Finding Self When No One Is Looking with Jason Reynolds
Hey, everybody, what's up? It's Chase. Welcome to another episode of the Chase Jarvis LIVE Show here on CreativeLive. You know this show where I sit down with incredible humans, and I do everything I can to unpack their brains with the goal of helping you live your dreams in career, hobby, and life. My guest today is the one and only imimatable, Mr. Jason Reynolds. Now you may know Jason for his work as a multiple number one New York Times best-selling author. He has historically written a lot of literature for young people, but this show is not for young people. This show is for adults, because if you've ever wanted to stand in your voice, if you wanted to develop your voice, whether it's in your creative pursuits or just carrying yourself through the world, you wanna show up in the world as the person you really are, this episode is absolutely for you. Now, Jason's won more awards than I can shake a stick at including the Newbery Award honoree, a Printz Award honoree, Walter Dean Mye...
rs. These are all author awards, but it's not these awards why you should necessarily be paying attention to Jason. Those are just exterior validations. What you really need to pay attention to is the way Jason moves through the world. He thinks differently based largely on how he's raised, and the messages that he can convey to you in this particular show will help you think differently and stand out in a world that is begging for people to be authentic and to put themselves out there in the world in an authentic way. Jason does that better than most I've ever experienced. I can't wait for you to enjoy this particular show, yours truly and Jason Reynolds. (high energy rock music) (audience applauds) They love you. All right, Jason Reynolds, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome, happy to have you.
Thank you, man, appreciate you. It's good to be here.
So, I love to start off each of these shows with a request, and the request is a simple one. It's for the handful of... First of all, congratulations on your most recent book, total genius, never seen anything like it, but before we get to that, people, I guess they now gather you're an author, because I gave that away. But for anyone who might not be familiar with your work, I'm wondering if you can orient us around how you spend your time, what your focus is, your energy as a creator. How, how do you put yourself in time and space here for our audience?
I consider myself a... It's funny, my trade is writing. I consider myself a storyteller. The specificity of said trade is, at this particular juncture, writing for young people, even though I've written for adults and for everybody, 'cause stories don't really have ages and age limits and requirements. But ultimately, if I had to whittle it all down, just a raconteur, man. I'm just somebody who really believes in the power of narrative, really believes in the power of story. Of course, there are other parts to that, right? Like, I believe in the necessity for literacy. I believe in the value of owning one's personal story as a bridge to the acknowledgement and appreciation of our sort of collective stories. Like that's really at the, at the heart of it all, what I'm interested in.
What made you... Storytelling, I mean humans, obviously we're storytelling creatures, right? We're social animals. We have a desire to understand, to fit in, to try and piece things together, even sometimes when it doesn't make sense. Why the focus or why have you been you said you've written for all sorts of audiences, because storytelling is the craft, but why have you gravitated towards writing, especially some of your most recent books towards younger audience? Why that focus?
I mean, there are a few reasons. I think some selflessly and some selfishly. I think selflessly, in my mind, there's no greater population to write for. I think we'd all agree that to convince and encourage young people that there's something precious about reading and writing, there is something valuable about spending some time with a good story can, in fact, enrich their lives in ways that I'm not sure we always give enough credence to. And it's not just about you'll hear this thing where it's all about empathy. This is sort of canned answer about if you write books for kids, then kids will learn empathy, Maybe. We really don't know if that's true, right? It's what we all say, because it's a good thing to say. And we all like to sort of put ourselves on these strange pedestals like our work is sort of a lot more... It's almost like we create a piety around our work in these interesting ways that like I'm not monastic. That's not what's happening. I hope that they encourage empathy, but even more so than that, I think that the act of reading teaches young people and teaches all of us persistence and discipline and consistency. It gives us vocabulary. And the more vocabulary we have, the more ability we have to live autonomous lives. It teaches young people to listen to themselves, how to hear one's own voice. It continues to keep the imagination fruitful and firing, which we all know as adults, we tend to lose that if we're not careful, if we're not fighting for it every day. And so those are the things I'm thinking about beyond just the ideas around empathy and representation, which are true and are very real things. But I think, we get a little lazy when we talk about this by just saying like, oh, because I wanna be a representative. I want kids to see themselves in stories, and I want them to gain empathy. And so, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And also, this is sort of the mechanism that creates whole individuals. Now on the selfish side, because it's fun.
(laughs) I love it.
Because it's fun. Yeah, it's a lot more fun-
And there's nothing wrong with claiming that and owning that. I I think that's most...
It's a good time. (both laugh)
So you said something in that moment that I want to grab onto, and that is like understanding our own voice. That's one of the things that you want. What seems suggested that you want younger people to remember that they have a voice and to know how to use it and articulate through vocabulary and standing in their space. And I heard a story about you and the relationship that you had with your mother, which I think is expressly resonant with our audience, because whether you are a kid listening to this show, or let's say you're 63 years old trying to move on to a different career, different stage of your life or even reinventing oneself, this idea that we all have a voice, and that that is the thing that we need to own. You've talked a lot about owning that. Given that that is so important for the creative audience that listens to the show, watches the show, I heard a story about your relationship with your mother where you were essentially, I don't know if allowed is the right word, you can tell me, Jason, but it maybe even encouraged to have a dialogue with her, even I think talk back was the word that I heard you say. And I was fascinated by this, and I think every single person should pay close attention to this, because if you are working to capture your voice as a creator, that this is fascinating and important. I'm wondering if you can share that story.
Yeah, I was raised by this incredibly progressive and creative woman, creative in her parenting. She lived a very sort of pragmatic life outside of that, but a very creative woman when it came to her parenting in the way that she looked at parenting and the world for that matter. And so she allowed us, my brother and I, but expressly me to talk back, which is a no-no for many of our family dynamics. (both laugh) It's like, it is the whole thing like, well, I'm your mother, well, I'm your dad, and I say the thing and you do what I tell you to do. And that's that, right? I don't wanna poo poo on that. I think that there is something about that that's probably pretty healthy in certain ways too. But for my mother, she felt like it was totally okay for me to disagree with anything she said to me. Not only was it okay, it was human, it was healthy. It meant that I had my own mind, which is what she was raising me to have. You can't raise a child to have their own voice and then tell them not to use it as it pertains to you. And so my mother would say things to me like, "Oh, you know I'm upset with you, "because you did this, that, and the third." And I was allowed to say and encouraged to say, "Well, yes, I did that, but I don't know if the way "that you're disciplining me is fair. "I think you're being a little harsh, "or I feel like you're talking to me in a way "that I'm not sure is warranted" in my six year old language. And my mother would take a beat and she'd say, "Well, I agree" or, "I disagree." And I would sometimes still be in trouble. And then other times she'd say, "You know what? "You're right, maybe I have been a little harsh "or maybe I am being a bit mean, "because I'm tired from work, "'cause of the things adults have to handle "and that kids, it's not always fair "that they bear the brunt up," or she'd say, "Well, look, argue your case. "State your point, but if you state your point, "you gotta state it confidently. "So if you're gonna argue with me, "you're gonna debate me on this "with something that I'm calling you out on, "then you gotta sort of lift your chin "and roll your shoulders, "and you gotta say that thing like you mean it. "Make me believe you." And this is the way that we communicated (laughs) in my household. I'll tell you, Chase, the beauty of it as I got older is that I believe that my voice belonged in any room that I was in. And not only did I believe that, but I was unwilling to let anyone muzzle it. I think sometimes when we tell kids that they're not allowed to talk back or that they can't ask inappropriate questions, what we do is we subconsciously and implicitly and explicitly, for that matter, muzzle their curiosities, let alone their humanity.
What a gift.
What a gift.
I mean, I'm not a parent, so I'm the fun uncle. I'm the fun uncle for everybody.
Me too, man, me too.
So it's a great role. (both laugh) Shout out to all the fun uncles out there. (Jason laughs) And I don't think I've ever heard of someone being parented like that. And maybe, implicitly or subtly, that subtext may have existed in a relationship between a parent, but never overtly. Like, if you are gonna talk back, that's fine, but we're gonna have a conversation and you have to state your point clearly. I can't even like... How do you feel like that's rippled through your life today in addition to just knowing that you belong in whatever room you're in and your voice? First all, is that something that you would encourage? There's parents listening right now, for sure. I mean, is that a slippery slope? Is there advice to give or is it all upside for the child?
I personally think it's all upside if it's framed around respect, not just the child respecting you, but also you respecting the child. My mother made it very clear, "Remember, I'm your mom, right?" So you could say whatever you need to say, but remember you're talking to your mother. "I am your mother." There was never any blurring of the line when it came to her role in my life. And it wasn't like, oh, I'm going to come down and sort of try to pretend to be more of your friend. It was like, no, no, no, I'm your mother, but that doesn't mean that you're any less of a human, because of this sort of like archetype of our relationship. Like you're still a person with a range of emotions and feelings. And so I would encourage any parent to try this and to do this. I think that as long as you frame it around and you couch it in respect, I respect you, you respect me, if there's something you wanna say, you can say it. If you wanna disagree, you can disagree. Now I also have the right to not change my mind, but you can definitely express yourself. Why would we try to stop this? So what does this look like? How does this help me in my life beyond sort of knowing that I'm a person and I'm a person all the time and I can be a person in any space I'm in, any room I'm in? And I can agree or disagree. I think it has also helped me process my emotions. It's taught me to process my thoughts. It's taught me to sort of really distill and synthesize what's happening in my body, what's happening in my mind without fear that the way I feel is shameful or silly or sophomoric. I don't feel that way ever. I feel like my feelings are my feelings, and it's that simple, but that's because my mother gave me space to feel and to express the fact that my feelings are my feelings. You can feel how you feel, son. Say what you need to say to me and feel how you need to feel. And if I think that you have stated a case that should be overturned, I will overturn it outta respect and love for you. And if I feel that, as your mother, I have to hold the line here, I will explain that to you and I'll hold the line, and we'll engage as people. If we could take that and do that everywhere, Chase, the world would be a better place. (laughs)
This is what I'm thinking. My mind is just like... This is like the highest order of human existence right here. How did that manifest in your relationship with your mom and others? And the way that I'm actually excavating my goal with this sort of line of questions is excavating how you have been able to stand in your space and put the kind of work out there in the world that is progressive and different and confident, and these are all attributes that I think any creator, entrepreneur, anyone who wants to build something and put it out in the world, these are the fundamental building blocks. I'm trying to excavate how you got this.
Yeah, I think between the two of us, my mother and I, I think I also watched those moments created glue for us. Those moments were the adhesive that bonded us. It's an amazing thing to not fear your parents. It's an amazing thing to love them. My mother always taught me, she said, "Jason, the decisions that you make, "you must make outta love and never fear," which means that even the conversations that I have with my mother are conversations outta love and not fear. Imagine not having to fear your parent. I get to just love. I get to make a decision and say the thing that I'm gonna say. And yes, there may be some frustration there, but there's no fear. There's no fear. So that becomes an adhesive that binds a relationship, which means that I have a very early example of how relationships are formed. Relationships are formed through intimacy. Relationships are formed through trust and communication, through giving of one's self, trusting that the person's gonna be able to hold it. I think, when I write my books and I do my work, that's all I'm ever thinking about. I live by three very simple rules that I got out of those conversations with my mother, humility, intimacy, and gratitude. If I can put those things in a book, then they will connect with people in the same way that if I can put them in the conversations between my mother and I, they will connect it the two of us. If I can give them to you, Chase, in this moment, they will connect the two of us. It's a very simple... Humans, we're actually not that complicated. You give me a little, I give you a little. Now, usually we think about giving as bartering goods and things of that nature. No, no, no. If I give you a little of me, then you'll feel more comfortable of giving me a little of you. If I'm humble enough to apologize, then you'll be confident enough in my humility to trust me. And if I value you enough, simply by your existence to be grateful for you, then you will feel big in the world and be grateful for me. It's basic. This is all, to me, this is easy math, and these are all the things that were happening at the kitchen table of my mother's house as a child as we suss out whether or not I agree or disagree with what she's tried to teach me. (both laugh)
All right, here's the big leap. I get that at the dinner table in an area of trust, communication, value, love, empathy, connection, all these words you've used, but little Jason has to go to school.
So how does the rest of, or how do those values stand up, weather? How do they affect you in life? You show up and you can talk back to the adults in your life, and you stand in your voice. And from what I understand, you were a couple years ahead in school. So you were smaller, younger. I'm seeing some setup for some problems.
Yeah, and they came. (laughs) They came. I think my mother... It's interesting, because those problems did come. I dealt with all the things that one deals with, whether it be the bullies, and then you have to adjust. And so you become something that you're not just to stave the bullies off. I wasn't that good in the struggle. I struggled in my grades, discipline stuff. I mean, you go through all those things. But I think that the other thing about my mom and those conversations and teaching me all that stuff is that you also learn to adjust and to adapt. In order for you to argue your point, one has to be able to think pretty quickly, because it's not like my mom wasn't offering me rebuttals. One has to learn to critically think. You have to adjust. You have to pivot and adapt. And I think most of my life has been just that. I think that until I... I mean, seventh grade or eighth grade, I think it was when you get to middle school, I was being teased for all these reasons. My mother was trying to stop the teasing. And so she tried to buy me name brand clothing. You do all the stuff, the signals of whatever the currency of cool is. You try to figure out how to drape yourself in those things to keep the boogeyman away, even though the boogeyman, they're all the same insecure kids that I was. It's just a weird pecking order that's created. (laughs) So my mom tries to do that, because she loves me and wants to protect me from that stuff. And then eighth grade came, and I was like, nah, I don't really wanna do all that anymore. I don't wanna wear all that. Fortitude already there. Enough fortitude to tell my mother, "You don't have to spend your money on this. "I don't need these things. "What's gonna happen is I'm gonna go "into the school this year, and I'm gonna be myself. "And then I'm gonna let them laugh. "And then eventually they'll stop laughing, "and then they'll copy me." And that's what they did. And my mother's just sort of a woman who was like, okay. I mean, she knew who she raised. She would tell me when I got to high school, it got worse. And she would tell me like, "Look, kid, "you out in the street all night. "You doing the things that you do." I was still a regular teenage boy. Like I tell the story, not to exceptionalize myself. I was still a knucklehead teenage boy who got into all the things that knucklehead teenage boys get into, all of them, (Chase laugh) good and bad and the ugly. And my mother would say, "Yeah, but I gave you a constitution. "I gave you fortitude early in your life." So her prayer was always that like, look, just make it home, because she always knew that at the end of the day, I would mature and grow up, and you work through it. But the foundation was so strong. She knew that there was only so far I would go, that there was no pressure. There was no peer pressure strong enough to push me over the line. And she was right. I would get to the line, for sure. But I was always like, nah, and I knew how to express myself. I knew how to say, nah, I'm not interested. I knew how to say, nah, I'm afraid. That scares me, I don't wanna do that. And I could say that to my friends, and because my friends were all being raised by this same woman, 'cause my mom's house was the community house, they knew who I was and how I moved and how I spoke and how we got down. So when I expressed anxiety, my friends who were raised by the same woman were like, "Well, Jay, don't do that. "It's cool, he not gonna do it." So I never had to worry about having to put on fake faces and false armor. I never had to do all of that, thankfully, 'cause she affected the whole community.
Again, I'm excavating this, because I think this has to be so core to what has made your work. Numerous New York Times best-sellers. How many 14, 15 books? What do you got now? (laughs) You lose track after a dozen.
17, it's up there. It's up there, man. I don't know.
Well to be that prolific. And I think these building blocks, this is why I'm so interested in your past. I'm aware that there was some anxiety in your childhood, even as an adult, I think. I've heard you talk a little bit about it, but I think my understanding of your interpretation of that is fascinating. I'm wondering if you can share a little bit of that with our listeners and watchers.
I never had a name for my anxiety until I was 25. I had it my whole life. The other part about my mom and my family, I was raised by a bunch of women, and they were a bunch of Southern black women raised in a very tough time, as I'm sure you can imagine. My mom is 76. So she lived through all the things. Because of that, though she was really progressive in certain ways, and in most ways, she also was hardened by life in a lot of other, and all of her sisters and their children, which are all women, nieces and cousins who all raised me, the youngest one who was a very sensitive boy. And so a lot of my life was sort of trying to figure out how to avoid the wrath of my household, let alone the wrath from outside of it. So like, yes, my mom and I had this lovely thing, but she could just as easily... And she understood this. She understood this, and she tried her best not to lean into it, but she understood that it only took a look to break me down. It only took... My mom telling me she disappointed in me was brutal, was brutal for me, because of this sort of empathetic nature that I had back as a child and still have as an adult. And so my anxiety, the way I think about my anxiety, is that it's rooted in my empathy. It's rooted in my ability to feel, to feel my feelings and to feel the feelings around me. I mean, my writing began, the reason I even started writing is because I heard my mother crying when I was 10 years old for the first time, because her mother had died. And I could not bear the sound of my mother wailing in the bathroom, my ear to the door. I never heard anything like it. I can still remember the way it felt in my own body to hear my mother cry, chemically changing. And so I started to write. I wrote a few words hopefully to make her feel better. And she printed those words on the funeral program, and that was the beginning of this whole thing. It's always been rooted in the feelings, in my own emotions and in emotions of the people around me, but it is caused that that is coming out of an anxious place or whatever we call anxiety. As I've gotten older, I've learned to wield it differently. I've learned to understand it differently. I know that pain I get in my stomach, I know what it is. It's like mys spidey sense, you know? I know that it means that I feel something good or bad or something that is possible or something that might be coming, or that I'm on the phone or talking to a friend who's going through a tough time, and I can carry that weight with me. And it's not always a healthy thing, right? Like, I got therapists and medicine and all the things to keep me on a level, because nobody deserves to carry all that weight, but I see it as more of a blessing than a burden. I feel like it makes me one of the most human of the humans, and I'm grateful for it. I'm grateful for it. I manage it, but I'm grateful for it, because it allows me the ability to teleport into an 11 year old space, the ability to teleport into a 14 year old dealing with his own insecurities, a 16 year old trying to figure out sexuality. It basically gives me my own sort of emotional and mental spaceship to go anywhere in the emotional galaxy of our children. And so who am I to sort of just sort of shun it?
I think this is fascinating. It was one of the core things I wanted to learn from you today. And it think this is a helpful narrative, because you could read the studies, anxiety at an all time high, and whether that's just a diagnosis and it's been this way forever, or it really is a more anxious time, I think it's probably connected to how fast information moves today relative to all previous times on the planet. But how do you manage it? Because right now there's someone who's listening. They're on a walking trail somewhere, on the subway. They're like, I would love to be able to look at my anxiety in the way that Jason Reynolds looks at his. (laughs) Help us.
Well, I don't pretend to have those answers, man, but, first of all, I think it's okay to not look at it the way I look at mine. I think it's okay to say that this is a severe mental difference that has caused me some turmoil. Not everybody's gonna see it as a superpower, and, honestly, not everybody has to. And the reason why I wanna make sure I say that is because sometimes I think by trying to upend our stuff, we sometimes can come across as a bit flippant, because people are really struggling and I mean very much so. And I'm fortunate that mine isn't as severe as others. Mine is rough, but it could be absolutely debilitating. And so for those people, I say, you have every right to be upset and frustrated and angry. It's okay. Like I said earlier, our feelings are our feelings. Our feelings are our feelings. That being said, for me, therapy has been amazing. Figuring out what my triggers are over the years, I know what it is. I know what might cause the spiral. I'll tell you, I shared something with you, God, I hope my mother doesn't hear this, because she's gonna lose it, but it's okay. We'll just talk about it, but a couple weeks ago, I went to the doctor, because I thought I was having a heart attack. I'm 38 years old. I live a fairly healthy lifestyle considering, but I felt like I was on my way outta here. And so I get to the doctor and I'm freaking out. And the doctor says, "Okay, Jason, "you're not having a heart attack." (laughs) That's the first thing he says. He's like, "Look, first thing first, "you're not having a heart attack." He said, "Honestly, dude, you know this about yourself. "You know your anxiety lives in sort of your belly. "Mine lives in my belly." And so the gastro issues that my anxiety has caused has now worked its way through other parts of my body, and it felt like it was just sitting on my chest. And he said, "This is coming from the pressure of your life, "the stress of your life." And he said, "So you have medicine," that I try not to take, but I do have medicine. If I need to, I'll take it, but I've always tried to find other ways to work through it, me personally. By the way, for those who take medicine, what a gift. What a gift. This is not me. I think medicine is... 'Cause it's all chemical stuff happening in our brain, but for the medicine takers, please take your meds. Please take your meds. Do what works for you. But my doctor told me, he said, "Look, here's what we're gonna do. "I want you to..." First of all, he told me that I could only have two drinks a day from here on out, which for a writer is terrible news. (laughs) Absolutely.
I'm just sitting here doing the math, like, oh man, I hope I don't go see that doctor. (laughs)
Absolutely devastating. (laughs) But then he also said, he said, "How many days do you exercise?" I said, "I exercise about three to four days a week." He said, "All right, well, now it's six to seven." He said, "We're gonna push your body, "so that it frees your mind." So that's where I am. So right now, I have therapy. I have exercise. I'm taking up fishing, because I need to create a disconnect and an escape from... We talk about those books and all the New York Times best-sellers list. But boy, do they come at a tremendous cost, a tremendous cost. What everyone else is impressed with is killing me, Chase. It's not normal or natural or sustainable, impressive as it may be. And so fishing is the next thing on my docket. I'm gonna learn how to do that and take some time to do that. And lastly, just do my best to like journal and writing in my journal and remember what I'm grateful for outside of writing. I write for a living. I'm very careful about calling myself a writer, because I don't wanna attach this thing that I love so much to my identity just in case I have to let it go someday. So I journal and I do other things to stay on the level, man. So yeah.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, We gotta put a pin in that.
So what I understand is the identity, actually, I think people see that as something that helps them. It orients them if I can say I am X or Y or Z, and we attach some of these labels are false. Some of them are narratives we tell ourselves that we're not reaching our aspirations, but your willingness to not attach your identity to your work, can you say more about that?
Yeah, the first time I thought about this was when Whitney Houston died. (chuckles) Whitney Houston's nickname was The Voice. That's what they called her. Her whole life, she was called The Voice, and then Whitney Houston, through whatever it was, whether it be through abuse or whether it be simply by the natural course of aging, the voice begins to change. And so what happens when the voice can't sing anymore? What darkness lies on the other side of that when all you've ever known yourself to be is the voice? I'm not the voice. I'm Jason, my mama's son who writes for a living and who writes, because he loves it, but not because it is attached to his identity. No, no, no, because one day I may have nothing else to say. One day I might wanna try something. I love furniture, Chase. I might wanna become a furniture designer. I might wanna put my stories in physical objects, create new narrative around what it takes to make something from a piece of wood in these hands. It might not be words on the page anymore. I love it. Look, I'd be disingenuous if I said to you that I imagine myself quitting. That's not what I'm saying, but what I am saying is that life is funny and unpredictable.
Funny, weird, not funny, haha.
Funny, weird, right. (laughs) Funny weird. And I don't want to ever be the person who suddenly cannot do the thing anymore and feels like he lost himself. I don't wanna do that, man. We see it happen to athletes all the time. Their whole lives they've been basketball players, not people, athletes. And the moment that the game is over, they don't know who they are. Matter of fact, we see it happen to mothers even more often. Little boy, little girl finally is grown, is gonna leave the nest. Mom has only been mom. Mom hasn't been herself, though, for 18, 19 years, and now has to figure out who she is all over again. We see it happen, right? So for me, I'm just like let me be a little more preemptive and thoughtful and self-aware about the realities of that and be very careful about how I talk about myself as it pertains to this work. I do this as a this is what I do, this is not who I am.
Who are you then? What is it? You said, "I'm my mama's son." Is that based on all the effective programming that you have? I could see how that would work for you, but leave others feeling vapant, because so many people are just an accumulation of all the things that they've done. And so, what is, in your mind, a healthy construct for who we are, if we are not a writer, a photographer, a designer, entrepreneur? What are some... I mean, I think I know, but I don't know if I have the courage to just stand in that as my thing. That sounds scary as hell.
Ego. Ego, bro.
Oh, oh, oh massive. And that's a very real thing. I think for me, I am who I am most in the shower. And I always think about this all the time. (laughs) Like, who are we, who are we? Who you are in the shower, like that's who you are. In the shower, I feel like... Like I think about this all the time. I'm a person who is detail oriented. I'm a person who doesn't take himself very seriously. I'm a person who loves to hear his own voice for better or for worse. I'm a person who needs and values and requires relaxation. Like I think about the shower all the time as a metaphor of like perhaps our personal identities in its most distilled form. Is it the only way? Of course not, but the concept or the idea is like, who are you when no one is there? Who are you? Because if you're asking me, like I'm all sorts of people. I'm all kinds. I'm an amalgamation of many, many things and many, many people and many, many places. Every single thing that I've ever experienced has stuck on me and has stuck in me, and most of those things have nothing to do with my work. Like, I am the kid who tried to figure out how to pop a wheelie at six years old. I'm the kid whose parents split, but he got to watch his parents remain friends. I'm the kid who wanted to be his father, 'cause his father was a bad boy and who wanted to be his mother, 'cause his mother was like a professional person and seemed to have a grasp on a spirituality that no one else seemed to understand. I'm the kid who was very, very, very popular for good reasons and bad reasons as a very young person, and so, therefore, had to contest and deal with his ego much younger than most people would have to. I was on the cover of a newspaper, The Washington Post, when I was like 15. So you're dealing with like ego. (laughs)
Yeah. It's wild. You're dealing with ego very early, and, therefore, you know the ugliness of it all very, very early in life. And so you run from it for the rest of your life. You work hard to try to run away from it for the rest of your life. Like I'm all of those things. Writing is a very small part of that when I really think about it. As a matter of fact, the only reason the writing exists is because I'm telling all the stories from all of that stuff. Without who I am, the writing don't exist. So we take the thing that means the least and strap it to ourselves is if it's the most, when really the only reason that it exists in the first place is because the actual most makes it so. So like that's who I am. That's who we all are. Chase Jarvis has not Chase Jarvis, because of the podcast and his ability to ask questions. Chase Jarvis is Chase Jarvis who is the person who is curious enough to even start a podcast in the first place.
I'm gonna have to go away and get back to you on that one. That's some heavy shit. (both laugh) I like the shower bit too. Who are you in the shower? (Jason laughs) Nothing. You don't have any clothes on even.
Exactly, you don't have any clothes on. And we do all sorts of things in the shower that people don't know, Chase.
All of this.
We have secret lives. As my mother used to say, there are three lives that every individual has, your public, your private, and your secret. And it's that secret one we try to pretend don't exist, but that's who we are.
Amazing, amazing fertile ground for storytelling. You've done that so, so effectively. Makes me want to point to recent recent work, "Ain't Burned All the Bright." I don't even know what that is. I mean, can you try and describe it? I mean, this is a very seductive piece of art. It's collaboration between yourself and a buddy, Jason Griffin. How do you describe it to... I mean, we're on a podcast here. People are either listening to us. Maybe some people are gonna watch this, but how do you explain what it is? I mean, it's in a book form. It's a package, but I've heard you describe it as three long run on sentences.
That's what it is. That's what it is. That's what it is in form, three run on sentences mashed up against a landscape of hundreds and hundreds of pieces of art. I've been thinking about ways to describe it. Music makes the most sense. We usually use jazz as our metaphor, but I actually think this is more of an orchestral suite, to think of it as an orchestral suite, to think of it as movements, three different movements of a symphony. And the first sentence or the first movement of the symphony is all about the murder of George Floyd, the racial uprising of 2020, young people who were crying out, the constant turning over of the racial reckoning in this country, the constant retelling of that painful soil. And it's sweeping and it's personal and it's narrative and it's rooted in a family. It feels familiar. It feels distant. It feels sometimes a little too close. It's all these sorts of things. It's a movement, right? The second movement, the second part of the suite winds and weaves through the melee that was COVID. And it talks about a father who is coughing. The same family, same group of people, and it's a father and he's coughing and he has COVID, and it's all about trying to figure out how to love and care for a person that I can no longer touch. And then the final suite, or the coda of the symphony is all about basically that these two things, amongst other things like the LA wildfires and all sorts of things in 2020, that these things, they were all attacking our respiratory systems, whether it be the tear gas in the street or the way that George Floyd was murdered, whether it be what COVID was actually doing, which was attacking the lungs. For 2020 and 2021, we were all suffocating. We were suffocating physically. We were suffocating emotionally. We were suffocating socially. Air was being stripped from us in every single way. And the question was, where does one find an oxygen mask? And so, the coda of this symphony, this last bit of this suite, this last movement is all about where one finds an oxygen mask, and the answer that we all realize, and hopefully at least many of us, in 2020 and is that the true beauty in our lives, were in the boring bits, that what a gift it is to give a hug to someone you love, something we took for granted. What a gift it is to get to shake somebody's hand. I don't wanna give fist bumps. I'm not interested in closing my hand to greet you. That doesn't do it for me. What it means to walk around to see a person smile, a very small detail that we've been robbed of for two years, and how that where our oxygen is. And so now we know that we can perhaps start to give ourselves a bit more of it or at least pay attention to it differently as time goes on. So that's what it is, man. It's a trip. I'm grateful to have made the thing. I don't know if I thought it would be what it became, but that's the beauty of art, right?
Pure genius. So, so fascinating. I have not heard you describe it like that before. I've listened and watched and read a lot of stuff. That's very, very-
That's a new one. That's for you. Chase. That's a new one. (laughs)
Speaking of gratitude, grateful, I want to shape the last piece of our conversation around there were a couple people besides your parents that I understood were impactful for you. And I wanna understand this and have you talk a little bit about it, because it seems profound. It seems like we all ought to... We all have these people in our lives. We ought to look for them and pay attention to them and also try to become them for others. And these are a couple teachers that you mentioned. One was the first person who saw potential in your writing. And the second was a person that you described him in such a way as almost evil genius, and I'm hoping you could close it, the description of these two people and the roles that they played for you with the story of the fish.
Yeah, I had this teacher, Miss Blaufuss. (chuckles) This was 10th grade English. I took her class. I remember the first day of class. She was young. She was probably 25, gosh, 24, 25, fresh outta Princeton and was teaching this class. And I knew from the very first day that I had to get out of that class. (laughs) I remember going home, and I walk in the door and my mom's at the kitchen table. And I say, "You gotta transfer me out of this class. "There's no way you can let me stay." And she's like, "Why?" I'm like, "This teacher is so mean and cannot do it. "She's too strict. "She's too rigid." And I just didn't like anything that was restrictive in any way. So I'm just like, "She's too like hard," all the things that teenagers whine about. (laughs) And my mother is like, "Eh, nah. "I don't know if that's a good enough reason "for me to transfer you outta the class, Jason." I'm like, "Why would you want me to be in a class "with a teacher that's mean? "Why would you want me to like go through this?" And she's like, "Jason," as we work it out together, she's like, "I just don't think "that your argument is compelling enough "for me to transfer you out of the class, "'cause she's difficult. "It's the first day. "You haven't even had any class." (both laugh)
But you know, you can recognize these people, right? You're like, oh God, this is gonna be tough.
Oh my goodness, now, by the end of this semester, having stuck it out, she ended up becoming a tremendous gift. She was the first teacher to recognize that I had any kind of ability as a writer. She was the first teacher to... I didn't do good in her class. I didn't do well in her class. I probably got like a C or something like that, C minus, who knows, but she would always give me my papers back and she'd tell me what I did right. She'd tell me what she saw in the work, even though I didn't get a good grade. And she'd say like, "You didn't get a good grade, "because you don't follow directions, but your ability, "I can recognize you have talent. "You just wanna do what you wanna do. "You don't wanna follow my directions. "You wanna write what you wanna write. "You wanna write it how you wanna write it, "but it would be destructive for me to not at least tell you "that like you have something." As a matter of fact, she saw it so clearly that she even started a creative writing class halfway through the year actually, and only took eight students that she wanted to work with, myself being one of them, and gave a special instruction to help us learn all the different poetic forms and all sorts of things that I will forever be grateful for. As a matter of fact, she even told my mother at a football game or something, homecoming or something, she said, "Look, and when he starts applying for colleges, "try to get him into a school with a good writing program. "Whatever it is, he's got the thing." So I'll always be grateful for... Yeah, and she's still a very... She lives down the street for me. She's still a very good friend of mine. And as a matter of fact, for all of you who are listening, if you read "Spider-Man, she's the teacher. Her name is even it there, Miss Blaufuss, the teacher.
Yeah, yeah, who's teaching a poetry lesson and all of that. Yeah, that is the real Miss Blaufuss, a gift that I'll never be able to repay her. And then the second teacher was Mr. Williams. Mr. Williams, who's also still a very good friend of mine, he was unlike any human I've ever met, not just a teacher. Like I've never met a person like Mr. Williams. He looked different than everybody. He had like a stark white bowl cut (laughs), and he wore-
(laughs) Flattering description. Does he know you're talking about him like this? (laughs)
Yes, yes, yes, he knows. He had a stark white bowl cut. He had an earring. He always was pretty clean shaven, and he wore like a button up shirt with these weird ties, and he wore sneakers. He would find like old Jordans at thrift stores and all kind of stuff. Like he was just a straight... He wore bracelets and rings, and he was sort of an eccentric, not even sort of, he was an eccentric man. He had this incredible voice that was... Yeah, I don't know, he was just different, Chase. He was different in lots of ways. And one day in class... He taught a class called global studies. And as a matter of fact, the first day of class, the first thing you learn is the word ethnocentric. What does it mean to be ethnocentric? This is the first thing you learn.
I always tell people, this is the man who taught me how to be a human in the world.
My mom gave me the tools to sort of have like an internal humanity, but this is the man who taught me how to be a human in the world. And I'll never forget it. Ethnocentricity, what does that mean? That one sees themselves and their ethnicity as the center point of the world when really, obviously everybody, there are many, many cultures that are different and how dangerous it is to be ethnocentric. This is what he taught us at the beginning. I mean, he fed us crickets, because he wanted us to know that somewhere in the world this is the cuisine, and this is a delicacy. He showed us slides of his travels around Mogadishu and Rwanda and Shanghai. And I mean, like this dude, we had never seen. We had never known anyone who had done what he'd done and been where he'd been and seen what he'd seen. And he took a liking to us. He loved teaching, and he wanted to give that to a whole bunch of little black kids who, most of whom, never left their neighborhoods. One day we come to class and he has a fish. And he says, "This is gonna be the class pet." Now, for context, this is my senior year. So we're like way past the class pet phase in our lives.
That's like sixth grade shit right there.
That's very young. Right, so we're like, bro, we don't need no class pet, but okay. He's like, "Nah, nah, just humor me. "This is your class pet. "I need you all to name it." We name it Confucius. I don't know why, but we do, and we feed it every day. And he says, "I want you to feed it, but here's the deal. "I don't want you to ever put your hands in this tank. "If you put your hands in the tank or if you touch the fish, "no matter what the reason is, "if you touch this fish, "'cause you know how teenagers can be, "if you touch his fish, then you're gonna be suspended, "no questions asked. "So don't touch the fish. "No fingers on the fish." Okay, Mr. Williams, whatever you say. A month goes by- (Chase murmurs) Yeah, of course, like whatever. Some time goes by, a month or so, and he comes to class and he walks over to that tank. And he takes the fish out of the tank, and he puts it on the floor. And he does it so matter of factly that nobody knows what to do or what to say or what to think, but we all get up and we're moaning and groaning. And we're wondering what in the world he's thinking. And he just kind of stays there and watches as we gather around the fish and the fish is flopping and gasping for air. And we're watching this fish die. And finally, after a few seconds that felt like minutes, these two young ladies go and they scoop up the fish and they toss it back in the tank and the fish survives. And we're like, whew, thankfully. That was a close one. And Mr. Williams, as calm as can be, looks at those two young ladies and he says, "All right, well, the two of you, get your backpacks "and head on down to the principal's office, "'cause you're suspended." And they're like, "We're suspended for what? "We just saved the fish. "Why are we suspended? "What did we do wrong?" And he said, "Well, the rules are the rules. "I told you a long time ago that if you put your fingers "on the fish, if you touch the fish for whatever reason "that unfortunately you would be punished, "there would be disciplinary action. "You are suspended. "Don't bother fighting me on it. "Just head on down to the principal's office." And they're like cussing him out. They're angry, the whole thing. And he sticks his head out the door and he says, "But hold your heads up, because you did the right thing. "But sometimes doing the right thing has consequences." And the rest of us had to sit in class, myself especially. I can only speak for me. I sat there with the cowardice churning in my stomach, and I vowed to always save the fish from here on out. I think about that story all the time, a few times a week at least that every day of my life is a day where I'm probably gonna have to make the decision to save the fish. I also think about it, because the two girls who saved the fish are indicative of the world we live in. It is always the girls who save the fish.
It is always the women in our lives and in our world who sacrifice their bodies and their comfort, who sacrifice their freedom for the betterment of the rest of us, and they rarely get any credit for it. Those are the things that I think about. Those are the things that he taught me. I'll tell you one quick, funny thing about him and I'll shut up, but I saw him recently. I went to his beach house, which he spends all summer at. He's retired now. He's still the same old troublemaker. And I'm down there. We're on the beach, man. We're like sitting there chilling, having a couple drinks and reminiscing. And he said, "You know, Jason..." He's very, very shy, very modest. He hates the fact that I've told this story, that so many people around the world know this story. He's very modest. But he said, "You know, Jason, I've been meaning to talk "to you to tell you that recently, "maybe a couple years ago," somebody came to see him. This is before he quit school, before he retired. Someone came to see him, a young lady, and they walk in his classroom and they're catching up. And she says, "I have something to show you." And she pulled out the disciplinary referral that she kept. This is not the one from my class. This is from some other class, some other person who's gone through the fish. And she pulls it out and says, "I was one of the ones who saved the fish" and kept the referral, the suspension referral, kept it all those years. "I was one of the ones who saved the fish." Could you imagine? And he said he cried, and he just got emotional.
Yeah, I got my hair is standing up on my whole body.
It's amazing. It's amazing. So shout out to Mr. Williams, Dr. Chris as he goes by now, for teaching me the value and sacrifice, for teaching me... And I'll tell you one last thing, Chase, that ties this all together. It's about my upbringing again, but this time it's not about my mother and what she taught me. It's about my father and what he taught me and what he used to say to round this all out. What he used to say is, "When it comes time to give, "make sure to give the things that you want, "never the things that you don't want." He said, "The reason why is because "if you give the things you want "and not the things you don't want, "then you will know the difference "between empathy and sympathy. "You will know the difference "between sacrifice and charity." And so when I think about saving the fish, (laughs) I think about saving the fish, when I think about giving of myself, when I think about laying it on the line and giving the things that I want, which is my time and my freedom and my comfort, I will think about my mother and my father and Mr. Williams for the rest of my life.
Have the courage to save the fish. That is such a powerful... I don't know how you can experience that and not have that stay with you forever.
Wow. Well, thank you for doing the work to save the fish, putting it on the line. I think it's incredibly inspirational how you've decided to spend your time, and your perspective, it's very unique. It feels just welcomed, welcoming. I'm grateful for you and the work you put out in the world. Thank you so much for spending time with us. And again, you've got 17 books, we've already established that, most recently, "Ain't Burned All the Bright," staggering work of genius and highly, highly recommend it. And is there anywhere else you want us to go to pay attention to your work, Jason? This community is really supportive of the creators that we have on the show, will be buying a book that came out earlier this year and others. Anywhere else you'd wanna point us to stay connected.
Yeah, yeah, you can find me on all the things that at @JasonReynolds83, and my website is Jason Reynolds Books. Oh, no, it's not, it's Jason Writes Books, I think. (Chase laughs) Who knows. I think it's jasonwritesbooks.com. (laughs) I don't know, man. But (indistinct) with me, Chase, man. I appreciate you giving me a couple minutes of your time and allowing me a moment to share some space with me.
So grateful. And I would like take a minute to acknowledge the audience. Thanks again for paying attention. Please dig into Jason works, totally extraordinary. I'm, again, grateful. I'm looking forward to the next piece of work. And until then, and to everybody out there in the world from both Jason and I, we bid you all a good day. (upbeat music)