Bexley Poet Maggie Smith on Publishing Her Memoir, “You Could Make This Place Beautiful”

The Central Ohio native and author of the viral poem “Good Bones” discusses the craft of writing, the joys of self-discovery and motherhood, and her debut memoir, out April 11.

Emma Frankart Henterly
Columbus Monthly
Acclaimed author, poet and Central Ohio native Maggie Smith

How many of us have experienced a devastating breakup that leaves us reeling in pain and confusion for weeks, months—years, even? Acclaimed Bexley poet Maggie Smith is among those who know that feeling all too well. She is perhaps best known for her poem “Good Bones,” which went viral in 2016 in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in in Florida; it tends to resurface online alongside news of national tragedies. She’s also the author of several chapbooks, four poetry collections and “Keep Moving,” a self-help-esque book based on motivational tweets she published during and after the collapse of her marriage in 2018. On April 11, she will release her first novel-length work, a memoir titled “You Could Make This Place Beautiful.” And yes, that is the closing line from “Good Bones.”

“You Could Make This Place Beautiful” is a poet’s memoir, which is to say that its prose reads like poetry: It’s a lyrical, thoughtful examination of a cataclysmic event that stemmed from a million tiny tremors. It’s also incredibly relatable, even for those who haven’t experienced the grief of miscarriage, postpartum depression or divorce—all topics Smith addresses with conversational openness. When I tell Smith that I openly wept—in public!—while reading the advance copy, she responds with a laugh and a “thank you, slash, I’m sorry.” Her hope, she says, is that people will be able to connect with one of the many touchpoints throughout the book—including those of self-discovery and finding wholeness after loss.

Smith in her home office

“This idea that you are half of something … because you’ve lost this other missing piece of you—I hate that!” she says. “I have nothing against marriage. I have nothing against long-term partnerships. I just think that if we all saw ourselves as whole and worthy on our own, then the relationships we have with others is bonus and not necessarily the thing that keeps us going. It’s extra. I mean, it’s beautiful extra, but extra.”

All that said, perhaps the most remarkable thing about “You Could Make This Place Beautiful” isn’t its raw vulnerability or inspirational lessons, but rather its form. The memoir is not linear; it contains both internal monologue and dialogue with the reader, straight narrative and an imagined play starring a woman not unlike Smith herself. Chapters are often short—some shorter than their titles, even—and are punctuated with famous quotes, metaphorical asides and previously published poems. At turns devastating and darkly funny, “You Could Make This Place Beautiful” is a glimpse into the events that brought Smith to her knees—and then back to her feet.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

Whose idea was it to write this memoir—yours, your editor’s, someone else’s?

It was mine. After “Keep Moving,” it was something that I was talking about with my editor because I sort of gave a peek in that book but didn’t really talk about any of the stuff that was going on under the surface. And I wasn’t sure I would.

Maggie Smith’s first novel-length work, a memoir titled “You Could Make This Place Beautiful,” will be released April 11, 2023. Fans will recognize the title as the closing line from her poem “Good Bones.”

Something I tell my students is, write the stuff you have to write—the idea that will not leave you alone. That's probably the thing you need to write in order to be able to set it aside. It got to a point where I wondered, how am I supposed to write about anything else when the thing that’s using my brain, the thing I’m ruminating about, is this? So it seemed like a good idea to try to spend some time really going there and see what happens.

I think part of me thought, if I write this book, I will have all the answers. I will figure it out, and I will solve this part of my life. It will all make sense to me if I put enough brain power and processing into it. If I throw enough energy at this, I will get it, and then I can move on and write other things.

Spoiler alert: It’s not like I got to the end of the book, and I was like, “I figured all that out. I can put that down.” But I did learn a lot about myself in the process that did help me set some things down.

(“Keep Moving” included motivational tweets Smith had shared during and after her divorce, as well as several essays on themes of revision, resilience and transformation.)

Do you think you would’ve been able to do that without writing this memoir?

No. And maybe yes, in, like, 10 years. I felt the same way about writing “Keep Moving.” My job during my divorce was—as it turned out, because I sold that book—writing about how it felt to have my life upended. That was my job. And so it would’ve been a different kind of processing if my job had been being a postal worker or working in a restaurant or baking. My job would’ve been to put that aside, because I’ve got these things to do or make. And because my job was making something about how it felt—it was painful, right? But also, I think, stewing in my own juices in that way was somewhat useful, because it helped me kind of work through it—not faster, but just in a really intensive way.

Maggie Smith fills her home with color, books and artwork from her children.

Because you had to face it, head-on, every day.

I had to, because I was going to write about this, and I wasn’t going to lie. I'm going to be honest about how this feels, which means I have to be honest with myself before I can be honest on the page. And also, the motivation for committing it to the page—I had to be really honest with myself about that. As I was writing the book, I'm like, I really want to forgive this person by the time I'm done. I really want to be able to set this thing down, this part of my life. And that, I would say, mostly happened.

Do you still feel the need to forgive?

I don't. I actually think forgiveness, in some ways, is overrated. Forgiveness is for you; it's not for the other person, because carrying around negative feelings about somebody else doesn't actually hurt them. They’re not there. That is like a giant suitcase you are lugging around every day. I think I like the idea of acceptance more than forgiveness because it's like, OK, yeah, that happened. I can't change it, but I can set it down.

Maggie Smith keeps a quote from poet Rainer Maria Rilke posted on her front window.

Let’s talk about the title, which comes from “Good Bones.” How did you decide to use its last line as the title? Did you consider anything else?

There actually wasn't another title, which is odd because I always play with multiple titles for any book. I'm always testing out different options, trying to think of what word or phrase would be the most representative.

I honestly didn't know how to wrap my head around all the things that this book would encompass. There's a lot of life in between these two covers. And I think for the first time, I thought of the title for the book before I wrote the book. When I was thinking about writing it, I thought, well, of course it’s going to be called “You Could Make This Place Beautiful.”

Actually, I did have one other idea: “A Palace for Sure.” It’s from a Tom Waits song, and the whole line is, “If there’s love in a house, it’s a palace for sure.” This book is really, in a big way, kind of a love letter to my kids—and a love letter to my new life, which I’m still figuring out.

And then I thought, well, first of all, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense in writing a book about my life and my experience—it feels somewhat strange to use someone else’s words, in the same way that it would feel really strange to have an actress read the audio book. The idea of naming the whole book off of someone else's line felt like giving something away.

A clay coaster made by her son on sits on Maggie Smith’s writing desk.

Using my own quote for the title is sort of reclaiming, in some ways, a poem that I have ambivalent feelings about. And I love that it’s a verb phrase. I love that it’s a sentence that is not only talking to me; it’s speaking also to the reader. It’s a directive. There’s something that, metaphorically, felt powerful to me in that choice.

(“House Where Nobody Lives,” from Mule Variations (1999); Smith writes extensively about the importance of music and playlists in her life. Find several lists, including one referenced in the book and one compiled in celebration of the book, on her Spotify, maggiesmithpoet.)

And that kind of echoes what you wrote about “Keep Moving”—how the advance for that book is what enabled you to stay in your house after the divorce.

Right, exactly. Oh, I love that. Like maybe it wasn't the problem; it was the solution. Or it was the problem before, but it's the solution now.

And I love how the cover art pairs so beautifully with the title—this revealed floral motif under something very plain.

It's bonkers-beautiful, and Jimmy [Iacobelli], who designed it, did the cover for “Goldenrod” and for “Keep Moving,” too. There were other cover options that were shared with me that just didn't click. And then as it turns out, this concept came to him in a dream. And he literally cut it out—it’s not a CGI-ed, digitally edited cover. When I saw it, I was like, “Oh, that’s it.” Like it was completely inevitable; that was always going to be the cover of this book.

More creations from Maggie Smith’s children in her home office

How did you know how to end the book?

[Here Smith laughs, a drawn-out sound of knowing.] So, the original ending was, “How will it end?” The original last sentence was, “Every ending is secret until it happens.” And my editor, who's great, was like, “I feel like there's a more, sort of embodied, self-possessed, empowered ending here.” She suggested ending on a specific poem, and it had not occurred to me to end on that poem. When I flip-flopped them and then read it all, I realized no, actually, that’s perfect. It's always a really nice and exciting thing when someone else sees a different possibility or kind of potential in something that you've handed them.

You ventured away from poetry in “Keep Moving,” but this is your first big foray into long-form prose. How did your approach to your memoir differ from your process for poetry?

I mean, it’s long-form prose, and it’s not. It’s almost a memoir in essays and poems. It’s definitely a memoir in pieces. As a poet—even my essays tend to be pretty brief. I’m definitely a short-form writer. The biggest challenge with this book was, how do I sustain it? How does one just keep going?

So the first thing I did was read a lot of memoir, because I wanted examples for how I might be able to do things differently. I’ve been thinking a lot about books as permission slips: When you read a book by someone who does things differently, it gives you permission to try something new. I found some that were very piece-y or used a lot of poetic devices or broke the fourth wall. In a way, I gave myself permission, via these other writers, to do things my way, and that’s as a poet.

(Lidia Yuknavitch’s “The Chronology of Water” was a big influence, Smith says. She shares several others in her Substack, For Dear Life with Maggie Smith, in a post titled “Pep Talk: Books as Permission Slips.”)

Is that why you don’t use a linear timeline in the book—to give the reader a sense of the upheaval and the overanalyzing and the revisiting, revisiting, revisiting that we all experience after a major loss?

When I was thinking about how to structure this book, I really did approach it the way I approach a poem, which is, what is the form for this piece of writing that will enact or embody the experience? It was not going to be, first this happened, then this happened, then this happened—because that doesn’t actually get to the psychology of what it felt like.

For me, the experience was marked by a lot of cyclical thinking and revisiting and piece-y-ness and fragmentation, so I wanted to work that into the actual structure in the book. Which was challenging! But when I was done, I was like, yeah—that’s how that felt.

Something I noticed, having read your earlier poetry versus “Keep Moving” and then “You Could Make This Place Beautiful,” is a shift from being really externally focused to delving deeply into yourself. Was it hard to deal with the level of honesty and vulnerability that was required of you for that?

Yes [hearty laughter]. In one word: Yes.

You know, in a poem we have the speaker. So, for example, there’s a poem in “Goldenrod” where I’m walking my dog. And yes, I wrote that poem about walking my dog around this block. But we are taught not to say, “the poet took a walk” and “the poet’s dog.” We are taught to say, “the speaker of the poem,” almost like the narrator of a story. So there is some artistic distance between the “I” in a poem, even if we know it’s semi-autobiographical, and the “I” that actually wrote it. The poet and the speaker are not the same.

(“Goldenrod” was Smith’s third poetry collection, published in 2021. The poem she references is “Walking the Dog.”)

I didn’t know that.

Yeah. It’s not much cover, to be fair. If you’re standing behind a speaker that looks like you and has your life and does the things you do, and people know you, they’re going to read you into it. It’s kind of like standing behind a silhouette cut out of tissue paper. But it’s still something; there’s some flimsy coverage.

In memoir? No. The “I” is “I.” It’s me, Maggie; these things happened to me. These are my kids. They’re not hypothetical kids. They’re not poeticized kids. They’re my actual kids.

Is that why you were so careful about what you included about them and the way they experienced the events in the book?

I learned a lot about myself as a writer working on this—what I was willing to say and what I wasn’t. It put in stark relief how protective I am of my kids, both in how I parent them and in how I speak about them. Most of the really careful editing that I did in this book was from a point of view of not wanting to tell their stories. One thing I know about myself, but I think this book really kind of hit home and reminded me, is that my allegiance is to my kids.

Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?

Oh, I always knew. I was the neighborhood babysitter [growing up] in Westerville. I was the person who put like flyers into people's mailboxes: “Do you need a babysitter? Call me.” I spent most of ages 11 to 18 babysitting every kid in the neighborhood. I always loved kids. It would never have crossed my mind not to have children. It's like one of the handful of things in my life that I have like zero regrets about at all. They're the best people, [my kids]. They're the best conversationalists. I have more fun. nine times out of 10, on a dinner date with my kids than I do with most adults. They're just smart and curious and wickedly funny. They're easy to be around.

There’s a point in the book where you talk about being interviewed by a Columbus Dispatch reporter after “Good Bones” went viral, and you said you just feel like any other person—just “Maggie with the stroller.” Obviously, you’re not pushing a stroller anymore, but do you still have that sense of “I’m just a mom”?

Yes. I mean, I live in the same house, in the same neighborhood. I think, when “Keep Moving” came out, my neighbors in the blue house across the street, the guy came out and he was like, "I heard from Debbie that you wrote a book!" And I was like, yeah, it's like, my sixth book. But I mean, I've lived across the street from him for 10 years. I'm just a writer. So, you know, what people see is me in my house, me walking my dog, me at the coffee shop, me picking up reserves at the library, me picking up my kids at the elementary school.

It's an interesting thing about being a writer, especially one who has something go viral, because you get a touch of celebrity, but it's not like you're a movie star.

You’re not Bono! You can go to Target. Being known as a writer is not the same as being famous. Also, I’m not Stephen King. There are famous writers; I’m not one of them.

My life is sort of beautifully small in the way that I want it to be, which is, I see the same people all the time. I still have dinner with my parents and my sisters and brothers-in-law every Sunday in Westerville. I'm just at that desk all the time. So I'm parenting a lot more than I'm a poet, in terms of time spent. I'm still Violet and Rhett's mom, period.

I read an interview you did recently with singer-songwriter Margo Price, where you quoted something poet Stanley Plumly told you about writing: “Stay deep within yourself and stay alone there … you are the audience.” And this book is such an antithesis of that—

[laughing] Is it?

I think so! You break the fourth wall so much. I’m wondering how much you were thinking about the audience as you were writing.

You know, I thought about audience a lot more with this book than I thought about with any other book. But I didn’t let myself think too much about audience while I was actually writing the first draft of the book. That’s where we get into trouble. And that’s really what Stan was saying: If you worry too much about where your words are going, they might not come out. You might lose your nerve before you even get them down. The key, really, is not censoring yourself.

But of course, at some point it has to come in. You can write with a lot of emotion, but in the end you have to craft and shape and edit with a pretty clear, cool mind about what you’re doing and what your purpose is and what the reader experience is going to be. And frankly, the reader experience for a collection of poems is different, so I did have to think about audience a lot more.

You tell readers in the prologue that you’re going to hold back; you’re not going to detail everything. Did any other factors drive that decision?

As I started writing this book, I thought a lot about our preconceptions, as readers, about memoir. I was thinking, in particular, about the idea of the tell-all. Like, “Now we’re going to get the real story, this salacious thing.” I did not want to feel like I was dangling something to bring the reader in. I really wanted to say, in the first sentence of the book, which I do: You’re not going to get everything in this book. I wanted to be candid. And I wanted to be candid about how I wasn’t going to be candid all the time.

But why point out the times when you’re holding back?

I guess in my mind it seems like, if you’re providing a scene with an obvious hole in it, let’s just acknowledge the hole. I want to respect the reader enough to say, “If this were a different kind of book, or I were a different kind of writer, then maybe this scene would lead to this. And I understand that maybe you want that. But I’m not going to give it to you, because that’s not what you signed up for. I told you on Page 1. You could have put it down then.”

I also think, for me, it was important as a way of speaking in somewhat a more broad way about our expectations around reading about other people’s lives. Because part of what I do when I'm talking about that is, not only say you're not going to get it; there are a couple times in the book when I say, “Why would you want that?” There’s a reason why clickbait is clickbait, right? I actually wanted to write against the idea that that is necessary. I just want us to think a little bit more about what we’re going to literature for and what we’re going to life-writing for.

That, for me, was a way of thinking about audience expectations, and also trying to have a connection with the reader that’s based on honesty and integrity. I hadn’t seen that done before in a book. But I just thought, I don’t know how else to do it. My instinct is that I want to pause here and say to the reader, “Here’s the deal. I can’t just keep going. If it were my diary, I’d just keep going. But it’s not, because you’re here, you, person I probably don’t know. And that means I have to do things a little bit differently. Because this is my life, and I don’t actually owe you all of it.”

One thing you are extremely candid about is your growth as an individual, both through the process of your divorce and in the writing of this book. One of the major themes is self-discovery. What did you learn about yourself as you were writing?

I think the process of writing this book revealed to me my own power. You know, I wrote “Keep Moving” in a lot of pain as a way to sort of get myself out of bed every day. Like, how do I literally keep moving through this terrible year? Oh, wait, it’s two years. Oh, wait, it’s three years. I didn’t have the … I don’t know, the emotional or mental resources to really step back and appraise that situation and be like, OK, no, but I did it!

And so writing this book, I really got to look back to the beginning of my writing life and how it started, and then how far I’ve been able to carry myself—not just on my own steam, but with a lot of help from a lot of other people. I was able to see that one of the major constants in my life through all of these years—along with family and community—has been my writing.

Also, there’s a point in the book about realizing that the longest, most devoted relationship I’d ever had with another human being was with myself. And that I should celebrate that and not feel sorry for myself, or sad as a single person—that I get to have that kind of relationship with myself.

I love the idea of celebrating that; it’s not something that occurs to most people. I think especially as women, we’re often conditioned to be smaller than we are, to diminish the self. It’s great to remind people that they can and should celebrate themselves.

One of the things I was thinking about—and I write about this in the book—was the idea that you're not whole unless you have a partner. And this idea that you are half of something, or that when your partner leaves or dies or you break up under very amicable circumstances, whatever it is, that suddenly you're like a diminished version because you've lost this other missing piece of you. And I hate that! I mean, it goes back to the terrible Jerry Maguire, “you complete me” line.

In your Substack, you talked about how betting on yourself is a big idea in the book. Has that come naturally to you, or did you have to discover it, too?

I wouldn’t say that betting on ourselves is something that comes naturally

to many people—especially women. I don’t think that we are raised, as girls and young women, to bet on ourselves. I hope that’s changing.

And, I think, in the arts in general, it’s scary to double down on what you think is the way you’re supposed to be in the world. I just read a really interesting interview with Louise Erdrich, who did a lot of her writing as a single mom, and one of the things she said was, I never gave myself an out.

And I think about that: You can always say, maybe I’ll just get a regular job. Or even further back, in college: Well, maybe I should be an education major, or maybe I should take that business minor. What are all the ways that we second-guess ourselves and end up, along the way, diminishing our possibilities by playing it safe?

(“Behind-the-Scenes Look: ‘Bride’,” on For Dear Life with Maggie Smith)

In some ways, this book feels almost like a culmination. Did that occur to you, or was it more of the next chapter, and another one is on the way?

I hadn’t thought of it as a culmination of anything. I thought of it as the next book. And now that I’ve written it, I can write something else, which I’m excited about.

In a way, I guess this is the book where I’ve gotten to be the most myself and write about the things that matter to me most, all in one place, as myself—without that tissue paper silhouette to stand behind. Having this much space gave me room to allow myself to do some things that I haven’t been able to really do in other books. Like, my really dark sense of humor comes out in this book more than ever: Let me tell you how bad it is while I’m laughing about it. I think a lot of what’s most me about me is in this book.

It just occurred to me that society tends to view self-actualization as the finish line. And that does happen in this book. But that’s not a finish line, is it?

No. And it’s also not the end. The book ended, but the life didn’t. In a year or two or three or four, what will the life look like? I don’t know.

That’s the beauty of it.

Yeah. The beauty and the terror, to reference Rilke. The beauty and the terror.

(Smith is speaking about “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,” a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke)

This is an extended version of the story that appears in the April 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.