Gil Van Wagner

Posted by on Mar 13, 2013 in 2013, Interviews


Byron:  I shall dive into your questions as fully as possible. Here…..we…..go……

Gil, it was such a pleasure meeting you and getting the chance to hear your story. Your writing really resonates with me because you share so deeply. It is a very dangerous line you are walking, as we discussed on the phone. You share fearlessly.

What is your perspective on sharing and story telling? Can a writer ever be too honest?

I ask this because when I write, sometimes I catch myself editing because I feel that it might be taken the wrong way or hurt someone by being taken out of context.

Gil: My words are my legacy. That is the core of the writing. The why of it for me. It is a gift of storytelling that is to be shared freely and fully.

What do we leave behind? Betterment? Truth? Example? Our humanity with all its highs and lows so that others may see and know and choose? The danger lies in disappearing without a trace. Even worse, in leaving behind something other than what we were. A mirage. An illusion. A slight of hand.

Whoever looks shall know me if they care to see. As Popeye said, “I am what I am and that’s all what I am”. The words rise above my own dust waiting in the wings.

Byron: How do you feel cancer has changed your perspective in story telling?

When I read your stuff, I get the feeling you are writing as if each piece is your last. Is that your intention, and if not have you heard that before from your readers?

Gil: Every word outlasts me. I write all the time. As of this moment, there are 198 pages of items “In Work”, 6 pages of which are merely one line reminders of entire documents in various stages. Things written there may merely be for me to noodle. There are one-line truths, poems, and bits and pieces of things that might be part of something important or merely fragments of nothingness. It is a go to document for inspiration, humbling, and more. Some of those things move to posting for they let me know it is time. Time to birth. Words pushed to the world are out there forever. Notes in a bottle set adrift on the sea of eternity.

Every piece could be my last. That remains to be seen. Everything will out last me. That I know. It really doesn’t matter if they are remembered as mine as long as they are remembered. Let them fly on whispers and laughter and shine long after anyone remembers my face or name. What we did and left behind is more important than who we were.

Has cancer changed my perspective? Only in reminding me of the tick-tock of now. In the peace of knowing more of me is in the world while cancer is limited to the vessel of flesh. My words are cancer survivors……..forever.

Byron: When we talked, you went through many of the books you have written, giving me the story of how they came together and how you seem to channel the voices of others through your writing process.

This is amazingly interesting to me because when I read your stuff, I always thought it was first person perspective, but now I realize you are acting as merely a narrator for others. Sometimes dead loved ones, or even the voice of a woman in New Jersey you never have met.

How clear are their stories when you hear them on your walks? Can you ask them questions, or is it like a dream state? Are you in a sort of walking meditative state?

Gil: The path of others speaking through me began with automatic writing exercises. Setting a timer, thinking of a word, and typing free flow. Above punctuation, grammar, editing, and fear. Those exercises freed my voice. At least, hints of it. I was out of the way. The messages in the seeming gibberish showed truths. Linking all of me in ways new and even frightening. It was the beginning of dangerous writing.

Soon, my voice was louder than my fear of being seen. Soon, I was a writer.

“Jersey Sure” was the first book. My youth. It was storytelling based on facts…and love and embellishment. It is me……at ten years old.

The chapter “The Haircut (Barber Shops and New Chevys)” was the first time a character took over my writing. It began as me having the ten year old me in the book head to the barbershop. My goal was to tell of the barbershop experience so much a part of being a ten year old in the 60s. The character began to move on his own. He headed over to a milk machine, yes there were milk machines, and looked for money that might have been dropped. Found an anthill, ran into a buddy, and headed to points far away from the barbershop. The writer in me tried to move him and he just headed off on his own. It took me a while to realize, he was off and running. I followed and wrote about his adventures. I laughed knowing he was not going to make it to the barbershop and would be in trouble when he got home. Wondered how the heck he was going to get out of the mess he created with each diversion. It was a blast writing a story revealed in the making of the character that was me and not me.

Years later, my Uncle asked me to write his story. His forty years of sobriety. It was to biographical at his request. On my morning walks during the writing, I felt my father and my grandmother, both long deceased, walking with me. Each morning. Soon, they shared stories with me. Family stories I included in the book on my Uncle. My Uncle asked how the heck I knew the stories since he had not told me them. Explained to him it was his brother and mother telling me. He was stunned.

In the midst of it all, my Uncle backed away from the book. He changed his mind. I honored his request and silently hoped he would reconsider. On the morning walks, my father stayed with me. That had me wonder. Was he there because Tom would come around and want the story? Was he there just to be with me? It continued for days. I settled in and enjoyed his company. Then I noticed he was smoking. Why would you smoke in the afterlife? Twenty-eight years dead and still smoking? Because he could? What other habits had he kept? What other human choices? Then I realized my father had yet to recover. He had yet to choose sobriety. The book was not supposed to be about Tom. It was to be my father doing the 12 steps. “Dead Drunk” began that day. I sponsored my father in AA. My father lwrote “Dead Drunk”. I was just his typist and sponsor.

Years later, another voice spoke. I heard it. Heard her. Felt her words and story. Mallory. Knew the images seen were bits and pieces of places I knew yet the story was her and her dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s. A story that began at the end because Mallory’s father had already died. Soon, Mallory spoke freely and I wrote. There was a time when she went quiet. Made me wonder if the story was done. Did not force it. Could not force. Accepted it. A few months later, she returned and was ready to tell the rest of the story. It became “Fuggeddaboudit”.

Several people did just as you did, Byron. They thought it was me speaking. That my father died from Alzheimer’s. I explained it was Mallory’s story and that I suspected Mallory was out there somewhere. A real person whose story “channeled” through me.

Kinda weird, ain’t it?

Then a reader from New Jersey emailed me and said it was great that someone told Mallory’s story. She knew Mallory and loved that I told her story.

Kinda weird, ain’t it?

Byron: I have heard that writers have this power to see stories completed, and they are merely giving it life and allowing it to take its first steps.

Is that how you see your stories, as completed works, or do they flesh themselves out through your working process?

This one makes me smile. I suspect where the stories are going……..and then am reminded of my place as reporter rather than director. Some stories just stop……and taunt me to force them. Others head off on their own and basically tell me to shut up and type. My stories have the power. The words have the power. They use all of me in the process of birthing….and I can see bit and pieces of me in them… well as wondering if there is any of me in them. My best work comes when I surrender and let the Muses have their way.

Byron: Thinking of process, I am interested in your backyard garden and how much food your household is growing. Do you find the garden becoming part of your writing?
Has the nurturing of plant life and seeing it come to fruition been instructive of nurturing your writing projects.

Gil:The garden is indeed linked to all things……and effects the writing very directly. In 2008, I made a dramatic and life changing decision. Over the recommendations of my accountant and the IRS, I liquidated all my assets and paid off as much debt as I could. The Accountant and the IRS said the penalty in fees and taxes based on early withdrawal of IRAs and 401ks would be too much and to just declare bankruptcy. Quite frankly, it pissed me off. It also showed me that the system was broken. To recommend walking away from valid obligations rather than use available resources to honor them is to dishonor promises made. I liquidated and then let the IRS come after me. When they did, I said perhaps bankruptcy was the right option now. They opted for a payment plan that will likely outlive me.

In that shift, I was forced to make life changes that were some of the best ever…….and that I must admit would likely not have been made unless it was forced. Gardening became essential for health and self-sufficiency. Walking the neighborhood and riding my bike became the norm. Met neighbors. Really got to know them. One, Paul Farber, is an expert on self-sufficiency. He truly introduced me to gardening. Even worked with him putting in tire planters in a few local community gardens. His example inspired me to start “Green Arts’ in Facebook and further review each and every choice of diet and purchases. The learning was deep and rich. It opened me to a world of people who honor the impact each of their choices have on the planet and every living thing on it. My writing became more personal and global in the process. We can save the world…..beginning with our own back yard. I see that change every day. My world is what I make it and my world is joyous. It is a garden spot and I share the fruits of labor freely with neighbors around the globe.

Byron: Also, as far as process goes, I am interested in your writing studio or area. Can you describe it for me? When do you write, how many hours a day?

Gil: Although I write in many places, the most common one is my office. It was a bedroom at one time and allows for privacy. It is where I am caged to work. To produce. To feel and report. I usually spend a few hours a day sharing, creating, and putzing. It is free flow in many ways yet does have routine to it. The words flow when the words flow. Lots of inspiration comes in the shower and it is very common to capture those thoughts quickly and go where they go. It is common for me to get up once in the middle of the night and capture thoughts from dreams. Things that might show more light with the dawn.

Byron: You mentioned setting deadlines for projects. What does that entail? If you do not hit a deadline what do you do then?

Gil: It is rare for me to set a deadline for a work. One exception was my work on “Notes to Mom”. It began as book of poems. Poems written over many years. Decided it was time to collect and edit them for free download. Began as a summer project with the idea of doing the Top 100 akin to the Billboard Charts. Actually started on that work and the document “disappeared” on my computer.

As with most things, I took that as something spiritual. Trusted I would find it again if it was meant to be. Then trusted there was some reason for the disappearance and peeled it back for weeks. One day, in the shower, I was driven to write to my Mother to explain a bit about the poems. Felt the need to show her my work. To send her notes in the afterlife explaining how the poems felt and what they meant to me. Did a few notes and realized that was to the poem book.

The notes to my mother were soul ripping. They became more important then the poems. It became a singular focus with the sense of some deadline looming. I looked at the calendar and saw Solstice, the Equinox a few months off and realized the completed book would be a wonderful gift for people. That birthed the “deadline”.

Several weeks into the project, I was diagnosed with cancer. Bam. It fed into the project and changed the feel of the perceived “deadline”. There was a new urgency in the book. My soul was emptied in the writing. It was deeply spiritual. I was spent. Yet then flowed the writing about the cancer experience. I was made to share it. Picked up like a drained and empty puppet and commanded “More!”. I obeyed.

On a side note, “Notes to Mom” was completed and given to people a week ahead of schedule.

Byron: When you write, you said you try to not edit and you actually have someone who helps you edit your work. What is the relationship with your editor?
How did you meet? How many books have you worked on together?

Gil: The person that edits my work and makes them ready for smashwords is Malia Legros.
I am her life coach, mentor, and more. In that process, she offered to edit my work so it could be published. Quite frankly, if it were not for that, much of it would remain fragmented and even out of view. My forte is to spew my soul……..editing for format and all that jazz has my attention for barely a nano-second. It is her work that makes all that possible.

The five books on smashwords were her doing.

In that process, she asked some key questions about things that improved the work. One of the questions helped me realize how “dangerous” my writing had become. It was during the work on “Reports from the Frontal Lobe”. The question……”Do you really want to share some of this with the whole world?” It gave me pause so I looked at some of the items she thought might be a bit much for such a broad audience. The concerns were valid…….if I was showing less than all of me. The book went ahead and has me hanging out there for anyone to see. Their opinion, pro or con, is about them. I am comfortable with that reality.

That level of freedom in exposure prepared me for the depth of “Notes to Mom”. What comes will be shared. I am a writer.

Byron: How long did you study with your shaman, and are you two still in touch? Does she help you with your writing process as well? What were her credentials
for being a shaman? I’ve always been interested in urban shamans and feel that is something that is needed in our society.

Gil: We are missing the witch doctors in our cultures. The town philosopher. The Socrates on the corner. Do you see that as the role of the shaman and or artists?

I studied with my Shaman for years. She changed my life. She is a licensed massage therapist and we met through connections with my wife and her network of friends. I showed up at a Halloween party as a pirate and was hamming it up for anyone that noticed. She noticed and we spoke of massage and energy work, both things that intrigued me but that I had yet to try. A few days later, I scheduled a massage with her.

In that first session, we spoke of many things and she answered my questions about what the heck energy work was. It called to me in ways that touched on great insights of self as well as fear. Scheduled another session with her and obeyed an instinct at the beginning of the session when I turned to her, took her hand, and said, “I trust you. Go wherever you are supposed to go.” She smiled a smile that would have me squirm many, many times for the next few years and said, “Alright.”

The learning was nothing short of incredible. Energy work. Assignments. Books to read. Exercises in sensory deprivation. Places to visit. Skills to learn. She became a dominant force in my life and I realized she was a Shaman. It opened me to journal in full disclosure, probe each of my own intentions, evaluate each life choice, and own that my world was exactly what I made it.

In time, I ended up sharing much of what she taught me with others. Became their life coach. Explored things beyond my own comfort level and realized the great learning that hides inside of our fears.

She merely pointed to places and things and learning. Then she held me accountable to what I chose to do with the information and what was learned in the doing. It opened me to a new me and a world of spirituality that honored and then dwarfed everything prior.

We need Shamans. Life coaches. Kindred spirits. Mentors. Tribe and herd. I became who I truly am and the Shaman helped me. I hope I share that gift with many others.

The Shaman and I parted company when my resources shifted. Another lesson for me on giving of self. When I learned Swedish Massage, Reiki, and other body and energy work things, it was my choice to give away the sessions to ensure people could come when they needed, regardless of resources. Balance and trust that what is given is returned many fold.

Byron: When did you know that you could not quit writing? Speaking to you, I know you find a lot of comfort through the writing process. It empowers me. Makes me feel as if
I am part of the everything. As if the universe speaks through me. Can you speak to that for a moment because we mentioned writing on autopilot?

Can you remember when you did not have this connection to writing how you felt? When you do not write, how do you feel?

Gil: My writing was linked to my relationship with money….although that was not clear to me until I changed my relationship with money. Writing was something I did on occasion…….while moving on the career path that measured success with promotions and accumulation of wealth. My writing was used when needed while other things became the things I did each day. Accountability. Leadership. Learning. Commitment. Teamwork. Many other things became the best use of my time and talents. Writing helped…..but was used on demand rather than as a gift. Writing as a career? Making money writing? Too iffy for me so I chose other careers.

As life changes had me writing more, the writing became more urgent. More true. As my relationship with money and the accumulation of wealth changed, my writing became freer. There is irony in that. I did not write because I did not trust there would be audience. I do write because I trust there will be an audience. It was money that determined my fear……and then lost its power over me.

Writing is my gift and it is to be shared. I choose to honor it and let it be my legacy for it is the thing I brought with me and shall leave behind when I return to wherever. I was sent to deliver words about my experience. That is why I write. For others. It has become my calling……full disclosure.

Byron: You write poetry as well. What do you feel the role of the poet is in today’s society? It does seem poetry is one of the least respected of the arts. Do you agree, and if
so why do you think that is so?

Gil: Poets are writers. Writers are artists. Artists show their souls for others to see. In the sharing, others see what they see. New things. Old things. Answers. Self. Others. Those that choose to see will see and the artist has touched in the seeing. We are to live our art in the way we are called to do so and, in doing so, touch the world.

Respect comes from inside. We respect what we determine is the measure of our worth. When we place that measure in other’s hands, we must then earn our respect from them. We will know we did well only when they let us know.

Each of us is a gift. A beautiful gift. We must respect our gifts and then we can respect everyone else’s.

Maybe there is a poem in there somewhere. Quite likely.

Byron: If you had just begun taking your writing seriously and had a new lease on life and wanted to figure out how to adjust to making it something you could do full-time,
how would you go about it?

Gil: I have, I do, and I am.

Byron: We also discussed how the monetary system is essentially a scam and that paying our debt off is the first step to freedom. What do you suggest is the second
step to freedom if that has been completed?

Gil: The first step is the beginning. Each day thereafter is a learning of choices on the path to self-sufficiency. Once we declare Financial Freedom, we are free. While it can take years to rise above the self-inflicted wounds of debt, the first step to filling in a hole is to stop digging. Then we focus on daily things that enhance all aspects of our life. Health. Family. Sharing. Global responsibility. Everyday we move to the light of joy and sharing. We find how much more we have already and how much we have to share with others. The world becomes sweeter and easier.

To begin is enough. All else follows.

Byron: Do you feel that artists are closer to some sort of universal truth? If so, why do you think it is that way?

Gil: I think the world is closer to Universal Truth. We are on this side of a major shift. Everyone feels it. For some, it is felt in fear and they begin to horde, hide, and live a life of either/or. For others, it is felt in ways of gathering of light and love. Everyone deserves joy. Everyone. There is enough for all of us and we must learn to share as we live in peace where everyone is a neighbor and all life is respected.


Here are some images of the garden. Will be sending in a few more in two emails to follow. Will included a piece called “Pea Gravel Miracle” that related to the garden and included in “Reports from the Frontal Lobe”. In doing the garden, I did my best to use existing things or trust in the flow of all things. Hence, the many tire planters, the pool ladder turned decoration, a rock river build one rock at a time from local fields and assembled on labor of self and family. The pea gravel path was a bit problematic since I needed so much pea gravel and it sat waiting for quite some time. Folks asked and I said, “Trust. If it is meant to be pea gravel, it will come.” Became a bit of a joke. That is, until it happened.




Pea Gravel Miracles

Someone wished me well today and pea gravel appeared just as needed. Not sure who wished me well but they did just this afternoon. Once they did, the other stuff kicked into motion. Pea gravel went from a need to a reality that quickly. The positive energy of a well wished well wish changed the flow of things.

The first time I saw the ad for free pea gravel the other day, it was an hour old and already gone. Poof! Before I had a chance to act, someone else did. Some around me felt a bit of woe. Some opportunity missed feeling. Kinda natural. We needed pea gravel, someone offered a bunch free, and we missed it. Drats.

I was actually reassured. It showed me that pea gravel, or anything else needed, will surface when needed. Yes, that batch found another home. Something else would come though….just what needed when needed. I was happy as a lark. The fleeting pea gravel reassured. Things get to those that need. One person’s excess pea gravel is another person’s treasure. How cool is that?

Emailed the person that listed the pea gravel. Said if things changed, I would happily give the pea gravel a good home. That was a few days ago. My vigilance in watching the free websites did increase in the meantime. Pea gravel or something just right for the path in the blossoming tire garden would surface soon.

Then today someone wished me well. If you are that person, you know it. Thanks. Once you wished me well, the phone rang. It was 12:51 this afternoon. The man with the pea gravel said it was mine if I was still interested. Interested? I was ecstatic and let him know it. Would make as many trips as necessary tomorrow and get as much as was available and possible. Woooooo Hooooooo. I thank my well wisher. Will play it forward. Many times. After all, pea gravel makes for nice pathways.


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