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Over a month ago, a few of us were asked if we’d be willing to blog about Junot Diaz’s visit to Lighthouse, and I readily agreed. I’ve been an admirer of his writing for a long time, and an instant fan when he shared his thoughts about the writing life during The Writer’s Studio. Susanna Donato posted an excellent (and funny) summary of his amazing craft talk (see this post), but somehow my blog was not written (note the passive voice). I received gentle reminders a couple of times, and reassurance that it was not too late to submit. And yet I hesitated.
Then Jake Adam York died this past Sunday (see this post). And my first impulse was to write. Because although I didn’t know him personally, his life so exemplified the things I most wanted to say about Junot’s visit to Lighthouse, or at least my understanding of Jake’s life, and my interpretation of what Junot said. But the more something matters, the harder it is to do, and what I want to share really really matters to me.
The first part of Junot’s craft talk was about fear, and what keeps us from writing (or what keeps us from writing to the best of our abilities). For me (and many, if not most (if not all) writers), the following things get in my writing way (and have been getting in the way of writing this blog post): the fear of being judged, the fear of making a fool of myself, the fear of being misunderstood, the fear of being understood and dismissed, the fear of [fill in the blank]. I was afraid (ahem, still am) that what I have to say, what I want so badly to communicate, will not come across properly. Because I want to talk about spiritual connection.
Did Junot use these words? No, but he opened his talk by saying that coming together in a collective to learn (like we were) is like a religious experience. He also said that teaching and learning are the least respected sacraments in our world today. Okay, I went to church when I was younger, I sang in the choir–I know what these words are about. You use these words when you want to talk about something that is beyond the usual boundaries of daily life. “It is not a sin to deceive fear,” he said when addressing those fears which keep us from living the deeply intellectual life of an artist.
Most of our fears come from a place of not healing, that place from the past where we felt judged in some way, where we felt we weren’t heard. If you imagine yourself living without fear, then you allow yourself to heal and to tap into the universal. The desire to tell a story and to create art is a sign of mourning and grieving, it’s how we figure out how to heal ourselves.
Mourning, grieving–it’s what a lot of us have been doing lately, both on a national/global level, and back here at Lighthouse and in the Denver writing community on a much more personal level. It seems that we can never be fully healed because life will always give us something to mourn and grieve about. But we still try to heal, and telling our stories helps us do that.
I have 2300 words of notes, yet I didn’t write down the last words Junot said, because I was listening, in awe and gratitude. However, the theme is there throughout. Junot kept talking about love. Where does the courage come to write, to rewrite, to engage again and again with the artistic life? It comes from love. The love of words, the love of books. If you admit that literature saved your life, then you can write from a place of love. When you lose faith in yourself, return to the books which saved you in the first place. Be true to your love of books.
In Junot’s last comments (unrecorded, at least by me), I began to associate his use of the word “love” as meaning basically “life force” or “the energy which connects us all.” We don’t know if something we write now in obscurity will have an impact on someone living two hundred years from now, but we need to write anyway. Because by writing, we participate in the ongoing conversation about life and love, which started with the first story a person ever told and which will go on long after we all are gone.
That’s what got me, the understanding that every time I write, I’m not alone. When writing is about being part of a larger community, when writing becomes about contributing to a conversation that is bigger than any of us will ever be alone, when writing equals love for words and books and for each other, then we can leave fear behind and continue to be in conversation with all those writers we know, and those who came before us, and those who will come after.
Was I wrong to connect Jake Adam York, his life and untimely death, with these musings about Junot Diaz and living life as an artist? From all the things I’ve been reading about Jake since Sunday–blog posts and Facebook tributes and links to his poems & interviews–I don’t think so, or at least I hope not. Through his work as a writer, and teacher, and mentor, and friend, Jake lived life as a fully engaged artist. On Jake’s Facebook page, Dinty Moore posted something Jake once said: “Literature makes us better people, in an ethical, moral, and political sense. That literature that moves us—this is one form of the soul.” Sounds like he was saying the same thing as Junot, right?
The magic of living a deeply artistic life–and for most of us associated with Lighthouse and this blog, this means through the art of writing–the magic is that Jake is still part of the conversation. We can write to him, we can write for him, we can write with him. Because as long as we write, as long as we continue to engage as deeply as we can with this baffling roller coaster called “life,” as long as we keep trying to translate life’s meaning into words, Jake will be with us. He still is. Go ahead, talk to him. Go ahead and write.