The Back Story: Part 9 – Johnston Smith
Back Story is a series about some of the regular contributors to igNation. It’s a set of short interviews with writers, their influences, how they go about writing, and what they hope their work for igNation will accomplish. The interviews address their approach to writing in general rather than explore of any particular piece they have authored for the blog.
Each of the participants in the Back Story series was interviewed by Kevin Burns by telephone. He asked each participant the same set of questions, plus a few more based on things that surfaced during their conversation.
Because the igNation format has a limited word-count, each of the interviews in this series will include an additional audio component: “To hear more about [whatever the topic might be]: Click here.”
Today, it’s Winnipeg-based spiritual director and former educator, Johnston Smith. His explanatory pieces appear regularly in igNation, in addition to observations, reflections and – on rare occasions – poetry, all dealing with the personal, the political, the historical and the spirituality of daily life.
KB: Let’s start with a question I’m asking everyone in this series. Can you tell me about the first time you ever saw a work of yours in print? What is that experience like, seeing something you have written actually in print?
JS: One of the first works of mine I remember was an article during my Master’s in Education, that would be in the late 1980s, and which was published in The Manitoba Teacher, the publication of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.
It was a research article on homework. I liked the feeling of having it published. I had done some research work on the topic and was able to tell people about the efficacy of homework. When I write, I think about things a lot and try to make sense about the patterns I see in the world.
KB: Many writers follow special rituals when they write, using certain pens, or special notebooks – you know, the paper kind. Do you have any such rituals? How do you go about writing?
JS: Not really. It was when I was working on that Master’s that I started working with a computer. I wouldn’t do it any other way now. As a ritual, though, I do have a pattern of writing when I feel like it, that is, when I feel the heat. I’m not talking about a deadline kind of heat, but a feeling of when I’m truly ready to write.
Even when I was doing research papers, I would wait and wait and wait, and then, when I felt the heat, I would write, almost in a whirlwind. Next, I’d put it away for a few days and only then go back to it to edit and change things. Today, it’s the same pattern that I follow: I write when I feel the urge to write, even though I have notes and research already in place.
Also today, I like to talk to people about what I’m working on. I go to the gym every day now that I’m retired. I have some buddies that I meet there. I’ll bounce some ideas off them. Their outlook is quite different, certainly not religious.
I often get a stimulus for pieces from chatting with people and getting some kind of feedback, but I have got to feel that heat. When I do, I can complete a piece in just a couple of hours. Other things? Well they just sit there, incomplete, because I don’t feel that heat yet.
KB: You write for this Jesuit-based online publication and you do spiritual direction there in Winnipeg. Tell me about your interest in things Ignatian.
JS: In all my work, the key inspiration in Ignatian spirituality is that it is so incarnational, so bound up in God and man. It’s God entering into this nasty world, not God separating himself from us and our sinfulness. It’s God entering this world with all its messiness.
It was the Spiritual Exercises that taught me this importance of incarnation. Jesuit spirituality is incarnational. To my thinking, it means that God did not abandon us in this world and its ugliness and evil, rather he entered radically into it.
KB: Tell me who the writers are who have influenced you most?
JS: Shakespeare, of course. I taught his plays and sonnets for years. I’ve also been greatly influenced by G.K. Chesterton. Then C.S. Lewis, yes, I’ve read a lot of him, he’s certainly had an impact on me. Then there’s the novels of John Irving.
(Click here to learn more about these Chesterton, Lewis and (especially) Irving and their influence on Johnston Smith.
KB: Finally, Johnston, what books on are your bedside table right now?
JS: I’m just starting that new biography of Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (Leonardo da Vinci, 2017). You know how darn heavy it is, you could lift weights with it! Another one is Fantasyland – How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (2017) by Kurt Andersen. It’s a history of American culture that is very influenced by the advent of Donald Trump and phenomena like that.
In a similar vein there’s Hillbilly Elegy – A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance (2016). There are times in this book that I am moved to tears by this culture that is so mocked by people, yet so little understood.
Oh yes, just this week-end I started re-reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The original trilogy includes Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953). [Years later Asimov wrote various prequels and sequels: Foundation’s Edge (1982), Foundation and Earth (1986), Prelude to Foundation (1988), and Forward the Foundation (1993).]
This was just to revisit it, I decided to re-read it on a whim. How different science fiction was then! In Asimov’s future world, people are still smoking and reading newspapers! It’s curious to me how he did not quite pick up the trends that were going to change, which is, I think, the metier of the science fiction writer.
KB: There’s lots of rereading going on with IgNation writers! Is the Asimov Foundation series as you remember it?
Not at all! It’s much less sophisticated than when I first read it. I was in my teens then and was thinking what the future might be like…
[For more on why Johnston Smith re-reads particular (sometimes surprising) books, click here.