Alice McDowell, Ph.D., recently published her second book, Dance of Light: Christian, Sufi and Zen Wisdom for Today’s Spiritual Seeker (Wisdom Editions, 2022). Dr. McDowell graciously answered our questions about writing a book on the Spiritual Journey, her own publishing journey, advice for marketing and more.
Inspiration for Writing a Book on the Spiritual Journey
Geri: I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dance of Light: Christian, Sufi and Zen Steps to Spiritual Realization. In the preface you explain your journey to discover spiritual growth. Will you take a minute here to describe that process for our readers? Was there something in your early childhood education that prompted you to want to explore your deeper questions, or did this begin with your father’s early death when you were 11?
Alice: I had some experiences as a child which attuned me to the spiritual. Both my parents—one Catholic and one United Methodist—took church life seriously. But it was only when my father died that I started to ask those deep questions. As a result, I minored in religious studies in college, received a Ph.D. in theology in graduate school, and began working sequentially with guides from Christian, Sufi and Zen traditions. However, my deepest answers and experiences came from participating in many individual and group retreats.
Writing with the Reader and their Spiritual Journey in Mind
Geri: Did you have a particular person in mind as you wrote or whom did you envision as your readership and what are your hopes for what this wonderful book will do for your readers?
Alice: When writing, I kept in mind the many individuals and groups I’ve guided over the years. I wanted to help as many people as possible navigate the vicissitudes of the spiritual journey. After writing the book, I was surprised and pleased to find the answers to many of the questions retreatants would ask were already in the book. I also wanted readers to see the similarities among the varying mystical traditions, not only to help build tolerance but also to point to an underlying truth in all of them.
Writing Challenges / Finding Voice
Geri: What challenges did you face in writing and publishing this work and how did you overcome those challenges?
Alice: There were many. I had a difficult time finding my voice. At first, I used a more intellectual style. My editor, Lisa Tener asked if I wanted my book to be academic or trade. Wanting it to reach a wider audience than scholars and students, I decided to address readers in a personal and intimate way as if they had come for spiritual guidance.
Another challenge was the title. Lisa rightly negated each of my suggestions until my family sat down one Thanksgiving to brainstorm the title. With three generations and great repartee, we decided on Dimensions of Light. However, Lisa thought “dimensions” was too mathematical a term. Using various words in a stream of consciousness, a friend and I finally landed on Dance of Light. These were only two of the many challenges I faced in writing my book.
In addition to help from Lisa, I found when minor challenges arose that quieting the mind and listening for a deeper answer for the best way to proceed works well. Daily meditation also helps reduce any upsets or anxieties arising from the challenges.
Using your Voice
Geri: What is your favorite chapter in Dance of Light and why?
Alice: That’s an interesting question. I think I like the chapter on the Dark Night of the Soul the best because I had found my voice by then and the words flowed effortlessly through me. Over the years, I had collected many poignant descriptions of the dark night experience which aligned nicely within the narrative. I was even able to include a humorous poem and story to balance the solemnity of this stage of the journey.
Marketing a Book the Second Time Around
Geri: Dance of Light is your second published book. Are there lessons learned from publishing your first award-winning book, Hidden Treasure: How to Break Free of Five Patterns that Hide Your True Self that served you well the second time around?
Alice: Hidden Treasure blazed the trail for Dance of Light. I knew the process, what to expect from a publisher, and how to begin marketing.
The Power of Tight Editing
Geri: Did you do a lot of pruning or do you just write succinctly? Any advice on tightening one’s writing?
Alice: I did a lot of pruning! My advice is to put aside what you’ve written and come back a day later and then return to it again a week or so later. With this method, I became less attached to certain words, phrases or ideas and could ascertain whether they were worth keeping or not. After completion, I read the entire manuscript over several times—always finding phrases I could eliminate or clarify.
Geri: Your book is filled with quotations and images. I especially enjoyed the Zen Oxherding images that I hadn’t seen before. How long have you been collecting these materials?
Alice: I began collecting these materials forty years ago, when I began teaching mysticism and world religions at Ithaca College. You could say Dance of Light is a culmination of much of my life’s study and personal experience.
Creativity While Writing
Geri: You write about heightened creativity as a result of this work. Can you describe this state for us and how it showed up for you? Did you experience it when you were working on the writing of this book?
Alice: Most of us have experienced a time when our actions become effortless and beyond our thinking. When sitting down to write, I would try to open up to “higher energies,” or “higher beings,” asking for help in my writing. When I became stuck, I would sit quietly or take a brief walk. Suddenly an idea or word would come to me. I would always respond to this gift with a thank you.
Most mornings when I awoke, I would get information on wording or how to proceed with the next step. I felt I had some kind of team working with me. Some would say this was simply my intuition operating, but where does intuition come from anyway? For me I sensed some kind of assistance, which helped me with the overall concepts and design, but less with the actual words. It was a partnership.
Accessing Flow When Writing
Geri: Do you have any specific advice for enhancing creativity or entering a flow state when you write?
Alice: Any daily practice that quiets the mind helps access this flow. I ask for help, which opens me up to something greater, and when it comes, I respond with gratitude. In speaking about the importance of paying attention to your dreams, C.G. Jung indicated that you probably would not continue to give a person advice if they never responded. This is true for dreams and also my writing. Acknowledging what insights come to me with a thank you leaves the lines of communication open.
Purifications, Pandemics and Wars
Geri: I’m struck by the section in your chapter on purification called Societal purifications, pandemics and wars. We find ourselves now in the midst of both. Will you share your thoughts on these current purifications here?
Alice: When COVID-19 required social isolation, it paralleled on a global scale the experience of an individual on retreat. When all outer distractions and influences cease, negativities that need to be recognized and released can surface. During the pandemic shutdown, many had negative or traumatic experiences but didn’t have the tools needed to release or transform them. But it did show us what needed healing in our lives.
The pandemic has caused a lot of heartache, pain and death but I believe it also is forcing people to reexamine their beliefs. We now see the importance of family, of more time home, of needing fewer material goods, of connecting with the planet and helping to save nature. The tragedy in Ukraine makes many of us raise the question of why there is suffering in the world. I try to address the reason for suffering in Dance of Light, although there is no simple answer.
Summoning Help in your Journey
Geri: You write about the many guides who helped you in your spiritual journey. How did these guides help you?
Alice: Most guides know the workings of your inner life, encourage you to move beyond egoic limitations and help prevent you from traveling down unproductive paths. They help you clear away all that is not you to discover who you really are. These proved true for my guides. They told me what needed clearing in my life and how to eliminate or transform them. They gave me practices to develop my spiritual life further. These guides encouraged and supported me, always pointing me in the right direction. They helped me discern my inner guide apart from the other voices in my head, so eventually I would no longer depend on their outer guidance.
Finding a Publisher
Geri: How did you find and attract a publisher?
Alice: At first, I looked online for publishers who print spiritual books and discovered a publisher near me whose staff I knew. However, they were not accepting any books at the time.
A friend of mine whose book had been published by them suggested a literary agent, Jill Swenson of Swenson Books., who contacted publishers and negotiated the offer from Calumet Editions.
5 Star Amazon Reviews
Geri: All of your reviews on Amazon are 5 Stars. How early in the process did you set your book review strategy and how did you go about it? What tips do you have for authors who are hoping to receive positive reviews of their book?
Alice: I asked a number of spiritually-oriented and articulate acquaintances and friends who had volunteered their support for my writing efforts if they would be willing to read an early copy of Dance of Light, write a review, and when the book was published to inform their social media contacts. I promised them a thank you dinner once the book was formally launched. Many responded yes to my request which formed my team of helpful supporters. It has been thrilling to read reviews of others who have written reviews of their own volition.
Marketing Advice and Resources
Geri: What marketing activities have you planned to help promote Dance of Light and what have you learned from this process? Is there a difference from marketing your first book?
Alice: I moved to a new house at our retreat center a few months after the publication of Hidden Treasure and didn’t have the time devoted to marketing as I do now. This time, I decided to hire a social media person, McCadden of Honey Sweet Harmony, since it’s my weakest skill. Since the pandemic, much of marketing a book has gone virtual. My book launch event last month was on Zoom, through Buffalo Street Books. Later this spring an in-person book signing may be announced. I will give book presentations in various places as I did for Hidden Treasure. Both books are on sale at our Light on the Hill Retreat Center and can be ordered from any local bookstore.
Geri: What advice would you have for authors who are working to come up with a marketing strategy for their book?
Alice: First of all, it’s important to find a good marketing person. Second, you can get many questions answered through the Authors Guild, an excellent organization whereby authors give advice on other author’s questions concerning any issues connected with publishing. Third, it’s helpful to research specialty and local bookstores, relevant podcasts, libraries, and magazines where you might submit an article or ad, and don’t forget to think about relevant book groups.
Alice McDowell Ph.D.
Alice McDowell, Ph.D., co-founded Light on the Hill Retreat Center in 1991 where she continues to guide people on their spiritual journeys. In addition to her latest book, Dance of Light: Christian, Sufi and Zen Wisdom for Today’s Spiritual Seeker (Wisdom Editions, 2022), she is author of Hidden Treasure: How to Break Free of Five Patterns that Hide Your True Self (She Writes Press, 2017).
As a professor of religious studies at Ithaca College for eighteen years, she taught courses in mysticism, world religions, depth psychology, and women’s studies, and received the Dana Fellow for Excellence in College Teaching. McDowell has a doctorate in theology from Fordham University and has trained with Sufi and Buddhist teachers, Christian contemplatives and transpersonal psychologists.
Alice McDowell is an author, spiritual director, workshop leader, retreat guide, and founder of the Hidden Treasure Program—a three-year training in personal growth.
Here is a recording of Alice McDowell’s author talk at Buffalo Street Books: