In the fall of 2018, the “Good Bones” poet's marriage fell apart. Then came a tweet, a Modern Love essay and a book deal, and heartbreak gave way to healing.
On the morning of Oct. 22, 2018, as her marriage was ending, Maggie Smith sat down at her computer and dashed off a few lines to herself that became lines to the world:
Do not be stilled by anger or grief. Burn them both and use that fuel to keep moving. Look up at the clouds and tip your head way back so the roofs of the houses disappear. Keep moving.
After a minute, she decided to publish them on Twitter. The words were an intention of sorts for the day, a reminder to herself that sadness, no matter how profound, doesn’t last forever. That a hard time is just that—a time—and that times end, and life keeps growing in new ways. That pain can feel acute, but kids still needed to be walked to school, and writing still needed to be done, and clouds still needed to be admired, and friendships still need to be made and tended to.
For Smith, a Central Ohio poet of international renown (you probably have read her poem “Good Bones”), the words offered an optimism she didn’t feel. “At first, when my marriage fell apart, I was like, ‘I can’t do this,’” she says now. “There was nothing I could do to make myself feel better—I just had to actually change my life.”Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
But the words made her feel a little better, so the next day, she published a few lines, and the next day, a few more, and the day after that, and the day after that, and here she is now, more than a year later, and each morning—sometimes before she’s even had a cup of coffee—she sits down and considers what intention she wants to hold in her mind that day and taps it out onto her computer, and hits “Tweet.” They all end the same: Keep moving.
That first tweet was retweeted 126 times. Someone wrote back: “What I needed to hear!”
Her second was retweeted 231 times.
“I needed this more than you’ll ever know,” one woman wrote.
“It’s pretty tough some days,” another person commented.
“My marriage is also ending,” a third person wrote. “Thank you for sharing what is working for you today.”
The connections made Smith feel some hope, like her words might make a difference for other people. So she kept going—on the hard days, on the easy ones, when she felt angry or optimistic or devastated. And she saw that other people going through something difficult kept responding.
“People have breakups, people have had friendships that didn’t last—everybody is estranged from someone, I think,” she says. “And even if you’re not going through something really tough personally, everyone is just crying all the time right now. People feel helpless. And I know that feeling well, that helpless, sad feeling that stuff is broken, and I don’t know how to fix it.”
Loss—the death of a parent, the end of a job, the dissolution of a marriage—can split our lives into a “before” and an “after,” into a time when one fundamental thing about us is true and a time when that thing is no longer true at all. It can call into question the very nature of how we identify ourselves: We are our mothers’ daughters; when they die, what will we be? We are journalists, maybe, or coal miners; those industries shrink and how do we define our contributions to the world? We are someone’s partner for life until we are not.
These are tidal-force disruptions, the breaking apart of one way of life from whatever will come next. And though all grief can be crushing—and, please, let’s not hold any contests over grief—it is true that divorce is unique, because, for at least one member of the marriage, it is a choice. It is an extreme divergence that we choose to make: Until a divorce, you are traveling through one life, with your person, toward goals you—hopefully—set together. But in deciding to divorce, you choose to veer away from that life. And no matter how you feel about the end of the marriage—whether you are devastated or hopeful or happy or relieved; whether you remain friends or become bitter enemies or casual acquaintances or apathetic about each other—veering is a hard thing to do. The landscape looks different afterward; the road isn’t quite as clear. You might not see a road at all.
It’s a testament to Smith’s resilience that she saw, early on, that pushing forward was the only way she’d get through the veer. It’s a testament to her clear purpose in the world that she found the words to keep herself going—and that she cared enough to put them into the world in the hope they might help someone else move through a dark time, too. And she was right. Her words inspired others, and before long, she had a book deal with Simon & Schuster, her first with a top-tier publisher. Naturally, the book is called “Keep Moving.”
“I think the whole premise of ‘Keep Moving’ is that Maggie was not going to stop and wallow, and I don’t think that means there wasn’t pain there—I know there was—but she seemed to always be aware that the pain would be temporary,” says Kelly Sundberg, a close friend of Smith’s and the author of “Goodbye Sweet Girl,” a memoir about domestic abuse and divorce. “I think when people are really sad, it’s easy to be like, ‘Oh, this is never going to change, and I’m always going to feel this way.’ But I never felt that she thought she wasn’t going to move on.”
Some people get lucky enough to know early in life what they want to do forever. Smith is one of them. She was in high school at Westerville North in the early 1990s when she started writing her first poems.
“I think every poet, in the beginning, is a cover poet, just kind of writing in the style of someone they admire,” she says. “I was a Sylvia Plath cover poet.” (She’s happy with that choice, for the record. “If you have to copy a poet, you could do worse than Sylvia Plath,” she says.)
She went on to study creative writing at Ohio Wesleyan University, then decided to keep studying at Ohio State. “She certainly had other options, as far as MFA programs, and very rightly was not sure she wanted to stay in Ohio,” says Kathy Fagan, director of Ohio State’s MFA program and Smith’s thesis advisor. “But she decided to stay, for her own reasons, and you know, she was just as much of a presence then as a 20-something as she is now as a 40-something—very determined, very focused. And she was writing these beautiful poems, some of which I have never forgotten and still find myself quoting today.” (Many of the poems Smith worked on at Ohio State became part of her first book, “Lamp of the Body,” published in 2005.)
And, partly because her family was here and partly because of the poetry fellowship Ohio State offered, she decided to stay. The years between then and now were a jumble of concerts and road trips and laughter and work and love, of marriage and babies born, of miscarriages and postpartum depression, and then, in June 2016, the kind of success that also divides a life into a “before” and an “after.” One of Smith’s poems went viral.
You’ve probably read “Good Bones,” but in case you haven’t, some background: “Good Bones” is a poem about parenthood, about raising children in a time that can sometimes feel oppressive in its danger, about trying to “sell them the world,” the way a real estate agent tries to sell a house that needs—to put it delicately—a lot of work. (Smith uses a better word, but we can’t publish it here.) It ends with a gut-punch line that is somehow hopeful and devastating at the same time. She first published it in the summer 2016 issue of Waxwing, a literary journal.
The week of the poem’s publication, in the early morning hours of June 12, 2016, a 29-year-old security guard walked into one of Orlando’s largest gay clubs, Pulse, and started firing two guns. He murdered 49 people, injured 53 more, and was eventually killed during a standoff with the police.
In the days after, as people searched to make sense of yet another violent mass shooting, “Good Bones” became a way of coping. It was shared on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, by thousands and thousands and thousands of people, and before Smith knew it, reporters from the BBC and Slate and The Guardian were calling her for interviews.
“It was overwhelming, because it’s like—I’m just a mom, I’m just living my life, I just wrote this poem, and all of a sudden it was this thing,” she says.
“Good Bones” has become a salve for our collective psyche. It went viral again after the 2016 election. Public Radio International named it “the Official Poem of 2016.” It was featured in an episode of a CBS drama television series, Madam Secretary.
It got to the point that, if Smith woke up in the morning to a phone buzzing with Twitter notifications, she didn’t sign in to Twitter—she went to CNN’s website instead, to see what fresh tragedy had befallen the world. It was surreal and troubling.
The morning her most recent book was released—Oct. 1, 2017—was that kind of day, too. Publication day is an exciting one for writers, but by the time a book reaches the world, much of the hard work has already been done. The thing has been written, after all, and edited. Cover art has been chosen. And her book “Good Bones”—which included its namesake poem—was being released by Tupelo Press, a small nonprofit publisher. It didn’t have a marketing budget.
But when Smith woke up that morning, she saw that she’d been tagged, hundreds and hundreds of times, on various forms of social media. Her heart sank.
“I knew it wasn’t about my book,” she says now.
And sure enough, while she slept, a 64-year-old man had begun shooting into a crowd assembled for a country music festival on the Las Vegas strip. He killed 58 people and injured 422. It was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
“I had to live with the fact that all of this sudden, sort of instant success was because a bunch of people were murdered,” she says. “I felt really, really bad about that. And I would say that to my friends or in interviews and people would say, you know, that the words were helping people cope with these tragedies, these murders. But it seems like nothing changes, and they keep happening, and every time they do, ‘Good Bones’ becomes this thing again.”
It took some time for Smith to come to peace with the idea that her poem—that the thing for which she is most likely to be remembered, the thing that might, in fact, be famous long after she is gone from the world, the thing that made her as famous as she is, to people around the world—is famous because of tragedy.
And though it is sobering and hard, she knows, at least intellectually, that the reason the poem gets shared so much is that it helps people think about how to move forward after something awful. And in that way, “Good Bones” is not so different from “Keep Moving.” People turn to both—in a way, they turn to Smith—to help them figure out how to think about a future when a future seems like an impossible thing to create.
“Good Bones” wasn’t the kind of thing Smith expected to become a phenomenon. She wrote it in an hour, on a legal pad at the Bexley Starbucks, one night when she was able to get away from the house to do some writing. It was one of three poems Waxwing published in the summer of 2016—few people know the names of the other two. And she certainly didn’t think about how to turn “Good Bones” into a career-making poem.
In that way, “Keep Moving” is similar: When she started the notes, they were just little thoughts to herself. She put them into the world because she thought they might help someone else.
If you have to get divorced—if you have to put a stick of dynamite into your life, blow the whole thing apart, try to assemble something from the wreckage, make new magic from the shards of faded love letters and broken promises—it is good to have a purpose.
Smith’s was always clear: She would write.
She reread poetry about divorce—Sharon Olds and Louise Glück and Joanna Klink. “I was amassing and really starting to immerse myself in these poems,” she says. “I knew I wanted to write about it.”
And so, she did. Day after day, she put her “Keep Moving” thoughts into the world. In October 2018, when they started, she was feeling deep grief—she had hired a lawyer, but her now-ex was still living in their house. She calls it “one of the worst months of my life.”
But then, they began living apart. Smith kept writing.
Nov. 16, 2018: Today’s goal: Do not refuse the angry side of grief’s large, extended family. Know it arrives to protect you and teach you. Open the door. Listen and learn what you can. Keep moving.
Nov. 24, 2018: Today’s goal: Speak your truth. You do not owe anyone your silence. Keep moving.
Nov. 29, 2018: Today’s goal: Accept that you have no say in who loves you, who keeps their promises, who forgives. But remember that you can choose to love, to keep your promises, to forgive. Choose well. Have—and live—your own say. Keep moving.
On Nov. 29, 2018, she flew to Tucson for a residency at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. She had a manuscript of poems to edit, but she couldn’t stop thinking about her marriage, and so she typed her address into a Google image search. There was her house, in a photo taken in January 2016, when her marriage was still intact, when her husband—as far as she knows—still loved her. The image moved her to write, but instead of a poem, an essay came out. She called a friend who knew about essays, and the friend encouraged her to submit it to The New York Times’ Modern Love column, a beloved feature ongoing for 15 years in the nation’s paper of record. It was published in January. (Nothing I could write here would do it justice; go read it if you haven’t.)
Then, she got a literary agent, who suggested pitching “Keep Moving” as a book. One Signal Publishers, a new imprint at Simon & Schuster, one of the biggest publishing houses in the world, bought it. (The book, a collection of quotes and essays, will be released in May.)
Then, the University of California-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center called and asked if she would appear on its podcast, The Science of Happiness. Smith, who describes herself as a “recovering pessimist,” agreed. The podcast considers scientific research about how to be happy and asks guests on the show—usually famous people like comedian Margaret Cho or author Michael Lewis—to apply the research to their lives and report back on how it went. Smith chose to find silver linings to bad things in her life, an extension of the “Keep Moving” notes she was already writing.
In September, she found out that one of her poems—something she’d submitted in September 2018, during one of the darkest periods of her life—had been accepted by The New Yorker, her first in that magazine. Two more poems have been accepted by Poetry, the nation’s most respected poetry journal—also a first for her.
When she started “Keep Moving,” she was just trying to coach herself. She’s ended up coaching her thousands of social media admirers—including Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius behind “Hamilton” and several other musicals, who regularly retweets Smith’s notes-to-self, including this one on Sept. 30:
Maybe you don’t know what kind of work you should be doing in the world. Maybe you think everyone else has it figured out. (They don’t.) Your work is being yourself, offering what you can to others. You’ve been doing it all along. Now do it with intention. Keep moving.
“She is in the vanguard of poets who has invited the disenfranchised into poetry,” Fagan says. “People who would never have read poetry before are now reading poetry thanks to Maggie Smith, Jericho Brown, [fellow Columbus writer] Hanif Abdurraqib … and with the ‘Keep Moving’ affirmations, I mean, who cannot relate to the end of a relationship? Anyone of a certain age gets it. She really has sort of professionally found a way to turn this into something wonderful for her. And I’m quite sure that that will be true in her personal life, too, not just her professional life.”
In mid-October, Smith drove to Ashland University to talk with students and give a poetry reading. The reading was open to the public, and though it was a weekday—a workday—and late in the afternoon, more than 30 people crowded into the room to hear her talk. She read “Good Bones,” of course. She jokes that it’s her “Free Bird”—she can never not read it. And she read poems about her feelings about home—“Ohio” and “Home-free,” with their lines about this place and her place in it. She read poems about her children, and the questions her daughter, now 10, used to ask when she was 3 or 4, riding in the car. (“How do leaves fall off the trees and how did God build this car?”)
After the reading, a woman with graying hair approached her, smiling, holding a copy of “Good Bones” and asking Smith to sign it.
“You are my day-off gift to myself,” the woman, Laura Spayd, told Smith. Spayd had taken the day off work, driven to Ashland from her home in Elyria, near Cleveland, just to hear Smith read her poems. She found Smith through Twitter, through the “Keep Moving” daily motivations, which, she said, brought inspiration to her.
“They are little bits of positivity, which I think we all need,” Spayd says. “It just resonates.”
It’s been more than a year since Smith published the first “Keep Moving” tweet, since those early dark days when she wasn’t sure what would happen next. She doesn’t know how long she’ll continue the tweets—at least until the book is published, for sure—and though she doesn’t know what’s next in her life, she no longer wonders about the path forward. She knows it’s there.
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.