I met Michael Just, JD, MS, LPC. LAC (you’ll understand the designations later) during a production at the Sunflower Theatre at KSJD. I was immediately soothed by his story-telling voice. He’s the type of person you gravitate toward because he looks you in the eye while you’re talking. I learned he is fluent in Spanish (after he complimented my attempts), lives in Mancos and just recently discovered his Inspirational Archive which speaks to the many mysteries of life. Mike will be the special guest speaker at the next M-Power Breakfast. He will give a FREE talk on THE HERO’S JOURNEY: HOW STORIES CHANGE OUR LIVES on August 27th. This speaker request led to a series of questions that he agreed to answer here. I also included some of his photos that appear on his posts. What a treat!
- Let’s start with an easy one – What is the meaning of life? I only ask because I read your blog regularly and you often discuss the intricacies of life.
Mike Just: If I knew the answer to that one . . . I do think human beings are, in a way, condemned to find meaning. We are the great symbol makers, and our brains are so evolved that once they tried to find meaning in some paradisiacal garden, we’ve been mad meaning makers ever since. It’s the meaning we each give it. Perhaps, when I stop trying to find meaning, I allow it to come. Maybe we can’t say what that meaning is since it may be different for each of us, but we can say where it comes from. And that is deep within ourselves. I used to try to find meaning outside myself, and I became lost, because I looked for it in things, and searched for it in people. I tried to find my meaning, to make my meaning, in having and doing, instead of being. As I grow older, I find that my destiny unfolds from within me, rather than something I grasp for outside myself. Lastly, I think I can only find meaning through relationship, and I can only be in relationship to others in so far as I focus on loving them, rather than on being loved by them. To paraphrase the Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, I should say that I find a meaning, rather than The Meaning.
- What inspired you to start writing?
Mike Just: I think something like writing finds you. You don’t necessarily seek it out. I was in grade school when I started writing stories to entertain my classmates as part of English assignments. I’d have to go up and read them in front of class. I recall watching too much TV as a kid, and writing my own used car commercials, complete with illustrations. I tried to make my friends laugh with parodies of commercials and humorous fake histories. In high school, while my friends took up guitar, I wrote lyrics and poetry. Eventually, I discovered that poetry is somewhat self-referential, and that you wrote it only for yourself. I had this intricate fantasy life as a boy with which I used to entertain myself. The problem was that it was drawn toward horror and that can kind of boomerang on a person. So I scared myself. Still can. Combined with an introspective nature (which is a nice way of saying that I think too much), I had to find a way to exteriorize the night chatter. I think I’ve always been an emotional exhibitionist. That helps. So its probably more about personality than inspiration.
- Did you start writing with the intention of being published?
Mike Just: I would say that when I resumed writing as an adult, the answer is ‘yes.’ I quit college once to be a writer, and tried to support myself by selling cash registers door-to-door in Chicago. That sucked. I went back to school and eventually became a lawyer. Since I wanted to write, I found expression for it by doing appellate work, writing briefs. That was kind of dry, so I wrote a sci-fi novel, which ended up being unintentional adolescent fiction. But that’s how you learn. An old mentor of mine told me that the Chinese had a saying: the job will teach you the work.
I turned to my first love – movies – and took every imaginable class on screenwriting, studying it from the angles of acting, directing and producing. I must’ve written 7 or 8 screenplays, and I tried to sell them from my tiny law office in the Monadnock Building in downtown Chicago, which was something out of a 40’s film noir. I hate selling, and I would cold call producers and agents and pitch this comedy I’d written about a goat who could predict the future. Talk about a hard sell. But I cut my teeth on those screenplays. I really wanted vast commercial success and recognition. Now, I realize that the only difference between someone who wants to be a writer and a real writer isn’t commercial success. It’s that writers write.
A book gave me the final push. A book saved my life.
- What brought you to Southwest Colorado?
Mike Just: I discovered this region when I was in my early 30’s (which was last century, damn it). My sister invited me out to spend Spring Break with her and her family down in Scottsdale at a resort. I remember it was the same week that the Hale-Bopp Comet was streaking across the sky, and then the Heaven’s Gate cult used it as an excuse to commit mass suicide. Anyway, I rented a car to spend a couple days out by myself, and drove up through Navajoland. I’d never seen any of it, and I fell in love with the sacred and raw beauty.
I rode through Monument Valley, and the desert captured me. That began a series of trips out to Navajoland, Grand Canyon and the Four Corners. I’d write up short, humorous pieces with an inspirational bent about a city boy’s adventures in the wild. It also began a short series of Long Distance Liaisons (LDL’s) which I tried to use to bootstrap my moving out here. First, it was Flagstaff, then, Albuquerque. Finally, I met someone who worked in Shiprock. We eventually broke up, but I finally worked up the guts to move out here. A book gave me the final push. A book saved my life. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which describes the world myth of the hero. The hero is called to adventure from their ordinary world into a special world, but often refuses the call. Campbell writes that if the hero continues to refuse their call to adventure, they will psychologically disintegrate. I finally realized either I was going to leave the comfort of the city and become a fish out of water in the middle of what for me was, at that time, nowhere, or I was going to die the death one dies by living comfortably. Living out here is part of my adventure.
Even when I was enjoying it, a voice inside told me that something better awaited. That’s when I started writing.
- Your bio reveals a few different careers – how did attorney lead to actor and actor lead to psychotherapist?
Mike Just: I became a lawyer because I told too many people that I was thinking of going to law school after I acquired a useless degree in political science. Even before I finished, I knew the law really wasn’t for me. A mentor told me to try it for a year, and I did. And eventually, I practiced for about 7 or 8 years. Even when I was enjoying it, a voice inside told me that something better awaited. That’s when I started writing. Writing led me to screenwriting. Screenwriting led me to study dramatic theory from different angles. I took courses in film production and directing. In the directing class, I really wanted to play the part more than direct the part. Plus, I realized that actors made the best dramatic writers, because they had a sense of what stakes were from the perspective of the scene. So, I took every conceivable acting class I could take in Chicago, and tried my hand at acting. I went the whole nine-yards, hiring an acting coach, getting headshots. I did some off-Broadway shows, and did a musical version of A Christmas Carol. It was a lot of work, but it was fun. I started doing appeals in my law practice so I could take off for auditions when I needed. I did industrials (corporate training videos), theatre, student and short films, extra and stand-in work, and was even a hand model once. But like crime, acting doesn’t pay. I made something like $1,800 my first year. I thought: Maybe you’re OK at this, but you’re not de Niro. Method acting was a lot harder than it looked. And I realized that if you wanted to make it in that business, you basically had to give your life to it. I mean, it’s why women and men take jobs waiting tables; so they can audition. So, I gave it up.
I gave up the law, too. Now, I was between careers again. I thought I might want to teach. So, I taught a couple law courses at local universities in Chicago. I worked as a substitute teacher at local high schools in the day. That was really hard on the ol’ ego, walking down those halls between classes, dressing up in a sport coat and slacks so I felt better about myself. Some of the students hummed the James Bond theme because that’s what I tried to look like. It was a stripping down process, a dismantling of the old persona. I found work as a teacher’s assistant in a special ed class at one of the local high schools, and worked as a job coach after school, helping this one student fold towels and wash dishes and peel potatoes in a hotel. That had more meaning because I could form relationships with the students. Eventually, I enrolled in a Masters’ program to get a teaching degree, but the week before my classes were to start, I had an experience with a friend where I brought him through this process using psychodrama, a psychotherapy developed by J. L. Moreno which utilizes theatre to enable participants to work though unfinished business. At the last moment, I switched my major to counseling psychology and got my graduate degree in that.
…one day I realized that I was looking into a fish bowl, inside exhibits in a museum that were not meant for me. I was called to a different kind of life.
Last question – What brings you joy?
Mike Just: I never had a family, and I knew since I was probably about 18, 19, that I wouldn’t. What I didn’t know back then was why. Part of it’s because I’m pretty self-centered. Yet I believe our destinies unfold from within us. When I started college, the plan was for me to major in business and then come to work in the family business. But I was miserable. I think I took introductory accounting something like three times and never made it past the midterms. The reason I never settled down was because that life was not for me. I remember walking past all these McMansions in Glenview, a bedroom community just outside Chicago, and glancing at all the beautiful wives strolling with baby carriages. They were raising families with their six-figure husbands, and I wanted that life so much. I wanted to belong like they belonged. And then one day I realized that I was looking into a fish bowl, inside exhibits in a museum that were not meant for me. I was called to a different kind of life. Not a well-settled one with the fat free wife and three kids. There’s nothing wrong with that life. It’s unselfish in many ways, but it’s important to know if that’s not for you.
Instead, I was to hop around in different careers, so that I could find what I loved. But you don’t always know what that is ahead of time. To be a writer is such a broad, unromantic thing. There are so many kinds. I’d need to dip around into each of those pools. And since it’s such a solitary, anonymous existence, I needed something to give my life meaning on the outside, which brings us back to question 1 above: what gives life meaning? I believe that relationship does, but for a dude flying solo who loves solitude, how will he find that relationship? Psychotherapy provides the impact which writing sometimes, due to its remoteness, lacks. Writing is safe in some ways, at least until you put your work out there. Then it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It’s what other people make of it.
So, what brings me joy is story, and making people laugh, and scaring them half to death, and having an impact in their lives. What brings me joy is the Colorado Plateau, and the people who long ago settled here. What I love is the ineffable that pervades it all, the marriage of spirit and mountain and desert. What I love are movies and the soul that comes from a story well-told. That’s what I want my life to be about.
Michael Just writes book-length and short fiction in the genres of literary, mainstream/contemporary, mystery/suspense, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He is a former attorney, actor, psychotherapist, and adjunct professor with an amateur background in science, mythology, and storytelling. Born and raised in Chicago, he now lives in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. A hiker with an interest in geology, natural history and Native American culture, Mike combines all of his interests and expresses them in his writing. Find his blog and books at justmikejust.com.