In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with poet Maggie Smith about her new book, You Could Make This Place Beautiful (Atria/One Signal Publishers, April 11, 2023). Two years after her first Author Talks interview, Smith offers a new perspective on perseverance. In the wake of immeasurable loss, Smith undertakes a journey of self-discovery and forgiveness, finding promise and possibility in the midst of upheaval. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Who is this book for?
My book, You Could Make This Place Beautiful, is a memoir about coming home to yourself. The process of writing this book, like for my book Keep Moving, was really still about writing for me. All the writing I do is usually for me first. I’m either trying to figure something out, or trying to distill something, or process something, or describe something for myself first.
Then if I get it to the point where I think someone else might enjoy it—maybe “enjoy” is not the right word—might get something out of it or where it might resonate with them in a way, then I feel comfortable sharing it.
‘How did I get here?’ I think we’re all asking ourselves that question in some way, shape, or form, especially if our lives maybe don’t look right now like we thought they might look at this point.
But the process for me is always about, “What do I need to do for myself via this piece of writing?” For Keep Moving, it was press forward through grief, and loss, and uncertainty. And because this is a memoir, I think it’s more about looking back and trying to reflect on the past, and kind of reckon with the past, and answer that question I hear so many people asking in middle age. To quote the great David Byrne, of the Talking Heads, “Well, how did I get here?”
I think we’re all asking ourselves that question in some way, shape, or form, especially if our lives maybe don’t look right now like we thought they might look at this point. It was still for me first, trying to get to an answer to that question for myself.
Yet this book is also ‘an argument for possibility’?
Whenever something, an upheaval, has happened in life—and this book is really written about the upheaval of my divorce but also other big life changes—I think one of the unkind stories we tend to tell ourselves is, “Well, OK, what is my life now? Life is over as I know it.”
So thinking about this book as an argument for possibility, that’s just gesturing toward the writing I had to do to figure out who I am now. And that’s asking that question: “How did I get here?”
Because the answer to that really needs to be not just, “OK, this is how I got here” but also “Now where am I going?” Making peace with the past helps us live more with the possibilities in the present and the possibilities of the future.
That’s really what I was trying to take apart in this book: ”How did I get to this point in my life? What were the paths and choices, the forks in the road? How did I get here? If not completely understanding, but understanding better how I got here, will that help me see the possibilities in my life now? And also, what could happen next?”
There is a tension in here between acceptance and forgiveness.
There’s a narrative of, “We need to forgive people who we perceive having done us wrong,” right? Forgiveness is for us. It’s not for the other person. If we’re carrying a grudge or negative feelings toward another person, really, that’s our weight to carry.
They’re not carrying that. We’re carrying that. That’s our baggage. I agree with all of that. And yet I think there is a difference between really forgiving someone and just being able to get to a place of greater peace and acceptance of what has happened.
There is a difference between really forgiving someone and just being able to get to a place of greater peace and acceptance of what has happened.
Part of that, I think, is also owning your own stuff, by which I mean all relationships, all systems, whether it’s a working relationship, or a family, or a marriage, or a partnership—all of those relationships and systems are cocreated.
So if we’re looking at having to forgive someone else, we also have to own our part in our own decision making in creating that environment, and we also have to forgive ourselves, and accept that what’s done is done. How can we learn from it and then move forward with some greater wisdom to maybe make some different decisions today, tomorrow, the next day?
The book applies to a lot of ‘what now?’ life crises.
My feeling is that even if someone hasn’t been through the exact experiences that I myself have been through (and, for many of them, I hope they haven’t been through those exact experiences), I still think there are enough touch points, because we’re all human beings.
We all have disappointments. We all have relationships, whether personal or professional, that didn’t work out the way we wanted. We all have to reappraise things in life every now and then, and look around and think, “OK, this is where I’m at. Now, what do I want to do? What’s not really doing it for me right now? Where do I want to refocus energy?” Change is the only constant, and we’re all human beings, and we’re all dealing with that in various ways in our lives.
‘I have to gather myself, stand in my own power, remember who I am, reach out to my community.’ Those are all things we have to do when adversity comes knocking at our doors in whatever way, shape, or form it chooses to arrive.
Even if someone hasn’t had so many of the same experiences that it feels familiar to them, I think they will recognize the feeling of the book, the emotional weather of the book, which is, “OK, these things have happened. Now what?”
“I have to gather myself, stand in my own power, remember who I am, reach out to my community.” Those are all things we have to do when adversity comes knocking at our doors in whatever way, shape, or form it chooses to arrive.
The book is also about building resilience as a muscle you can exercise when needed.
I actually think all literature is sort of self-help and instructive in one way, shape, or form in that, at least for me, books make me feel less alone. Even if the experience of the writer is not my experience, when I read it, and I feel let into their lives, and I see how they coped, I see how they grieved, I see what their experience was like. I feel seen.
That sense of community that we get through books, that’s really what I hope people get from this reading experience. The form, for me, was really a way of coming up with a structure to the book that felt psychologically true. And by that, I mean when I write a poem, I’m always thinking about what form best embodies or enacts the content. Say it’s a love poem about a couple. It might be in couplets. That actually feels true to me and formally right because I want form and content to be inseparable.
So for this book, if I’m thinking about processing difficult events, and rumination, and memory, all of that happens in a nonlinear way. It happens, usually, in pieces. Memory is associative, not linear. When we see something, it reminds us of something else, which then pings and reminds us of something else, which then pings and reminds us of something else.
That tends to look a little bit more like a collage, visually, than a timeline. The structure of the book was really meant to not only tell the story but to give the reader a sense of what the experience felt like for most of us.
I think I approached this book in such a way that I thought: “If I write deeply enough and delve deeply enough into this experience, I will understand it completely. I will have all the answers. I will have my adult life ‘solved,’ for lack of a better word.”
Spoiler alert: I did not actually exit this book having all of the answers. None of us ever really gets access to all the answers, sadly. But I did feel better when I finished writing this book.
I think it wasn’t necessarily because of the answers I got through thinking deeply about it. It was through the process of writing it, and structuring it, and making this experience into a piece of art that I wanted to share with other people.
It just reminded me of why I do what I do, frankly, which is because I think it has value, and it’s a way that I can build community with other people: by making a thing and then shoving it out of the nest and allowing other people to spend some time with it and enjoy it, or not, or maybe think deeply about it, or feel less alone in their own experience, or read it and think, “I don’t relate to this that much, but I have a friend who needs this book, and I think I need to pass it on to that person.”
In that way, even in these continuing pandemic times, writing always feels like a way of reaching out to me. Like, I am able to be in many different places, in conversation with many different people, some of whom I’ll never meet because they’re spending time with something that I made.
You once said, ‘I’m not famous. I just wrote a famous poem.’ Does it feel different now?
I don’t feel like a famous person. I suppose being known as a writer is different from being famous in a lot of other aspects of life. If I were a famous musician or a famous actor, I probably couldn’t just go to the grocery store and be completely anonymous, even in my own town!
I don’t really think of it as being famous. I think I’m known as a writer, but that’s still like a fairly insular audience, especially because my home genre and the piece of writing I’m most known for is poetry.
That in itself keeps things intimate. After my poem “Good Bones” went viral, I had a panic freeze moment where I thought, “I don’t know how to write after this,” because suddenly it feels like lots of people are watching who weren’t watching before, and lots of people are reading and listening who weren’t reading and listening before.
“And what if they have expectations from me? What if they think all my poems going forward have to sound and behave like this poem? And what if I let them down?” I really had to get to a place in this house where I sat down and thought, “OK, I’m either going to let that paralyze me, or I’m going to just pretend it didn’t happen so that I have the ability to keep going back into that little well inside myself and bringing up whatever words feel urgent to me on that given day, regardless of what anybody else might want from me on that day.”
So that’s what I did. I started writing poems about, you know, trees, and flowers, and my kids, and taking my dog for a walk, and any number of tiny things, because that’s what I wanted to write about. So, it does affect me, and yet the thing that I have to always remind myself is, to try. To do my best work, I have to tune out the outside world as much as possible, go to that kind of still, quiet inner place where the writing gets made. And then I can consider audience, and readership, and all that other stuff when I’m done, but not before I’m done.
So enough with the ‘me’ after this book?
Have you been reading my journal? Yes. As you can probably imagine from reading it, writing this book was a really emotionally and psychologically intense experience for me. It’s probably not the last memoir I’ll ever write. It’s not the last dip I’ll have into creative nonfiction, for sure. I really enjoy the personal essay, for example. But am I in a hurry to go to this place again? Personally, no. I’m actually really excited to get back to poems and all those other ideas that have been patiently waiting in my notebook and in my computer for me to finish this book so I can turn my attention to them.