I came across Jason Smith's writing for the first time on Medium.com. He had written a piece called, "Putting Pen to Paper Does Not Make You a Writer: It Makes You a Primate." Not only was it catchy and entertaining, but it was also honest, simple, and beautifully written. His post, "Heroin in the Foothills" just made Medium's "Top 100" posts of August list.
After chatting and learning more about his background, it was clear that his interview needed to be on the site.
Spoiler alert: Jason landed a three part series on heroin addition in his local newspaper after simply walking into the office and making his pitch. They even put it on the front page.
Jason is interesting for a variety of other reasons, too, but I'll let his story speak for itself.
Let's get to it.
The Curious Cat Project is about connecting writers who are full time "something elses." What is your "something else?" How do you find the time to write?
Jason: My “something else” is co-owning a commercial fundraising company called Donate Local. We do the fundraising on the commercial end for about 15 local charities here in Northern California. Shriners Children’s Hospital, SPCA, etc. It’s a very rewarding job, but busy. Any time you’re dealing with money for non-profits, there are lots of I’s to dot and T’s to cross to keep the state satisfied. Writing is actually my escape, a chance to activate an entirely different part of my brain from the one I use for work. Truth is, if I feel like writing, I make the time.
When did you know you were a writer?
J: The first time I saw my name beneath a headline in a newspaper. I had a ‘shit-just-got-real’ moment. Watching people buy a paper with your name and your story on the front page; it felt incredible. Perhaps it’s nostalgic, but there’s something about seeing something you wrote in print, hard-copy. That meant what I wrote passed the editorial inspection by people who’ve been schooled in journalism (something I was not). It just made everything after that feel a little more authentic. That’s not to say someone has to see their name in print for it to be real – but for me, personally, that’s when it felt real.
A lot of your pieces are about life experiences and travel. Are you of the mindset that writers should write what they know? In your opinion, can a writer who hasn't had these experiences still connect with their readers? Sound interesting?
J: I’d never make a blanket statement about anything regarding writers. I know for me – I have to write about what I know. I’d be a horrible fiction writer. I just don’t have the imagination, I suppose. I’m not good at creating things. I think my strength is taking what’s already happened and communicating that in a way that, hopefully, the reader can connect to. My life experiences have been both a blessing and a curse. Cursed in that some of them were extremely difficult. Blessed in that others who’ve gone through difficult times can maybe connect to them. I think a writer has to take his or her own life and use it. We’re all products of our past. Readers can spot fake. Inauthenticity.
Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish long-term?
J: A few years ago I was in rehab for drug addiction, and they made me write a letter to my uncle who died of a heroin overdose when I was 13. I’d never written like that before, and at first I just sat there, staring at a blank page. But I started writing. And writing. And writing. Before I knew it, I had this three page letter to a dead person and I felt this weight lift off of my chest that I’d unknowingly been carrying around for 19 years. I felt this release, like the weight of the world had been lifted off of me. I learned then and there the therapeutic value of writing.
Today, I write for two reasons: it feels good and I have something to say. If people want to read it, that’s up to them. But every story I write, there’s that same sense of release at the end of it, releasing something I’d been holding inside without realizing it, be it consciously or subconsciously. In that regard, writing may have saved my life. When dealing with my past, I can choose to numb it – which I did for a very long time – or I can choose to own it, process it, and be done with it. Writing allows me to participate in the latter, perhaps saving me from the alternative.
Some of your pieces, like your "Heroin in the Foothills" series, have a journalistic feel. From where do you draw your inspiration? Did you ever study writing formally?
J: My degree from UC Davis is in history, so that required a lot of writing, but not in a journalistic style. When I approached Heroin in the Foothills, I approached it from a social science perspective as opposed to a journalistic perspective. Social science requires you to step back and take a look at the big picture. Cause & effect. I looked at the current situation – a national increase in heroin use, and heroin abuse here in Northern California – and asked how this happened and what might happen next. I think a journalist would have looked at the current situation, gotten the facts, and gotten out. But that’s not my background, so I didn’t approach it that way. In reality, “Heroin in the Foothills” is a social science study disguised as traditional newspaper journalism. And I think that’s why it received such a positive response: it was different. It wasn’t your typical newspaper story. As far as the style of the article, I did your traditional newspaper third-person narrative, passive tense headline, etc. But I also broke a few rules, which the editor of the paper – Dennis Noone – allowed me to do because he believed in my ability, which was the support I needed. I open part one in first person – something you’re never supposed to do in a story like this. I switch back to third person, then back to first. It’s a strange format, but I felt it worked. And so did the paper’s readers, which responded very positively to the article.
How does where you are from influence you as a writer?
J: Born and raised in California, I’m naturally very laid back. I don’t let much get to me and I don’t take myself too seriously. That’s why even in my dark stories I try to still find humor, usually self-deprecating. Writers who take themselves too seriously are a turn-off for me.
What is your favorite piece you've ever written?
J: I think “Bitter Taste of Dying” is my most intimate piece. It’s raw, stripped down, and from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy. It was a traumatic experience that I think many can relate to. It’s the summer of a young teenager that was hijacked by something that was completely out of his control. I think that’s where people can relate. Many of us were going along in our youth only to have something blindside us that ended up changing who we became as a person. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that exact experience for a reader to be able to relate.
I loved the piece, "Putting Pen to Paper Does Not Make You a Writer." Tell us - beyond making someone "feel" when they read your writing, what does make one deserving of the title 'writer?'
J: I’m not sure I’m qualified to determine whether anyone is or is not a “writer.” I know that for me, I want to be different in some way after I read it than I was before I read it. I like writers who force me to question my entire belief system. Teach me something. Give me something. I think the BuzzFeed mentality of writing, with the only objective being to get clicks, is sad and it’s watering down the writer-reader experience. Never before have writers and readers been able to connect with such ease. I sincerely believe, however, that if you write something worth reading, that readers will connect to, people will find it.
Who is your favorite writer and why?
J: I love Hemingway. When I was 16 I read The Sun Also Rises and it planted a seed for travel, for growth, for empathy. I ran with the bulls, and I thought about Hemingway the entire time. His writing style is stripped down. He’s not a fluffy writer. And he’s not afraid to break rules, so long as it serves a purpose. Short, two-word sentences, or 2 page long run-on sentences. I think if I ever ventured into fiction, I’d have to do it the way he did it: creating characters based upon his real life experiences and letting them grow. Old Man and the Sea is to this day my favorite thing ever written.
What are you reading now? What's on your "read this before you die" list?
J: Right now I’m reading The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. There is so much good stuff in there. She tells the story of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, their friendship and ascension to power, and then how it all fell apart. But she also devotes a lot of time to McClure’s Magazine, a periodical at the time with a devoted staff to finding the truth. It’s a fantastic book.