Creator Spotlight: Justin Douglas Lee
"I’ve just always had a very active imagination, and I try to think of things that I haven’t seen anywhere else before." -Justin Douglas Lee
Justin Douglas Lee is a writer and poet who covers everything from science fiction, to music reviews, dog content, and reflections on his experiences with homelessness and mental illness. While it was his fiction that drew us in initially, one look at Justin's poetry and non-fiction pieces kept us engaged and confirmed his talent as an all-around creator.
Justin's journey to this point has been a triumphant one. Before getting his first poetry piece published in the Denver Voice back in 2017, Justin was battling homelessness and crippling mental illness. Getting his poem published initiated the turnaround of his career, mental state, and life. Since then, he's published multiple pieces with the Denver Voice, as well as found a home for his creativity and breadth of stories here on Vocal.
To honor his creative journey to this point, please enjoy Justin's first published poem, "The Butterfly":
The caterpillar thought,
"Gee my life really sucks.
I see so many pretty things
Whenever I look up.
I want to touch those pretty things,
But on the ground I'm stuck
So, I'll build some walls around myself
Just to escape this rut."
He built the walls around himself,
And safe the insect felt
But, soon he found that
Who he used to be began to melt.
The caterpillar changed
And in his brain an idea sparked,
"This place is much too cramped for me,
And very very dark."
He struggled to break out,
But he was scared that he would fail.
"I need somebody else
To break me out of my own jail!"
A man heard his cry,
And with kindness in his heart,
He took his knife in hand
And broke the bug's cocoon apart.
The butterfly broke out
To reach the things he used to seek,
But when he spread his wings,
Sadly he found they were too weak.
Another caterpillar knew
That she could reach the moon
If she only struggled hard enough
To break through her cocoon.
The fight was long and hard but,
When she finally broke free,
She spread her wings and flew
To places higher than the trees.
She saw her friend stuck on the ground,
And flew to him with love,
To carry him up high
To see the world from up above.
Her wings were strong, but even she
Could not lift up her friend.
"I'm sorry, but I cannot fly
While bearing your burden."
He watched her fly away until
In the clouds she was lost.
"I would have tried much harder
If I knew what it would cost."
So when the world seems dark,
And there are things that make you cry,
Remember you must struggle now,
So later you can fly.
We consider ourselves lucky to have caught Justin so soon after his cocoon departure and to have the opportunity to provide some wind underneath his wings. In this #VocalSpotlight, we champion the journey and evolution of a deeply talented creator. Justin Douglas Lee, everyone.
On His Background, Upbringing, and Interests:
I lived in a lot of different places growing up. My parents were split up since I was only a few months old, so I was always traveling back and forth between them, which was a trip up to Tennessee to see my dad every Summer and a trip back to Louisiana to spend the school year with my mom. I’m the only child my parents had together, so all of my siblings are related to me through only one parent. Mike and Jesse are my older brothers on my dad’s side (I’d see them in the Summers), Jared is my older brother on my mom’s side, Leeanna is my younger sister on my mom’s side, and Allen is my younger brother on my dad’s side (he was born when I was 16). I didn’t just live with my parents, though. On various occasions I had to move in with different grandparents, uncles, and aunts. I switched schools every year or two. So, I never really felt like I had a place to call home.
I got into video games at a young age, playing Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. When I got my first gameboy, it was over. All I did was play on that thing. The first Final Fantasy I ever played was FF8 on my brother’s playstation. The theme to Balamb Garden always makes me feel like I’m home. I started really getting into music in middle school when people were using Kazaa and Limewire to pirate new songs. That’s when I started getting into rap and rock and roll. Singing along with my favorite musicians for hours at a time was cathartic and helped pass the days when I didn’t have anything else I wanted to do.
The first time I really thought I could start writing was in 9th grade English, when we had to write haikus and my teacher was really impressed with mine. It’s the first one in my book and the poem I named my book after.
Tiny blades of grass
Being stepped on ev’ry day
When will they strike back?
When I wrote that, I meant it literally, like what if the grass just got mad one day because we’re always walking on it and it hurts or something. My teacher read it as a metaphor. It’s actually a pretty good metaphor and creative, if I had meant it that way, not gonna lie. That’s why I love it so much, because it was accidentally good, and it was really just stemming from my own sense of humor.
I did college backwards. I was sober the whole time and spent my free time playing Dungeons and Dragons with my friends. In high school I smoked weed all the time, but I sobered up for college, and after I dropped out, I started smoking weed again. I wanted to make video games. I have RPG Maker, and I’ve started trying, but I’d rather spend my free time writing or playing video games.
For most of my life, I suffered from severe suicidal depression. With the use of psilocybin mushrooms, I’ve overcome my feelings of hate and despair that led me into suicidal moods. I don’t use them regularly, I just tried them a few times. But, it’s undeniable that after my heroic dose (a really really big dose) a year and a half ago, my depression vanished, like magic. I’m always careful to say that they probably won’t work for everyone, but they definitely worked for me.
Today, at this time. I enjoy the fact that I live. I look forward to the future. I sleep well, and I have hopes and dreams instead of dreads and worries. Things are so different for me that they are hard to describe.
I love my life. I want to live as long as I can. I want to spread joy and hope wherever I go. I have changed so much.
My depression was a big factor in me dropping out of college and my defeat of it is a big factor in me writing so often. I feel a lot more motivated to pursue my dreams and imagine a future where I’m living off of my writing. And having my dog, Maple, around helps a lot too. She makes every morning a happy one.
I’m actually pretty shy, which is why I try to be more candid when writing my nonfiction. It’s the way I open up to the world. Talking about my past is just depressing, but writing about it helps me work out my feelings, and I hope sharing it helps others who have similar feelings. My poetry is just me venting the darkest thoughts that come to me, or it’s me trying to hang on to those moments of serenity I sometimes feel. Writing is also a hobby where I can challenge myself to do better. It’s a way to motivate myself into taking some kind of productive action and to give myself goals to accomplish and to be able to celebrate when I accomplish those goals.
On His Relationship with Writing:
I’ve been writing my whole life. I remember back in Elementary School, I tried writing an autobiography. I was in like second grade. I really got into writing poetry and song lyrics in high school. I started writing short stories in college. I’ve just always had a very active imagination, and I try to think of things that I haven’t seen anywhere else before. In school, when teachers would give us an assignment and say “be creative” I always did poorly on those assignments because I always got a little too creative.
On His Favorite Genres to Read and Write in:
I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi and fantasy stories. When I was a kid, I read R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books all the time. Harry Potter and Eragon came out when I was in middle school. And I started reading the Shannara series in high school. I also like sci-fi and fantasy shows, movies, and video games. I like to imagine worlds of magic and cool technologies. When I was young, I always liked learning about space, and it’s still a favorite subject of mine to this day; so I guess sci-fi relates to that.
I like writing non-fiction, although I don't think I'm as good at it. Sometimes when I tell a real story, I find it hard to embellish details to bring the story to life more, and I feel like I write it too concisely. Plus, when I'm remembering stuff, my memories get all tangled up and I kind of jump around with details; but I still think I have some interesting stories to tell, and the more I tell them, the better I can get at it.
On His Favorite Perspective to Write in:
I prefer third person. I just like the way it sounds better. I write in first person sometimes because it can be easier to get into a character’s thoughts if you just write it from their perspective. "Strange Transmissions" is written in third person perspective, but I still tried to get into the character’s heads in this one.
On His Creative Process:
Everything inspires me. When I can’t come up with a story plot that I like, I have a book designed to help Dungeon Masters create sessions for their Dungeons and Dragons games. It gives vague plot points that you can work with to make your own story. Usually, I come up with some kind of situation I want to put my characters in, and some idea of what role the characters will play in the story. Then I start writing and let the rest of the story come to me. I like to figure out what the characters are going to do as I’m writing what they’re doing.
In "The Ivory Tower," for instance, I knew it was going to start with his dog dying, and that there was a tower full of wealthy people, but the rest of the story just came to me as I wrote. I made up the robots as a way to kill off the dog, and they sort of became a central plot point from there. The details of the inside of the tower were just ideas that came to me as I wrote.
In "The Isle of Bones," the main character was actually supposed to be a cleric and her brother was the bad guy, but I switched it up halfway through. That happens a lot when I'm writing. I think I have an idea and it changes as I flesh it out and start writing.
On Non-Fictional Elements in His Works of Fiction:
Most of my characters are based off of some aspect of my own personality, or on personalities around me. None of my characters are actually supposed to act like the real people around me, but they might have a bubbly attitude similar to someone I work with, or have my cynicism. The main character in "Overthinking Things" is based on a younger version of myself. A time when even simple questions could baffle me, because I was always only half paying attention and would think too hard about things.
Most of the characters think like I do, or like I think other people do. I try to make them reasonable in their decision making. I’m usually trying to place relatively average people into scenarios in which they can become heroes. "Waking Up Dead" was basically what if I woke up as a zombie and could still reason and think pretty clearly. I figured I’d know what a zombie is when I saw one, and that the hunger for flesh would be my main driving force. I tried to break the character down into a full brains moaning zombie.
On His Love for Poetry:
Poetry was the only healthy outlet I had for my strong emotions when I was younger. I think my love for poetry comes from my love of music. I used to write songs, and eventually that led to simply writing all kinds of poetry.
I love playing with words and phrasing and finding unique ways to rhyme words together, and I literally love alliteration a lot. You can tell by a lot of my poems that it’s a channel for my anger and sadness. I’m inspired by William Blake and Emily Dickinson a lot. I like writing about nature in my poetry as well.
On What He's Learned Through Adopting Maple:
She changed my life. She gives me a kind of happiness that I haven't felt in a long time. I wake up every day to a happy energetic puppy who wants to play with me, and I'm eternally grateful that I found her. And I'm certain she's happy I found her too.
I’ve learned how important companionship is to health and well-being. I’m a lot happier since I adopted her a year ago, and she’s happy too. Since I spend most of my days off on the couch, she spends most of that time cuddled up against me, or trying to get me to play. Now I have my best friend to come home to, and it makes life so much brighter.
On His Experience with Homelessness:
I learned that it’s expensive to be homeless mainly because you can’t store food anywhere, so you rely on eating at restaurants a lot. I also learned why being called a wet blanket is an insult. For me, homelessness was more like an adventure. I always knew I had somewhere to go live if I wanted to. For most of those people, they have nobody to turn to, and a lot of them suffer from serious addiction and mental health issues.
I appreciate having the small things a lot more now that I know what it’s like not to have them. A refrigerator and a pantry are wonderful things to have around. Air conditioning and heating are great. And I bought myself a big soft mattress, so I feel like I’m sleeping on a cloud at night.
I was homeless still when I first got poems published by the Denver Voice. That was the first time I ever got paid for my poetry. It wasn’t much, and it didn’t really help when I moved back home, but it was a great accomplishment. That was when I first wrote "The Butterfly" which is about my thoughts and experiences being homeless. There are a few different lessons in that poem that I try to portray. Things like sometimes when you think you’re helping someone, you’re just making things worse for them. And sometimes there isn’t someone around who can help pick you up when you’re down, even if they try. I always imagine that after the poem ends, the first butterfly tries really hard and eventually flies away too.
On His Goals as a Writer:
In the short term, I really want to win a Vocal challenge. I’m also saving up poetry and short stories to publish books. I self published a book on Amazon in 2020 that’s a collection of my poetry over 10 years. I like to call it the autobiography of my emotional life.
I want to make a sci-fi/fantasy short story collection as a book. And in the long term, I’d like to start writing fantasy novels. I'd also like one day for my blog to be a reliable source of information about dogs.
On Who/What Inspires Him to Create:
I’m inspired by stories I read, movies and shows I watch, and music I listen to. I already mentioned William Blake and Emily Dickinson, but I’m also inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, Esham, Greydon Square, Rehab, Eels, and shows like Star Trek and Dr. Who. I also love reading the classics like Jekyll and Hyde and I’m inspired by non-fiction. There’s a lot of really cool stuff in reality that can be exaggerated for stories.
On How Becoming a Vocal Creator Helped To Develop His Online Presence:
Vocal got my writing juices flowing again. I’ve been looking for a way to make some money on the side, and Vocal has been a great start. Writing on Vocal gave me the confidence to start my blog, and checking out the Pet Life community gave me the inspiration for my topic.
I feel like reading the top stories and trying to understand how they’re written, helps me learn how to improve my own writing. And I’ve just recently joined some of the Vocal groups on Facebook and Reddit.
On His Favorite Story He's Published on Vocal:
"To My Brother" because I think I really captured how losing him felt. It was the second song I wrote after he passed away, and it just flowed out of me. And I’m really proud of how well I did with the rhyming. There’s a second verse and a hook, but I wrote those years later.
Don’t think about it—first thing that comes to mind:
What is one thing you couldn’t live without?
Favorite Musical Artist?
"Covered in Chrome" by Violent Soho
Favorite/Most Impactful Poem?
"The Fly" by William Blake
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
Cats or dogs?
Favorite travel destination?
Day or Night?
Favorite local restaurant?
Papi’s Fajita Factory
What’s your go-to late night snack?
What are you currently binge watching?
What are you currently reading?
If you could speak a new language, what would it be and why?
Japanese, so I could watch anime without subtitles.
Favorite story you read on Vocal by another Creator?
"My Zombie Co-worker Asked If He Could Pick My Brain and Then Things Got Weird" by Jessie Waddell
Thanks for such thoughtful and in-depth answers, Justin! It was great to narrow in on the writer behind the variety of stories and genres on your profile.
To us, your works of fiction read like a dream—and while these stories seem to border on reality, they maintain a mysterious fog that beckons readers to keep lurking into the familiar, yet mystic depths of your characters and storylines. Your non-fiction is incredibly down-to-earth and it reveals your determination through each of your life's tests as well as the sincerity behind your very realistic aspirations.
As someone who's gone from depression and homelessness to being published in the Denver Voice and consistently top storied here on Vocal, you have resonated with the creative industry and greater artistic community. It was a pleasure to get to know you both as a creator and a person. We're downright inspired by your resilience.
Thanks again, Justin!
About the author
Vocal Spotlight aims to highlight standout creators who are changing the world one story at a time. We're getting to know the storytellers who inspire us the most, and we can't wait for you to meet them.