2015 Lifetime Achievement: Dan Wakefield

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(NOTE: Dan Wakefield is NUVO's 2015 Lifetime Achievement Cultural Vision Award Winner.)

Dan Wakefield — journalist, novelist and screenwriter; raconteur, spiritual autobiographer and Vonnegut’s Oldest Living Friend (we borrow that epithet from the title of his blog) — has been thinking on the concept of “cultural vision” between bouts of packing and cleaning. He’s been back in his hometown for four years — after living for more than five decades on one coast or the other — and is already preparing to move into his third home here. The key appeal of his new place? It’s within walking distance of the Red Key, one of the two “touchstones for his cultural vision,” along with Indy Reads Books.

“I don’t even know if this counts as vision, but one thing I’ve always loved and that’s inspired me is from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son,” he says in his gravelly, unpretentious way. Here’s the passage in question from Baldwin’s preface to the book: “I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done. I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” When he read that, back when it was published in 1955, Wakefield thought, “‘Wow, that’s about the greatest thing I can aspire to.’”

It might not surprise you that a guy who puts such an emphasis on pragmatism and good work and authenticity isn’t quite sure he qualifies as an innovator or that he’s ready for a lifetime achievement award. But when you add up a lifetime of good work — with liberal helpings of fearlessness and iconoclasm — it’s not hard to make the argument on his behalf. And we can start from the beginning of his professional life.

In 1955, The Nation gave Wakefield, now 83, his first assignment for a national publication: to cover the trial of the murderers of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicagoan lynched in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The way he “got the assignment was a fluke,” but he was looking for his shot: “When I was a freshman in college, I read this quote of Abraham Lincoln that always stuck with me, especially around that time. It was, ‘I will study and get ready and maybe the chance will come.’ And I thought, ‘This was the chance.’”

Wakefield stayed up all night to finish the piece, sending it bleary-eyed from a Western Union office in Jackson in the morning. “It’s sort of ironic, but the first sentence is probably the best sentence I ever wrote,” he says. “That’s kind of discouraging.” It reads: “The crowds are gone and this Delta town is back to its silent, solid life that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it.”

The Nation liked his work and gave him more. He wrote about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers Movement. And then he convinced his editors to send him to Israel. “I read somewhere that Hemingway had said that to be a real writer, you had to have been shot at,” he says. “The easiest place in the world at that time to get shot at was Israel.” He interviewed Golda Meir, then Golda Myerson, who had recently become Foreign Minister. From a 1956 issue of The Nation: “Mrs. Golda Myerson is a tall, sturdy woman of fifty-eight whose appearance and speech bear little resemblance to the image that has been assigned her in the press...” Wakefield had enough to live on for a month, but extended it to half a year by staying on kibbutzes, which would put up any visitor for three days provided he or she did some work. He worked as a hay pitcher, a vegetable picker, a shepherd. And it was when he was bathing in in the Negev Desert, looking up at a sky filled with stars as he maneuvered to intercept a jet of water shooting up from the only pipeline within miles, that he said to himself, ‘‘Well, I’ve come a long way from Indiana.’

He continued to support himself by writing for magazines when he finally got back to the States,. working for GQ, Esquire, Harpers, The New York Times Magazine. And he published several non-fiction books, starting in 1959 with a survey of Spanish Harlem called Island in the City that was, history will record, favorably reviewed by the U.S. Ambassador to Guinea: “In a clearly written document, characterized by sympathetic understanding and authentic knowledge of the plight of Puerto Ricans seeking refuge from poverty, the former journalist, Dan Wakefield, discloses the rude fate that awaits those who must live in New York’s ‘Spanish Harlem.’ Another book, 1969’s Supernation at Peace and War, first reached readers in another form. The Atlantic sent him around the United States in 1968 to write about the impact of the war in Vietnam. His reporting took up the entire issue. Wakefield will allow that he was "a little bit ahead of the game" on that one.

But he still wanted to write a novel. In the early ‘60s, he showed 50 pages of his fiction to his then-publisher. They weren’t impressed: “We think you’re a wonderful journalist, but you’re not a novelist,” Wakefield remembers an editor telling him. He still thinks that was a “shitty thing” to say. It was only when, years later, the Rockefeller Foundation called “out of the blue,” inviting him to apply for a grant, that he bought himself time — and mustered the confidence — to see a novel to fruition. He wrote out a proposal and showed it to Joan Didion and John Dunne, with whom he was staying at the time in Venice, California. “They looked at it and said, ‘You’ll never get the grant.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ They said, ‘You’re not asking for enough money. They won’t take you seriously. You should double it.’ So I did and I got the grant.”

“I really had a great time writing it,” he says of what became Going All the Way. “I said, ‘I’m going to write a book about the way things really were. Not the way they were supposed to be. I was going to have people talk, not the way they were supposed to talk, but the way they really talked.’ It was a great feeling of freedom.” A good sign: Wakefield said that toward the end, he was laughing out loud at the scenes he was writing.

Rockefeller paid for Wakefield to write Going All the Way, but he considers Vonnegut “the godfather of the book.” The Shortridge grads met in person while Wakefield was at Harvard for a journalism fellowship; they had corresponded before that. They bonded over the fact that “they had both been failures since high school as athletes,” says Wakefield. The editor who’d just purchased Slaughterhouse-Five send a copy of Wakefield’s completed manuscript to Vonnegut. The elder writer’s verdict, sent via telegram back to the editor (as remembered by Wakefield): “You must publish this important book. Get this boy in our stable.” Vonnegut went on to review Going All the Way in Life magazine, ironically opining that, “Having written this book, Dan Wakefield will never be able to go back to Indianapolis. He’ll have to watch the 500 Mile Race on television.”

And Wakefield didn’t make any public appearances locally for more than decade after the 1970 publication of the novel, which, to be fair, aims barbs at both Bible-thumpers and Bohemians. “There was such a hostile reaction to it here,” Wakefield says. “People said I was making fun of Indianapolis. I’ve often said that it could have set in Detroit or Cleveland or anywhere in the Midwest. But I don’t know anything about those places, and I do know about Indianapolis.” The only character based on a real person, according to Wakefield, was Gunner, who was modeled after his free-wheeling friend Ted Steeg, whom he memorialized in these pages last year.

Other novels followed: Starting Over, published in 1973; Home Free, in 1977. And then another “out of the blue” opportunity as he was finishing Home Free: “I was happily living in Boston, and out of the blue I got a telephone call, saying, ‘Would you like to write a television script?’” The answer was, “Why not?” and the production company flew him to New York to meet a production bigwig from NBC who “wanted a story about a boy growing up in America — and that was the extent of the idea.” Wakefield wasn’t the first choice: “He wanted to get Salinger to write it, who, of course, would never write anything for TV or movies. But the guy from the production company convinced him that I wrote really well about young people, and if he couldn’t get Salinger, he could get me.”

Wakefield created and served as story consultant on James at 15, an hour-long drama that aired during the 1977-78 season. But he didn’t stick around when the series changed its name to James at 16. Here’s the story: “The network came in and said, ‘When James turns 16, he has to love his virginity.’ We were planning that he wouldn’t do that until he was about 32. I said, ‘If we do that, I want to write that show, and I want to be sure we can talk openly about birth control.’ I knew the censors would make that difficult. So I wrote a thing I thought was so clever they couldn’t possibly complain. I had a dialogue between James and the girl, and James says to her, ‘Before we do this, I just want to check. Are you going to be responsible or am I responsible?’ It’s clear they’re talking about birth control. The dialogue goes back and forth, and they never say ‘rubber’ or anything like that; just ‘responsible.’ The censors’ notes came back and said that in this context, we could not use the word ‘responsible.’ And that’s when I quit. This was on NBC, and three months later, on CBS, there was a movie of the week of Judy Blume’s Now and Forever, in which a girl goes to Planned Parenthood and gets a diaphragm.”

Score another one for the failed athlete; Wakefield was once again ahead of the curve, and he bailed when he could no longer, recalling Baldwin, be either an “honest man” and a “good writer.” He stuck around Los Angeles, creating three TV movies, getting one of them made (The Seduction of Miss Leona in 1980) — but ultimately floundering: “Hollywood is a terrible place for a writer because you have to sell yourself as well as the material, and I was really bad at that. They’d say, ‘Is he a good meeting?’ — meaning, ‘Is he good at doing meetings?’ Joan Didion said to me, ‘Wakefield, I bet you’re a lousy meeting.’ It’s sort of like saying, ‘You’re a lousy fuck!’”

And then came a genuine health crisis: “Feeling myself going downhill and drinking more, I went to a doctor. I said, ‘I have this funny feeling my heart is beating too fast.’ He said, ‘You’re right. Your resting pulse is 120, which is twice what is normal.’” Wakefield headed back to Boston, checked into a cardiac rehab program, lost 20 pounds, got his resting pulse down to 60 — and started going to King’s Chapel, an 18th-century church on the Freedom Trail.

His return to church led to a 1985 article in The New York Times Magazine — titled, straightforwardly, “Returning to Church” — which, in turn, led to a book with a similar title, Returning, and a new career as both a spiritual autobiographer and a person who teaches others how to write spiritual autobiography. Since the article and book “came out of a writing workshop at the church,” he figured he’d pass on what he’d learned, but swap out the word “spiritual” for “religious,” so that everyone could take part, regardless of denomination. He’s since led workshops at health spas and synagogues, think tanks and prisons (one of the best was at Sing-Sing). He did one during Lent at Northminster Presbyterian Church and the next is in Brown County in July (check his Facebook).

Was it an iconoclastic move to write about his spiritual reawakening? Wakefield had hung out in literary, bohemian, humanist circles. But Vonnegut, as famous for being a humanist as he was, didn’t mind. Wakefield said that about a week after he wrote the NYT Magazine article, he found a message on his answering machine: “This is Kurt. I forgive you.” And in Wakefield’s opinion, Vonnegut had a better understanding of Jesus than most Christians. Look for a piece in the near future on his blog on that very topic: “Kurt Vonnegut: Christ-Loving Atheist.”

Wakefield began coming to back to town in a little more public way when he gave a lecture at Central Library in 1984. It went well enough, and he was a part of the city’s literary culture before he started making his home here. And its film culture: “The most fun I ever had in my life was the writing and filming of the movie Going All the Way.” A Sundance winner, the 1997 adaptation starred Jeremy Davies, Ben Affleck and Rachel Weisz and was filmed — unlike a certain very successful YA novel — right in Indianapolis. Of course, that was during the era when the Indiana Film Commission was actively supporting feature film projects. “If I may say something about lack of vision, ending the Indiana Film Commission was the stupidest thing,” Wakefield laments. Well, no, there have been many more stupid things by other governors. But filming a movie here brings a lot of money, a lot of publicity and it employs a lot of people in the arts.”(We’ll add that a successor to the Indiana Film Commission, Film Indiana, is still extant, but no longer offers the same kind of support and incentives that were available when Going All the Way was made.)

That film led to another: A documentary adaptation of Wakefield’s 1992 memoir New York in the ‘50s directed by Betsy Blankenbaker. Attentive readers will have noticed Joan Didion popping up twice in this piece, and talk with Wakefield for a while and you’ll hear more names from his travels — Mia Farrow, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer. (A 1992 New York Times feature on the book proclaimed that, at 60 years old, Wakefield had become “a Boswell of the heady days when art and literature had a singular flowering in the Village.”) Wakefield and Blankenbaker went to New York to interview the people he had written in about the memoir; the results aired on Showtime and are presently available on Netflix.

What’s next for Wakefield? A new edition of his 1982 novel Under the Apple Tree is coming out in September from Hawthorn Publishing, with a new preface by Richard Lingeman, a former executive editor of The Nation born in Crawfordsville.

He’ll continue to spend time at his favorite two spots: The Red Key, which has “the greatest jukebox” he’s ever seen, loaded with hits from the ‘30s and ‘40s. And Indy Reads Books, which has given him “more support and more of a feeling of being a writer here than any other institution.” And that’s not to neglect the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, which was “what brought him back, when the library invited me to speak after I had written an introduction to Vonnegut’s letters.”

He’ll keep having dinner every two months with five of his friends from Shortridge. “I’ve been doing that, really, since I started coming back in the ‘80s. We started out with five guys and three girls. Now there’s two guys and three girls, which shows that women are the healthiest and live the longest.”

And yes, he’s working on another book: “One bad thing about getting a lifetime achievement award is that it sorts of assumes that you’re done. One of my problems since I’ve been back is that I’ve been going back and forth between two books: one non-fiction and one fiction. I’ve decided that I’m going to just do one until I finish the damn thing. I’m going to do the novel. It has nothing to do with Indianapolis, so that’s a relief.”

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