The Theologist is your guide to all things writing and publishing in the fields of theology and biblical studies, from finding inspiration for your work to reading the best literature on writing, from overcoming writing obstacles to finding writing mentors, and more. In this latest installation of The Theologist, we interviewed Mitzi J. Smith, who is the J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Dr. Smith is also the editor of I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader (Cascade, 2015), the author of Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social (In)Justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation (Cascade, 2018), and the co-author of Toward Decentering the New Testament: A Reintroduction (Cascade, 2018) and the brand new volume, We Are All Witnesses: Toward Disruptive and Creative Biblical Interpretation (Cascade, 2023).
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Great question. I first believed that I could be a writer after I completed a second version of a college English paper on women’s ordination to public/pastoral ministry. In the first version, I attempted to prove why women should not be ordained to pastoral ministry. Ironically, I was studying to earn a BA in Theology in preparation for ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (a degree program reserved for men), but I had not yet identified the precise ministry to which God had called me. The first draft earned a D, but the professor realized that I was struggling with the issue and was in the process of changing my mind. On the second and final version of the paper, I earned an A- and argued in favor of women’s ordination to pastoral ministry. My direct supervisor in the Department of Education at the World Headquarters of the SDA Church, Dr. Patricia Habada (now deceased) and my English professor encouraged me to submit my paper to the denominational magazine Ministry for publication. The editor of the Ministry magazine was not interested in my paper because of the subject and asked me if I’d like to write on another topic. I did not; I received his response as disrespectful and a rejection of my call. Years later, while living and working in the Washington, DC, area as a legal secretary, I responded to a call for poetry for an anthology. The large law firm where I worked was down the street from the White House on 16th Street. I wrote the poem while walking past the White House and titled it “Up the Street”; it was accepted and published. It would be about nine years later in 1999 before I would publish my first academic essay in the front matter of the African American Jubilee Bible, which I wrote as an MDiv student at Howard University School of Divinity. It was published during my first semester as a PhD student at Harvard University.
Do you take notes while researching for a writing project? If so, what form does that take?
Yes, I do take notes. I type notes in a Word document. Sometimes I will write notes in my iPhone Notes app. I can then email them to myself and print them. Seldom, unfortunately, I will record notes in an app; I wish I did this more often. But for some reason I don’t like recording notes. Sometimes I like to write on a notepad, on paper. I don’t know why I prefer this at times, because sometimes I can’t read my own writing. I write very fast, and when I write fast, my writing is sloppy and illegible. I will also write notes to myself in the margins of a book that I own. If I don’t own the book, I write notes in pencil, which requires lots of erasing before I return it to the library. I put an asterisk or some symbol by material in a book to remind me of its importance to the project.
Do you play music while you research and/or write—and, if so, what’s your favorite? If not, does the music you listen to otherwise influence your writing in any way? How so?
I do play music. Music gives me energy, especially during the pandemic when I’ve experienced so much isolation and lethargy around writing and work. During the pandemic I have had to remind myself of the power of music over my spirit, how it enlivens me. I have many favorites, but the music must be upbeat and/or inspirational. If the music makes me want to move, to dance, all the better because I can sit for hours once I’m motivated to write. Certainly, Spotify playlists and albums on my iPhone are among my favorites. They include “Inspired by Juneteenth: A Stay Human Playlist,” “Womanist Mixtape,” “Wake Up Everybody” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “The Black Power Mixtape,” “Uplifting Soul Classics,” “I Love My ‘90s R&B,” “We Are” by Jon Batiste, Nina Simone’s music, and so on.
How do books get published?
If I understand this question, the publication of a book begins with an idea or topic that I am passionate about and/or a book that I need in the classroom or that is needed to address a community or justice issue. I also believe in inspiration; sometimes I am also inspired to write. I could be inspired by injustice or by my students. Toni Morrison in her book The Source of Self-Regard states that our writing is not a gift to the world; it is a necessity. More recently this has helped me to keep at it. Morrison also states that we should not view our writing as work, but we are sitting down to create. Books get published through persistence, belief in the importance and/or necessity of our writing, consistency (fifteen minutes+ a day but not every day; rest and honor the needs of the body, mind, and spirit), many many many revisions, reminding or telling ourselves that our labor or the time we dedicate to creating will bear fruit, and refusal to submit to the negative internal and external voices, including those from our past (e.g., a callous, sexist, or racist graduate school professor).
How do you come up with titles for your books?
It depends on the book. Sometimes I pretty much know what I am going to title a book because it plainly reflects the book’s content and/or my reason for writing it. The main title of the book I Found God in Me: A Womanist Hermeneutics Reader, is from the late Ntozake Shange’s poem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf. Her words expressed what I was feeling and wanted to communicate to readers, which is that God speaks to and through Black women and Black womanist scholars as clearly as God speaks to and through the dominant. We should boldly and confidently create the scholarship we need. And, of course, the subtitle reflects my intent to produce the first womanist reader featuring womanist biblical scholarship.
Sometimes, I begin with one title, but the final manuscript requires or inspires a different one. This was the case with my upcoming Cascade book co-authored with Michael Newheart, We Are All Witnesses: Toward Disruptive and Creative Biblical Interpretation. The title in the initial book proposal was Testimonies and Testifying Bible: Disruptive and Creative Interpretation. The title of my co-edited volume Bitter the Chastening Rod is a sequel to Stony the Road We Trod. A colleague Dr. Randall Bailey suggested Bitter the Chastening Rod since it is the second line of verse two of the Negro National Anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing; Stony the Road We Trod is the first line of the second verse. It made sense.
What is the most difficult part of your writing process?
The most difficult part of my writing process is when a book or a (or each) chapter of a book is not coming together as proposed or planned. It is a mess, and I know it. I cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. These moments of frustration or temptation to abandon the project can occur with the first or the eighth book, with the first essay and the fifteenth. Each time I remind myself that I have been here before, that I just need to stay the course. I may need to yell or shed tears, take a break—long or short—do something else except read or write, and then come back to it, reminding myself that I can do this again.
What makes for good academic writing?
That’s an interesting question. For me good academic writing is original, clear, accessible, and engages with diverse voices. Good academic writing invites us to think and to reimagine worlds and ideas. It raises new questions and leaves some of them unanswered. Perhaps, good academic writing seeks to inspire rather than to impress.
What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?
Just start! If it has not been done and you want to write it, do it. Start! Before I co-authored Toward Decentering the New Testament, a colleague at an Association of Theological Schools mid-career workshop advised me to write whatever I want to write. And I did. It was the book I needed in my classrooms. If others found it helpful, wonderful! Writing is never easy, but in order to write and finish a book, you must start. And be willing to revise, revise, revise, revise.
What do you think is the best way to improve writing skills?
Practice, practice, practice, and practice. Identify and read the writing that you admire. What is it that you admire about it? I admired the prolific but accessible writing of the late New Testament scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ. For whom do you want to write? I want to create academic publications that are also accessible to my communities. Attend a workshop on writing. The Wabash Center will soon offer a workshop on writing creatively. Here are few good books on writing that helped me, e.g., William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Writing Tools by Roy Clark, Writing a Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker, and Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook. An editor I spoke with at an SBL book exhibit after I finished my dissertation and was looking for a publisher told me that almost all doctoral students are wordy; they use too many words. I’ve never forgotten that advice. If possible, find and attend a writing retreat (I’ve not been successful in this regard). I have not used one, but some writers hire writing coaches that they find helpful.
Which theologian, philosopher, or biblical studies scholar’s work do you find most enjoyable to read, and why?
I enjoy reading Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler because they are such deep, creative thinkers and writers who unapologetically write about race, religion, and gender, and so astutely and adeptly analyze literature and life. I wish I had encountered them much earlier in my life.
What books are you currently reading?
Because I am teaching a new course this Spring semester on Dissent and the New Testament, I am reading The Great Dissenter: The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America’s Judicial Hero by Peter Canellos. I recently became aware of the work of the Kenyan activist (the tree lady) and scholar Dr. Wangari Maathai, and I am reading Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai. I am also reading Treva B. Lindsey’s America, Goddam: Violence, Black Women and the Struggle for Justice. And I’m slowly reading Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self Regard.
What writing projects do you have in the works?
We are All Witnesses: Toward Disruptive and Creative Biblical Interpretation, co-authored with my first MDiv New Testament professor Michael Newheart, has just been published (Cascade Books). I submitted a manuscript to Cascade of the first book-length womanist reading of First Corinthians entitled Chloe and Her People: A Womanist Critical Reading of First Corinthians. I am working on a book entitled Re-Reading the Lukan Jesus for Liberation: Anointed Abolitionist Born of a Doule Called Mary (Cascade). I am also writing the commentary on the Acts of the Apostles for the revised Oxford Annotated New Testament Bible. Also, I am editing with co-editors Raj Nadella and Luis Menéndez-Antuña the first OUP Handbook of Bible, Race, and Diaspora. And there are a few essays I will be writing this year.
Dr. Mitzi J. Smith is the J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and Professor Extraordinarius in the Institute for Gender Studies, University of South Africa. Smith earned her PhD from Harvard University, MDiv from Howard University School of Divinity, and MA in Black Studies from The Ohio State University. Her book publications include We Are All Witnesses: Toward Disruptive and Creative Biblical Interpretation (co-authored with Michael Newheart); Toward Decentering the New Testament (co-authored with Yung Suk Kim); Bitter the Chastening Rod: Africana Biblical Interpretation after Stony the Road We Trod in the Time of BLM, SayHerName, and MeToo (co-edited with Angela Parker and Ericka Dunbar Hill); Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social Injustice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation; I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader; and Insights from African American Interpretation. Smith’s new book Chloe and Her People: A Womanist Critical Dialogue with First Corinthians will be published late 2023. Smith proposed and is the first chair of the Womanist Interpretation program unit of the Society of Biblical Literature. She launched the Beyond the Womanist Classroom podcast on Sept 2, 2022. Her personal website is www.mitzijsmith.net.