W.H.S. Gebel


From childhood I was drawn to writing. My mother read me bedtime stories and  I responded by telling her stories. When I started reading for myself, I became fascinated with science fiction tales. In elementary school I  wrote several chapters of a science fiction novel and later helped to produce a writer’s journal in high school. I became fascinated with nineteenth century literature and tried to imitate many writing styles. In college I kept a diary exploring my thoughts and feelings and experimenting with poetry. 

However, I never considered writing to be a serious occupation. With my father’s urging I pursued a scientific career, studying astrophysics, influenced by my interest first in science fiction and then in cosmology. I completed a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin, spent a year as a postdoc at the University of Chicago Yerkes Observatory, and became an assistant professor at SUNY at Stony Brook on Long Island. It was an exciting place to be. Many bright young astronomers joined the department. Though it was a place of great opportunity, I found that I wasn’t satisfied. I felt out of place. I couldn’t imagine dedicating my life to this kind of work, as glamorous as it might seem to others. What else might I do with my life? I had job security at Stony Brook. I was told that I would be given tenure. I dreamed again of being a writer. I even signed up for a Great Writers’ course but that went nowhere.

At that time I went through such psychological stress that I saw a therapist and soon went through a breakthrough. It opened me up to an interest in spirituality. I went shopping for a spiritual path and after sampling half a dozen, found myself instantly at home at a Sufi gathering. I joined the Sufi Order International and at a summer camp, I had the opportunity to meet in private  with the Sufi leader Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, telling him that my occupation as an astrophysicist didn’t meet the needs of my soul. To my astonishment he suggested becoming an actor. Before I lost my nerve I went directly to sign up with a theater training program that was announced at the same camp. It changed my life. Diving into improvisational theater opened up a well of creativity that served me in all aspects of my life. It gave me new confidence. I was able to drop out of academic life and enter full time into the world of improvisational theater. 

I continued to write in private. My interest in writing never flagged. When I fell in love with my future wife who already had three children from a previous marriage and I had to earn a decent living, I turned to technical writing. 

From the beginning it was clear that my purpose in life had a great deal to do with writing. My private writings were dreamy and unfocused. Perhaps I needed the discipline of an academic training to develop my concentration and will power. Going through a breakdown and a breakthrough was also necessary to bring out a buried strength and faith. I came out of it feeling stronger and more authentic. Training in improvisational theater unleashed a wild streak of creativity that I feel now I have in reserve and can call upon as needed. My heart has been nourished by living in the bosom of my beloved family. The work for many years to support them helped to mature me and test my facility in adapting to many demanding situations. 

When I discovered the Sufi teachings about fulfilling one’s purpose in life in Mastery Through Accomplishment by Hazrat Inayat Khan, I tried to put them into practice in my life and in my work as a writer. What I have reaped from that exploration I have shared in my book, Root Speaks to Bud.