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Published on July 27th, 2023 | by Jen Bryant

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Writing From the Center: A Conversation with Maggie Smith

Maggie Smith is an award-winning author and poet. Her latest book, You Could Make This Place Beautiful (Atria/One Signal Publishers, 2023), is a thoughtful exploration of the end of her marriage. In You Could Make This Place Beautiful, Smith navigates not only the aftermath of her divorce, but also the “beforemath,” as she calls it: all the moments, large and small, that make a relationship, a family, and a life.

Smith’s book doesn’t proceed neatly along the linear path that one might expect from a memoir — first this happened, then that. Instead, the author tells her story through a series of interconnected threads. There are essay reflections that move between the present and a past dark with foreshadowing; snippets of an imagined play in which the author is a character with no script; and a series of questions, some of which seem unanswerable. The end result is a narrative structure that mimics the emotional process of a seismic life event: moving forward some days and doubling back on others, with memories and questions surfacing at unexpected times.

While reading You Could Make This Place Beautiful, I found myself highlighting line after line, stunned at the clarity with which Smith gives voice to her experience. As a fellow writer who’s also lived through the end of a long marriage, I wanted to know more about Smith’s approach to shaping her story and putting it out into the world.

Smith and I spoke at the end of June via video call, where we discussed endings, beginnings, and processing it all through writing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

*

JEN BRYANT: Your prior book, Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, stemmed from a series of notes-to-self that you made during your divorce, which you interspersed with brief essays reflecting on your life at that time. In some ways, You Could Make This Place Beautiful feels like a continuation or deepening of the work you began in Keep Moving. What led you to write You Could Make This Place Beautiful?

MAGGIE SMITH: Keep Moving was writing from the dead center of the most difficult year of my life. For me, that book was really about pressing forward, hence the title. The thing about books is, the book ends but life keeps going. Things continued to be hard and complicated, and I found myself continuing to return to Keep Moving as a reader in the years following its publication, because I needed some of those little self-pep talks as reminders to myself as things continued to be difficult. But the thing I didn’t do in Keep Moving is explain context and talk about what was actually happening in my life and in my house and in my neighborhood. And so I got to a point where I realized that I was going to have to write this book in order to be able to write other books. It just felt like a blocking story.

The content of this book, and the thinking behind this memoir, was what occupied my mind from the moment I woke up — which was sometimes 3 AM — until I went to bed, and so I didn’t know how to do other kinds of writing. It also felt false to try to busy myself with other projects when the real material of my life, which I was living every day, was staring me in the face.

I somewhat naively believed that if I applied enough thinking and feeling and time and energy towards somehow solving the problem of my marriage falling apart, that by the time I got done with the book, I would get it — I would understand what happened, and I would be able to set it down. And so that was the impulse of the book: if I tell this story, and I give it a form — in the words of Eudora Welty, “to take experience and resolve it as art” — maybe that will help me not think about this the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. And so it was really still kind of a self-project, in the way that Keep Moving was. How do I sort of process my adult life?

As it turned out, I couldn’t solve all of the mysteries of my adult life single-handedly, which is why I said it was naïve of me to think that I could do that as one human being, because obviously there are other people involved who would need to shed some light on things for me to really get it. But that was the initial driver behind the memoir.

JB: I love that. It’s interesting — I read Keep Moving during the pandemic, but I had been following you on Twitter before that, where you were posting some of those notes-to-self that would become the basis for the book. I think our timelines are really similar, because I separated from my husband of almost two decades in the spring of 2019, so I understand that impulse of needing to excavate or work through it in writing. In my journals at that time, I was like “I’ll just let myself write everything, feel everything, and put it in this space, then put it away.”

MS: I don’t have a journal, so that’s the other thing – where am I supposed to put it, right? If I’m only putting it verbally in conversations with friends and family and with my therapist, that’s not giving me as a writer the kind of formal shape that I need to make sense of it. I don’t understand things until I write about them. I can talk about something until kingdom come, but it’s not going to be clear to me until I really start grappling with the form on the page. I don’t really do any writing that’s just for me, hence the memoir.

JB: Grief and loss are not linear. In You Could Make This Place Beautiful, you often move seamlessly between the past — the early days of your relationship, your children’s babyhoods, the beginning of your writing career — and the present, where you’re on the other side of all of that. Was this a conscious stylistic decision or does it mirror your internal process and emotional trajectory during that time?

MS: The book was not outlined. The process was not that different from my poetry-writing process, which makes sense because I’m not trained as a memoirist, I’m trained as a poet. And so I approached this project as a poet, and that means I wrote every vignette separately, not knowing how they would piece together or what the transitions or juxtapositions would be. Once I had written what I thought were all of the pieces — “Okay, I think I’ve told every story I need to tell, I think I’ve seen every connection, every echo, every sort of weird rhyme across years that I need to excavate” — I printed the whole thing out and then physically shuffled the pages after color-coding all the strands in the book. I realized, “Oh, the questions are a strand, and the quotes from other writers are a strand, and imagining my life as a play in which I am a character without a script is a strand.” The forward-moving spine of the story about the divorce was a strand, the flashbacks about the kids were a strand, and the italicized sections…

And so I pieced them out as much as I could and gave everything a color, then shuffled them together in such a way that the spine of forward-moving plot stayed where it was, and leafed around all of those incidents were all of the other colors. My main concern was that no one color would disappear for too long. I didn’t have a neat, “Well it goes blue, blue, pink, green, yellow” — it wasn’t that precise — but as I shuffled and would read that version, I would notice, “Oh, pink dropped away for too long — that breadcrumb trail has gone cold, and now it’s confusing for the reader when it picks back up again, so I need more distribution here — I need more blue, and more yellow,” or whatever the case may be.

So that was the driver for me. I knew I wanted to not confuse the reader, so I wanted the story to move in a relatively linear way, but then I wanted to have the freedom to move associatively between those moments, because you’re right, grief doesn’t work in a linear way. I think of it as waves. I don’t think memory works in a linear way — that almost feels like a web, because you see or hear something, and then that reminds you of this other thing, which then pulls you in this other direction. And so I wanted those narrative shapes to appear in the book.

It would have felt like a false thing to write a completely linear book about an experience that wasn’t linear at all. The biggest psychological marker of this time for me was rumination, just thinking and sort of pacing a circle of “Why did that happen, what’s that about, why can’t I figure it out?”, so those kinds of returns and repetitions in the book felt psychologically true, to me. So it was all kind of completely intuitive, and then I got to a place where I shuffled the last shuffle and I was like “Oh, I think this is the book.” There was a little more editing to do, but it was pretty much the size and shape and tone and feeling of the thing I was trying to make. It was a really messy process.

JB: I’m an essayist and a memoirist, but if I were to picture what I think a poet’s approach to writing a book would be, that would be exactly it — very intuitive, nonlinear, let the threads come and see where they lead.

MS: I was still making discoveries even in copyediting, when I really should have only been changing things that were wrong at that stage. I was reading through, and I realized my wedding dishes were called Great White. There was a shark metaphor that I kept using in therapy, and I never made that connection — I can’t not put that in the book.

I finally had to let it go, but I think I would have continued to see those touchpoints. Even now, as I read through the book or answer Q&As after readings, I’m still figuring things out for myself.

JB: Inspired by an episode of the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, you made a list of all the things that had been your responsibility in your marriage — all the tasks that just belonged to you. After making the list, you wrote, “I saw something I’m still trying to process: My life looked surprisingly like my mother’s.” Despite societal advances made between our parents’ generation and ours, it seems that women partnered to men often find that household tasks are still divided along traditional gender lines. Additionally, women in hetero relationships frequently shoulder the responsibility of not only doing our own tasks, but also making sure that male partners are doing their share — one more chore to be responsible for. Have you found a sense of freedom in being untethered to that former role, even though you’re now the sole adult in charge of your household and the tasks within it?

MS: It’s funny — now I have everything on my spreadsheet plus all the other tasks. Who’s painting the backyard shed this week? It’s me! Who’s mowing the lawn? It’s me! Who’s in charge of snow removal and car repairs? It’s me! My ex-husband’s tasks just got added to my pile. So on one hand, not that freeing — I can’t delegate. Even though delegating is work — being the house CEO is like, you’re the manager, but you’re treated like you don’t actually have a job. If we treated CEOs of companies like they weren’t doing anything, that wouldn’t work, but somehow we still do this to moms.

But I will say that I don’t have resentment, because I just do it all now. It’s sort of analogous to the feeling of: Is it lonely to be alone? No, not as lonely as it is to feel alone in a partnership, right? And so I’m doing more than I had to do before, and I have all the mental load, and there is no delegating, but at least it’s clear, you know? There’s no arguing, there’s no resentment about wishing that someone else would pick up the slack and do X, Y, and Z, because there isn’t someone else to do that. I don’t know that “freeing” is how I would describe it, because it’s just more responsibility, but in some ways it’s less complicated.

JB: In the book, you describe a time when a reader at a Q&A for your poetry collection Good Bones asked about your experience of single motherhood. You were still married at the time, but hadn’t written about your husband in the book. You write: “When you consistently leave something — or someone — out of your poems, that’s a conspicuous absence.” Looking back now, do you feel that not writing about your husband at that time was a deliberate choice?

MS: It definitely wasn’t deliberate. I think if it had been deliberate, I wouldn’t have been so surprised by that reader’s take on the book. I was so shocked by that read because I don’t even think the absence had occurred to me until then. It’s interesting, the things we don’t know we’re writing about constantly and the things we don’t realize we’re constantly leaving out.

I think around that same time, because it was for the book Good Bones, someone asked me “What’s with all the birds? Why are you writing about birds so often?” and I was like “How is it that I’ve been in this relationship for (at the time) 17 years, and I was writing more about hawks and crows than I was about my partner? What does that mean, exactly?” And I don’t have a neat answer for that, but it wasn’t on purpose.

Devon Albeit Photography, 2023

Most of the poems in Good Bones reflect what my daily life experience was, and most of my daily life experience was parenting small children as the stay-at-home parent, so that was the lens. It wasn’t that I removed my then-husband from the poems, it’s just that if I wrote about what we did during the day, he wasn’t there. It’s interesting how much just not being there during working hours — not being at the house or at the pool or at the playdate or in the Metropark — does sort of remove you from the picture.

JB: Your rising fame as a writer was a point of contention in your marriage. In response, you tried to make yourself smaller, sometimes even sacrificing opportunities and avoiding sharing good news. In the book, you stated, “Even after the poem went viral, I was still hidden, cleverly disguised as one of the least visible creatures on earth: a middle-aged mother.” How has your own sense of visibility in the world shifted since that time?

MS: Well, I still live in the same house in the same neighborhood that I did when “Good Bones” went viral — I’ve lived in this house for thirteen years. It probably sounds disingenuous to say that I don’t think about my visibility in the world because I still live in my hometown. It’s kind of funny — I walked outside the other day to take the recycling down, and the woman who lives across the street came across and was like, “I loved your book.” And I was like, “Oh — you’ve read my book! I guess you know a lot more about me than I know about you, even though we’ve been neighbors for thirteen years, as I have not read your book.”

I disclosed some things in the essays in Keep Moving, and that did feel, at the time, really vulnerable. But compared to the memoir, Keep Moving was easy. Writing this book and being out on the road with it was initially really difficult. It’s not just increased visibility, it’s like everyone I meet who’s read this book knows a lot more about me than I know about them. There’s a kind of asymmetry in that disclosure and vulnerability when you write a book like this and then travel to talk about it in front of mostly strangers. That has been peculiar and something I’ve had to get used to, and not something that was a concern when I was writing poetry.

On the flip side of that, I feel really comfortable just being able to be who I am, live my life, own the successes, and celebrate things without having to think “How do I explain this in a way that won’t hurt anyone’s feelings?” You know, the idea that we are responsible for other people’s feelings — that if we succeed at something, or something good happens to us and someone else would feel bad for themselves about that, it’s somehow our responsibility to manage other people’s reactions to good things that happen to us. I think we probably think the same thing about grief — we don’t want to tell anyone anything too painful, because we don’t want to have to manage their emotional response to what we’re sharing with them. That’s something I’m still working through.

But it’s been a joy to just let good things happen when they will. Bad things still happen, but when good things happen, I don’t feel like I need to apologize for them. Like, “Sorry, the book made the Times list, so I’m probably going to have to go back on tour for the paperback,” or “I apologize that because the book is being received well, I’m going to have to travel to book festivals in the fall, and that’s going to inconvenience someone.” It’s nice just being able to be like, “Okay, so I’ll do that,” and it’s just my decision. What I want to do I do, and what I don’t want to do I don’t do, and other than childcare concerns and logistics, I don’t have to manage anybody else’s feelings about it. That’s been lovely.

JB: One less task on the spreadsheet.

MS: One less task — and that’s a big one. I don’t even think I put “Manage other people’s emotions” on my spreadsheet, but it was a whole unspoken thing.

JB: As a fellow Columbus-area resident, I love the Ohio-specific details that you include in your work. I often think about the ways in which the physical or cultural landscapes of specific locations can shape the people who live there. As someone who’s lived in Ohio all of your life, in what ways do you think Ohio has shaped you?

MS: Oh, I think I’m hopelessly Midwestern. I was talking to someone recently and I was like, “You know when you meet someone from the Midwest and they say they like your shirt, and you immediately tell them that you got it on sale, or that it’s old, or it’s machine wash only?” It’s like, “It requires no care! I paid nothing for it! This rag?” I think my sense of humor and my general demeanor are so Midwestern, to the point that I don’t even realize it, because it’s just the water I swim in. But when I meet people from other places, they’ll point these things out to me, and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a Midwestern thing.” There’s a real sarcastic, self-deprecating edge to most Midwestern humor.

And I think, maybe even more than place, it’s me being around my family my entire life. I was not one of those people who went off and built a new life for myself, or reinvented myself in a new place. There’s no reinventing yourself when you see the same people around the dinner table every Sunday and they’ve known you since you were born. You’re not going to be able to show up one day like, “Well, now I have a vaguely European accent, and I only wear this designer,” because they’ll call you on your BS. And I find that really refreshing. What it means is that, at least for me, it’s sort of a comfortable forced authenticity. You only get to be yourself; you only have to be yourself. There’s not a lot of expectation of becoming someone new — you can just be the person you are.

The flip side of that is that if you change or grow, there can be resistance to that. But I feel like I’m constantly sort of surprising people in my life, and it’s nice to still be able to do that.

Cover photo by Mikołaj on Unsplash

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About the Author

Jen Bryant is a writer, perpetual student, and stray cat whisperer. Her work has appeared in Ms., BUST, The Sun Magazine, Hipmama, and elsewhere. Jen is an editor at MUTHA Magazine and a creative nonfiction reader for Mud Season Review. A native of the South, she currently resides in the Midwest.



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