used to “get him to God” faster than anything else, but later they turned against him. Now he practices yoga and meditation, which he says are slower routes to divine experience, but a lot safer. Do you think drugs actually get you to God, or only to delusion?
Wakefield: It’s delusion, in my experience — not God, not creativity. Even Ken Kesey said recently that he never wrote anything while under the influence, but only after he’d recovered.
The novelist John Cheever is another example. Seven years before he died, he was in really bad shape from drinking. His youngest son, whom he loved dearly, threatened never to speak to him again unless Cheever dried out. So he went into a clinic and told the therapist there, “I’m only here because of my son. I’m a writer who can drink and write at the same time, so I really don’t have an interest in stopping.” The therapist said, “When you drink and write at the same time, does what you write sound as good the next day?” Cheever said he wanted to think about it. Three days later, he came back and said, “I thought about your question, and I’m never going to have another drink.” And he didn’t. Thereafter, he entered one of his most productive periods. He was able to finish Falconer, which he’d been hung up on for a long time, plus another novel, a number of magazine stories, and a play.
Miller: You had notable early successes under the influence of alcohol. Do you think you write better now?
Wakefield: I’ve considered this question very seriously. What I realize is that, although I wrote my first three novels back in my big drinking days, they were written during the periods when I was doing the least drinking. I used to have an office at the Atlantic, and I would go in to work about nine in the morning and work till nine at night. Then I’d go out with the only other guy left in the building, the custodian, and we’d have a pizza and some beer or wine. And that was it. During those periods I wasn’t really getting drunk or going on binges; I was just writing, and the writing filled me up. When I finished a novel is when I would start bingeing, drinking at noon and making myself sick. Looking back now, I think maybe the novels saved my life, or at least my liver.
Malcolm Lowry wrote Under the Volcano, which is always cited as the great alcoholic novel, during a seven-year period when he lived on Vancouver Bay with the woman he loved. He swam every day, exercised a lot, and maybe had a couple of beers at night. He didn’t get drunk while he was writing that novel; but afterward, he went back to drinking himself to death. So it appears even the great alcoholic artists do their best work when they’re not under the influence.
Miller: The myth of the stoned artist is perhaps nowhere stronger than in stories of the Beat Generation, especially those concerning novelist Jack Kerouac.
Wakefield: As I researched my book New York in the Fifties, I realized that I really wanted to like Kerouac. But after reading On the Road, I just couldn’t. I knew that book meant freedom to a lot of people, and Kerouac was an important symbol, but he wasn’t much of a writer. I did enjoy Desolation Angels, though, because there Kerouac was himself looking at the superficiality of it all. There’s a wonderful scene in a hotel room in Tangiers, where he’s listening to people say, “Like, man,” and, “Wow,” and wondering if he’s responsible for this horrible scene.
I feel very differently about Allen Ginsberg, however. Some of the poems in Howl are magnificent. I just started to understand “Sunflower Sutra” ten years ago. Ironically, at the time he was writing it, I was part of the crowd that made fun of all that Buddhist weirdness. My crowd lived in the West Village and the Beats lived in the East Village, and never the twain would meet.
The discipline of sitting down at a desk every day to write . . . is like the discipline of meditating daily; it’s difficult, and part of you revolts against it.
Miller: Has the spiritual turn in your writing cost you your legitimacy among New York literary circles?
Wakefield: Well, my current book was the first not to get reviewed in the New York Times. They did review Expect a Miracle, but they assigned it to a medical doctor, who challenged the medical stories and ignored the rest. About a year ago, the Times reviewed two books about the spiritualists G. I. Gurdjieff and Madame Blavatsky. Both reviews were assigned to comic novelists, who, not surprisingly, made fun of the books. Clearly, this is the literarily correct attitude toward spiritual subject matter. Basil Pennington, the monk who wrote Centering Prayer, has noted that whatever one doesn’t like about religion or spirituality can simply be labeled “new age,” and thus be effectively dismissed. Reynolds Price, the most prominent literary figure involved in issues of faith today, has said that literary hostility toward religion is even stronger in Europe than it is here.
I get the distinct sense that some of my literary peers are afraid I might start talking to them about religion. After a dinner with some of them recently, a woman asked me if I’d noticed a taboo subject at the table: every time the discussion had come anywhere near religion or spirituality, she said, there had been a silence and the clinking of silverware. Perhaps everyone feared I would try to convert them, sell them on some bizarre philosophy.
Miller: Getting back to the Beats, I understand you witnessed Jack Kerouac’s first experience with psilocybin.
Wakefield: Yes, it was in 1960, and I was doing a commissioned piece on marijuana. The main expert of the day was Ginsberg, who was also about the only one gracious and open to people outside his circle. I went to him for help, and he let me use the files at his apartment. One Sunday afternoon when I was there, Ginsberg introduced me to this psychologist from Harvard, Timothy Leary, who had a new, exciting drug that “aided creativity.” Leary was going to give the drug to Ginsberg’s friends to see what they could create while on it.
Leary was then an eager, collegiate guy with a crew cut, and was very excited that I would be there to record this great scientific experiment. “Not only does this drug make people creative,” he said, “it makes them mellow. Take Kerouac, for instance. He’s often angry. Go over and talk to him now that he’s on psilocybin, and you’ll see how mellow he is.”
So I went over and introduced myself, and Kerouac said, “Didn’t you write a bad piece about me for Commentary?”
I said, “No, it was in the Nation.”
He said, “I’d like to throw you out that window!”
So I went back to Leary and told him, “I don’t think your drug has taken effect yet.”
Then Leary called Kerouac over and said, “Jack, I want you to write something in your bop prosody.” Kerouac mumbled that he didn’t feel like writing anything. Leary promised him more drugs if he would write, so, in a little notebook, Kerouac carefully drew a series of lines across a page, then turned it the other way and drew another series of lines. He handed it to Leary, who said, “Very interesting, Jack!” That was the sum of Kerouac’s psilocybin-induced creativity.
Years later, I learned that Kerouac felt his experience with psilocybin had really damaged him, dating back to that very afternoon.
Miller: If drugs or drink don’t enhance creativity, what does?
Wakefield: If I had to come up with a one-word answer, it would be clarity. The key is to clear yourself in order to become a conduit for creativity. In my book Expect a Miracle, Ann Nadel, a San Francisco painter and sculptor, said that when the work is really coming, there’s something flowing through you that’s not you. To me, that feeling is tangible proof of the existence of spirit: something we can tap into that’s beyond ourselves and our senses. The highest goal we can aspire to is to become transmitters of that.
In the creativity workshops I give, I play music and ask the participants to write stories inspired by it. I always wonder where those stories come from: Where were they forty-five minutes ago? How did they materialize? Everybody listened to the same music, but all wrote different stories.
Most of my exercises are sensory exercises. The sense of taste, for example, is underrated as a way of opening yourself creatively. One of the great examples is Marcel Proust’s eating a madeleine, a little cake whose taste reminded him of those he ate as a child, unlocking a rush of memory that became Remembrance of Things Past. In a recent class I gave everyone an apple and asked each person what stories it brought to mind. I’ll always remember the Cuban American woman who told of coming to America as a child and seeing her first apple in a supermarket. (She’d only heard about apples before.) When she took a bite, she was very disappointed; she had expected something sweet and soft like a dessert, and instead, it was hard and tangy. She looked where she had bitten, and saw the white starting to turn brown, and she wondered whether it was defective. Remembering the experience reminded her of how many things about America turned out to be different from what she had imagined. So the apple I’d given her opened up a whole series of stories.
A young writer I once interviewed said that he and his friends didn’t get into drugs or alcohol while growing up. “Instead, we abused entertainment,” he said.
Miller: You also write about the connection between hunger and creativity.
Wakefield: I got the idea from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, in which he talks about being a young writer in Paris, and not having enough money to eat three meals a day. Instead of eating lunch, he would go to a museum and look at paintings on an empty stomach. When he looked at art with that edge of hunger, he saw more. I’ve had the same experience, particularly when I don’t eat or sleep for a long time. It makes your senses sharper, makes you come awake. That’s the point of all the great spiritual teachings and paths: to become awake.
Miller: Is there a parallel between spiritual and creative disciplines?
Wakefield: One is a metaphor for the other, by which I mean that the discipline of sitting down at a desk every day to write, even if you don’t feel like it, is like the discipline of meditating daily: it’s difficult, and part of you revolts against it — you’d rather do busywork, or go for a walk, or even clean the house. You have to develop spiritual or creative focus the way you develop a muscle.
Miller: What advice do you give for getting through creative blocks or depression?
Wakefield: I have an exercise in which you simply look at something in nature in a meditative way for twenty minutes a day. That might work. Another good method is to go outside your own field: a writer might look at paintings, a musician could try to write, and so forth. In the last ten years, I’ve found it increasingly important to get physically unlocked. Once, when I was working on a film script, I got blocked on the endings of two scenes and was about to skip a yoga class to try to finish them. But I realized that I was getting nowhere with the writing anyway, and was very tight and wound up, so I went to class. While I was doing the asanas and not even trying to think about the screenplay, the endings for both scenes suddenly came to me.
One way to get clear is to wring out your body first. The traditional Japanese treatment for depression begins with one week of hard labor — such as carrying bricks or digging trenches — until you’re utterly exhausted. Then you rest for a week in a therapeutic environment. If you tried to rest first, your mind would be racing with the same old depressing thoughts.
Miller: In America the very idea of a week of hard labor would be horrifying! Who wants to work their way out of depression? We’d rather take Prozac.
Wakefield: But that’s the whole problem. Depression is stasis and paralysis: you don’t want to move; you can’t move; moving is painful. So moving is exactly what you have to do.
W. H. Auden’s great poem “September 1, 1939” has these lines: “Faces along the bar / cling to their average day: / the lights must never go out, / the music must always play.” I was very moved by that when I read it in college, and I’ve thought in recent years how, with television, we’ve perfected the state of mind Auden describes: “the lights must never go out”! Now we can just click the remote and numb ourselves perpetually. A friend told me he’d gotten one major thing out of Creating from the Spirit: he’d stopped watching television, and felt much happier and freer for it.
Miller: Television certainly doesn’t inspire much creativity in viewers.
Wakefield: A young writer I once interviewed said that he and his friends didn’t get into drugs or alcohol while growing up. “Instead, we abused entertainment,” he said. They rented lots of videos and played video games and kept the television on constantly. As a result, he had a hard time concentrating on his writing — or anything else — for more than an hour.
Miller: Is there a source of creativity that is not spiritual?
Wakefield: There is the dark side of creativity: the creation and transmission of evil. You could say that Hitler was a very “creative” person, if you wanted to use the word that way. In Expect a Miracle, I talk about “dark miracles,” of which Nazi Germany would certainly be an example.
Or, if you’re writing or creating something primarily for a commercial purpose, to meet a market demand, the process may be more mechanical than spiritual. My favorite quote about creativity and the marketplace comes from Murray Kempton, who wrote in his newspaper column back in the fifties about Mike Wallace’s transition from a tough, intellectual interviewer known only in New York City to a national television reporter for CBS. Kempton feared the change would soften Wallace, because he’d have to please a national audience. Kempton wrote: “The devil never comes offering you something evil. The devil comes offering you a larger audience.”
Miller: There seems to be a fear of popularity in American poetry circles, where you are respected in direct proportion to your obscurity. If a poet is noticed by a popular audience, it can be the death knell for his or her literary reputation.
Wakefield: I think that attitude extends beyond poetry. I have a friend who has three unpublished novels, and there’s some brilliant writing in all three, but the works as a whole are very labored and obscure. I talked to her about them, and it came out that she had been taught at the university that part of being a serious writer is to be unclear about what you’re saying. She thought you were supposed to construct a puzzle for the reader, that simplicity and clarity were too mundane. To be original meant to create confusion.
Here’s what Willa Cather, whom I’ve been studying recently, said about this: “Whether it is a pianist or a singer or a writer, art ought to simplify. That seems to me the whole process. [Jean François] Millet did hundreds of sketches of peasants sowing grain, some of them very complicated, but when he came to paint The Sower the composition is so simple it seems inevitable. It was probably the hundreds of sketches that went before that made the picture what it finally became: a process of simplifying, of sacrificing many things in themselves interesting and pleasing, and all this time getting closer to the one thing: it.”
Miller: One of the great myths about spiritual growth and creativity is that you must do something dazzling — like levitating in meditation — to show your accomplishment.
Wakefield: That reminds me of a story told by George Bowman, a Zen teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about when he met Suzuki Roshi in Japan. To get an audience, Bowman first had to sit in meditation for seven hours, to prove he was a serious student. So he did, and the next day he was given an audience. Suzuki came into the room and asked Bowman, “What is your name?” Bowman froze, thinking this must be a test — that is, that he was supposed to come up with something really profound that would certify all the spiritual learning he had done. His mind raced, and he broke out in a sweat, all the time growing more and more embarrassed over his long silence. Suzuki Roshi stood there looking at him. Finally, in total desperation, he said, “My name is George Bowman.” Suzuki smiled knowingly and said, “My name is Suzuki Roshi,” and they shook hands and had an ordinary conversation. Bowman says it was his first and best lesson in Zen.