Two weeks ago, my friend Tammy and I sat across from Jon Acuff at probably the only Mexican restaurant which doesn’t serve queso in Chicago.
My eyes were brimming with unshed tears and his were a bit shiny too. I had just spoken words which I had always meant to say and never gotten around to and he was having a hard time accepting gratitude. Per usual.
“Two and a half years ago I was in an abusive relationship. Your words and the community you and Jenny initiated, grew, and inspired helped me break free. I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t be who I am, as whole as I am and pursuing this wholeness, if it weren’t for you guys.”
The impact he, Jenny, and the community created when he launched a tiny thing called the Start Experiment, now Dreamers and Builders, two and a half years ago, gave me the courage to break out of the cage I was in. I was wounded and broken and unsure how to proceed but they picked me up and propelled me forward.
Last October on my trip across the country, I finally had a chance to meet Jenny after seeing Jon multiple times at conferences and meet-ups. I was excited, though a little terrified after all the amazing things I had heard about her. Not terrified because I thought she must be some sort of perfect robot but rather terrified because I assumed she would be able to see into my soul and I wasn’t quite sure I was prepared for that. I arrived at the Acuff home after a multitude of other interviews with three day old hair and heart full of exhaustion.
I was not the best version of me.
The door opened and there stood Jenny and Jon. I was a mess of an overstuffed bag spilling out everywhere, a sweater with a growing hole in it, and boots that had somehow come untied on the walk up the driveway. They didn’t seem to mind or notice as they swept me up in hugs through the hallway where L.E. and McRae stood peering around the corner.
Within a few moments I was comfortably ensconced in an overstuffed chair with a throw to keep me warm while our friend Grant took up residence in another one nearby and Jenny and Jon curled up on the couch. Well, Jenny curled up. Jon straightened his back and leaned forward ready to answer all my questions carefully, thoughtfully, and professionally. Jenny was more relaxed. But when I said, “anything you say that maybe you think after you’ve said it “Oh, hey, can you just destroy that whole recording,” I’d be more than happy to oblige.” They both agreed that Jon would be the only one who would feel that way. “There won’t be anything Jenny says that you’ll have to do that,” he said. She laughed and agreed, “Nope.”
If you have had any interaction with Jon Acuff’s work or presence online, you know that Jenny Acuff is a big part of that.
“Some people think Jenny is a construct I use to say things I want to say in her voice. Until they meet her,” Jon tells me. We all laugh at the utter ridiculousness of this notion. Jenny is brilliant. That is an oversimplified sentence with dull edges to describe a vibrant, deep worman with a steel trap for a mind. The way the two of them work together as a team is a beautiful sight to behold. It isn’t a perfectly oiled piece of machinery that causes you to doubt it’s authenticity. Their relationship is less like the sleek, shiny creepily silent machines you order off of Amazon which do their work without a sound and more like one of those in an old Disney movie. They’ve found a rhythm which creaks and sputters a bit but the noises are comforting and remind you everything is moving along exactly as it should — and whatever it is creating is guaranteed to warm your insides and probably make you laugh.
There was a lot of laughter in that conversation. Jenny loves to laugh and when I asked Jon what his big dream was, he hesitated for a moment and said, “To make people laugh.” I couldn’t help but think how fitly framed together that made them. I know that dream hasn’t been an easy one to come to terms with. We can feel like we should be doing more or that a dream which sounds airy or beautiful instead of heavy and weighty isn’t worth as much. Someone recently told me that Stevie Wonder said, “The world needs love. Write more love songs.” I couldn’t actually find that quote anywhere but the sentiment is true and I would say the same about laughter and Jon’s dream.
The world needs more laughter. Make them laugh, Jon. It heals their souls.
This was a year ago, so he had just sent his book off to his editor at Penguin and we began to discuss the process.
“It seems like this project more than any other in the past was one you worked on together,” I said. And then this call and response between the two of them began — because they are both active participants in the process.
Jon: I would say we did more on this one because I’m home —
Jenny: Yeah. He’s at the house.
Jon: Yeah. I have access to her. Jenny is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life and so I would run ideas by her in the kitchen because I was also in the kitchen. And so this is why I think this will be the best book I’ve ever written in part because I had the most access to Jenny to go “Is this true? Did I write this to make me look good? Is this helpful to a reader? Is this to make my ego feel good?”
Jenny: Mmmhmm. We pulled out half a dozen things today.
Jon: Yeah. Like “that’s not true. That’s you trying to play a certain role.” So, I would say it was more hands-on than the other ones.
Jenny: Mmhmm. Definitely. Well, you were writing them in other spaces —
Jenny: — With other time constraints.
Melissa: So, what does it look like for you to play that role of answering those things? Has it been difficult? I mean I’m assuming that bluntgirl comes easy to you.
Jenny: It does but it hurts his feelings.
Melissa: How does that…how do you give that feedback but also give it gently enough that he can —
Jenny: handle it? (giggling)
Jenny: I don’t know. It’s kind of an art.
Jon: (laughing loudly)
Jenny: It’s kind of an imperfectart.
Jon: But I think we get better at it every time we do it.
Jenny: Yeah. It’s his art. But he needs honest feedback on it. Someone who can…because his editor can’t say to him, “I know why you’re really saying this because I know the backstory on this..” or whatever —
Jenny: But it’s hard to criticize somebody’s art.
Jon: And it’s fresh.
Jenny: AND we’re in the same house. If I have to tell him something…like a couple of weeks ago (looks at Jon) I’m not sure which draft it was —
Jon: It was the second or third draft, I’m not sure…
Jenny: I told him..it JUST…because I’m the only one who keeps reading it over and over in continuous long form. Like he’s written it and edited it but I keep sitting down and reading it over the span of six hours. Eventually I said, “you’re gonna have to help a girl out. I’m confused and lost.” I think I hurt his feelings for awhile.”
Melissa: So how do you process that? How do you go from, “Okay, this is legitimate. She’s right to —
Jenny: Well, it takes him awhile to get to “She’s right.”
Melissa: That’s what I mean. How do you get there?
Jon: Well, I think my goal, I think where we have progressed in our marriage to some degree is the distance between you saying something and me believing it’s true is shorter.
Jenny: Yeah. Well our goals are aligned. He believes that our goals are aligned.
Jon: Yeah. So for me it’s a period…like the feedback was twenty minutes. And I was like, “yeah, you’re right.”
Jenny: (laughs) He always has to go off in another room and actually rethink it himself.
Jon: Yeah. I have to think “OH. You’re not saying rewrite this entire thing. I need three sentences taken out of these two points because they feel disconnected.”
There were more stories that filled the evening.
The successes and failures which have shaped their life and relationship and dreams. The depressing children’s book Jon wrote long before they had children about Winston the talking bluejay which was really a covert story about branding. Learning the seasons of life on the road balanced by summers spent with their family. Jenny dragging Jon away from his scheduled and planned life to adventure in a canoe and picnic and campfire away from civilization — leaving his comfort zone far behind. And weaving together a dream that fits both of them; a life of loving their family and friends well and all of the odd little cadre of internet denizens they seemed to have picked up along the way. Somehow they’re making it work.
I find myself a little bit in awe. Over the past two years I’ve pursued healing and wholeness with all of me. Part of that is relearning what healthy relationships look like; the give and the take, the support and the cheering each other on. I ask a million questions and observe and take notes because one day I plan on getting it right.
Watching Jon and Jenny, I realized you are enough on your own to turn the world upside down but with someone else’s help you can set it right again.