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Junot and Jake

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.

Jake Adam York

11 comments on “Junot and Jake

  1. John Holley
    December 19, 2012


  2. andreadupree
    December 19, 2012

    This is just beautiful, Laurie. Thank you, thank you. xo

  3. Karen Palmer
    December 19, 2012

    Oh, Laurie. This is so lovely.

  4. susannadonato
    December 19, 2012

    THIS IS SO BEAUTIFUL! Definitely, definitely deserving of all caps, and more. I’m so glad you wrote it, and that I got to read it.

  5. mjhenry
    December 19, 2012

    Thank you, Laurie. This helps dull the ache. You’re wonderful.

  6. gary s
    December 19, 2012

    An amazing meditation. Thanks, Laurie.

  7. lauriesleeper
    December 19, 2012

    Thank you all for your wonderful comments. I feel like all of you have been such amazing teachers to me, as well as the entire Lighthouse community, and I’m just glad to be able to reflect some of it back to you.

  8. tqtyson
    December 20, 2012

    This is beautiful, Laurie.

  9. Beth Nelson
    December 20, 2012

    Laurie! Your stunning words remind me of what writing is often about for me, and that is to see how the unrelated relates, how the pieces fit together. I seek out the universal within the personal. As to Junot’s last words … they resounded for me, or at least the last words I wrote down. They were “The book you leave behind may be the book the future needs.” Talk about a call to action! Write on!

  10. Laurie Sleeper
    December 20, 2012

    Thank you Beth! And especial thanks for this quote from Junot’s talk which I didn’t write down: “The book you leave behind may be the book the future needs.” What a great writer, what a great teacher!

  11. Bryan
    June 18, 2013

    You weren’t far off in Jake and Junot. I was a student if Jake’s for two years. I worked very closely with him, finally learning on how to write, how to work. In the time, at the beginning, Jake gave me 3 books to read, one of which was Drown. Jake loved Junot’s work, and doled it out as often as he could, to those who would be receptive. Funny connection is Jake and Junot’s time together at Cornell. They were both activist minds using their love of words to take stock, and as Jake says, create something durable. They roomed together for a period of time, and im not sure it was fully amicable. Too, close perhaps.

    I met Junot two months before Jake’s death, in Portland. He is such a kind-hearted man, fragility matched by immense intensity, a force to be sure. He reminded me of Jake. I found out about Jake’s death by accident online, in the middle of the night. No calls, nothing. It tore away something I’ll never get back. All I can do is make good on his teachings, our time eating BBQ, drinking bourbon after workshops and taking his music suggestions to heart.

    I haven’t heard if Junot had any words about Jake, I hope he did. I hope he helps all of us pick up the torch.

    Strength and light.

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This entry was posted on December 19, 2012 by in Delusions, Member dispatches, Memories, The Write Idea, Writing.

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