Obituary of Jennifer Simpson
Talk Story Publishing founder, Jennifer Simpson, passed away unexpectedly—December 2020
Jennifer Simpson, MFA, August 1964 – December 2020
Jennifer was a talented artist, writer, content strategist, and marketing consultant. From creative non-fiction to poetry, she believed in the power of stories to change the world. COO & Online Marketing Director of Plume, a Writer’s Companion, Executive Director of Dime Stories International, and an active community builder in Albuquerque, she connected people with stories that are shaping our world in a multitude of ways. She is survived by her sister, Debby Simpson, of San Diego.
Donations to honor Jennifer’s legacy can be made to the Children’s Grief Center in Albuquerque where she was a volunteer; Stand Up to Cancer in honor of her sister’s twenty-year battle with cancer; Plume: a Writer's Companion by becoming a Patron; or the University of New Mexico Fund for Indigenous Education Research to support opportunities for people of indigenous ancestry and their cultures, which she honored and advocated for in ways large and small.
A Zoom Celebration of Life will be held in January. Details to be announced in early January. Please check this site frequently as it will be updated with additional information.
My friend Amy Wallen called. "I have some bad news," she said. Then choking tears as she spoke, she told me that our dear friend Jennifer Simpson had died the night before. Suddenly. And we don't know why. "I don't know what to do," Amy said. Neither do I. Except remember.
I spent an afternoon browsing through my computer files, looking for any connection to Jenn I could find that would harken memories of the time when… meaning the time when Jenn and I did this or said that or made a plan or needed something or shared a story or said thank you… I came across a copy of a letter dated January 27, 2008. It was a “To Whom It May Concern” letter, the first paragraph started like this:
Jennifer Simpson asked me to write a letter of recommendation and I’m pleased to do so. She’s applying for a graduate degree in Creative Writing in Fall, 2008.
and it went on from there, telling of how we knew each other, how I admired and respected her, and why I thought she would be a good candidate for the MFA program at the University of New Mexico, which, if she were accepted, would take her away from us and our writing community in San Diego, and move her to Albuquerque. I wrote:
I hope you’ll accept Jennifer as a student in your creative writing program. Though we’ll miss her in our writing community, others will get the benefit of having her in theirs.
Of course she was accepted to the program and she did leave us and move on to be an integral part of another community, she did receive her MFA, but she never really left us. She stayed connected because that’s who she was—friend now, friend for life.
A few days before I learned of Jenn’s passing, I was wrestling with some holiday lights, trying to untangle the wires so I could decorate my little Christmas tree, and a scene from Jenn’s memoir came to me. In the story, she was sitting on the floor doing that very same thing—untangling twinkle lights. She was in my writing group at the time, the year I wrote that letter of recommendation. We’d been working together in that group for a few years then, and I knew the story Jenn was writing—a memoir about her mother who died when Jennifer was thirteen. Funny how a scene from someone else’s story from so long ago can remain vivid in memory and appear spontaneously, bringing with it more than the writing itself, but the setting—all of us around a table at The Ink Spot in the Art Center Lofts, the other writers in the group, some of whom I know are reliving their own memories of the time and the place, and grieving the great and unexpected loss of our friend.
Jenn and I first met in the mid-nineties when she was a student in my creative writing class at UCSD Extension, which she reported as the first writing class she’d ever taken. In a recent email I received from Melanie Unruh, Jenn’s partner in Plume, A Writer’s Companion, I learned that Jenn referred to me as her “writing mom.” I didn’t know that and was deeply touched when I read Melanie’s note, and even now when I write about it, I feel a welling of sadness. Gratitude, too, but especially sorrow.
We can’t always know the effect we have on others; we can only know their effect on us. I’m sure this was true for Jenn, too—that she didn’t realize how she touched many of us in deep and lasting ways. Over these last weeks I have returned again and again to her Facebook page where scores of memories and tributes and beautiful, heart-filled eulogies have been posted. Appropriate, I suppose, for something so techy as social media to be the place where we gather to remember, to share memories and tell stories; to mourn. Jenn knew techy stuff; she was genius at it.
In the early days of San Diego Writers, Ink, Jenn volunteered to do the technical part of our newsletter, Inklings, sharing the latest news and connecting readers to pages on our website through a sidebar she cleverly named “linklings.” Clever indeed, and smart and funny and generous in sharing her knowledge and expertise.
Jenn was the one who took over leadership of DimeStories International when Amy Wallen “retired.” Jenn maintained the website that connected the several DimeStories affiliates, and kept the updates updated. Jenn founded Duke City DimeStories and hosted it, she started drop-in writing groups in ABQ like the ones she’d been a part of in San Diego, only adding that special Jenn touch—the ability to bring an open heart, humor, and inclusion to the mix. There’s more, too, of her life there and the community she was such a vital part of, bits and pieces of which I’d hear stories of when we’d talk or email or, not often enough, see one another in person.
Jenn, my friend, bright spirit, generous story-telling woman who helped so many others tell their stories—through Plume, with Melanie; Talk Story Publishing, which offers all manner of services to writers; DimeStories; writing groups, open mics—and how many other ways. Just sitting across the table with a cup of coffee, talking, laughing, sharing—always telling stories and urging us to tell our own.
Jenn, you are on my mind and in my memories. Each evening as I plug in the lights on my tiny tree, and as we continue on during this sorrow-filled winter holiday in which you left us much too soon, I think of you and hold the image of the woman in your memoir—you—sitting on the floor, untangling that string of lights, a metaphor for all we can’t understand in this life.
RIP, my dear friend.
Oh, the memories Jennifer and I created!
The past perfection subjunctive started my friendship with Jennifer. First, she tutored me in Spanish and I earned an A in the class. We both had landed in this part of the world recently and being young and not having a lot of friends, we bonded. Men came and went in our lives, but we stayed friends despite sometimes disliking each other boyfriends or life choices. We lived in different cities and states over the years but Jen’s brilliant mind was always a phone call away. We had adventures in my ‘71 VW bus and in her ‘71 VW bug. Oh, the memories we created!
I know many of you read the story about the deer we hit in that very bug driving cross country between the deaths of her grandmother and my father. And for those of you too young to know, the engine was on the back in those bugs and the front crumpled pretty easy. In the days before cell phones and Nebraska without call boxes on the interstate highway, we were literally in the middle of nowhere with nothing but each other and a bottle of apfelschnaps. Oh, the memories we created!
Jennifer created community and brought people together. From her work with Rotary to her job at the International Visitor’s Center creating meaningful experiences for residents and visitors to create cross-cultural exchanges, that was only the beginning.
If you cannot share your addiction with your friends, then what is the point? I drug Jennifer into my endless cycle of writing, paying for writing classes, thinking that we would someday, or once upon a time, make a little bit of money from the words we scribbled on the page. We thought that people would be interested in what we had to say. In my defense, others encouraged her as well: Amy Wallen and Judy Reeves fed her addiction as did all her cohorts at the University of New Mexico Creative Writing program. Jennifer had wisdom that needed to be shared. And so, we wrote. People died, her sister, Debby, was diagnosed with cancer, pets passed away and some were buried at Black’s Beach. Oh, the memories we created!
When Jen started creative writing workshops, she found her community, and took ownership of her grief. The bottomless sorrow of a 13-year-old girl whose mother died of cancer and who in some ways never recovered from that devastation. Yet she was brave, starting on a memoir to delve head first into that one event that so singularly shaped her life. Putting these words on the page drew her blood. When Jennifer explored her deepest pain, the issues she had struggled to process internally, the world that would have been, she began a psychology journey marshaling the courage to jump head first into the excavation of her mother’s life, the impact of her mother’s death, and her own journey to healing.
When I write, I wallow on the page, vomit up ideas, spilling my emotions like a toddler scattering toys and Jennifer was always there for me, pushing me to organize my thoughts. When Jennifer wrote, she was brief, sometime too brief and I would encourage her to wallow on the page a bit, deepen the scene, feel the emotions. We made a great pair. Oh, the memories we created!
I called her the Queen of Grief because she danced with grief, wrote about grief, volunteered at the Children’s Grief Center as much to heal herself as to help others, she studied grief, taught creative workshops on processing grief, and consumed books on grief like I consume chocolate.
In 2009, the Annual US Rainbow Gathering came to New Mexico and she picked people up she had never met at the airport and helped them get to the gathering. Then she attended herself. That was the tail end of the wars between the gathering and the United States Forest Service. I forget what happened, but something had gone down and she was front and center videotaping the behavior of law enforcement with her camera to protect people whom she did not even know in a stance so fierce she dared them to try to stop her. Then on the 4th of July, I lost her during the prayer for world peace. She had gone back to her tent because the energy of 10,000 people auming for world peace overwhelmed her. Jennifer was courage and sensitivity all wrapped up in one incredible human being. Oh, the memories we created!
My best friend, partner in writing and publishing, the person who permed my hair, who was always building community where ever she was, who was trying to change the world, person by person and who was committed to indigenous self-determination, the rights of her black and brown friends, her women friends, her LGTBQ friends, who tried to teach us that if we just got to know each other, we would realize we all had more in common than we thought. She believed that every story mattered and needed to be heard by the world. Jennifer Simpson passed away, but the hearts she touched will carry her legacy. Oh, the memories we created!