Get up close and personal with exclusive, inspiring interviews and taste profiles delivered with a cheeky twist to your inbox daily.

Success! You’re all signed up. 🎉
Please enter a valid email address.

By subscribing to our email newsletter, you agree to and acknowledge that you have read our Privacy Policy and Terms.

Maggie Smith on Beauty, Pain, and Unanswerable Questions

The author opens up about her new memoir, ‘You Could Make This Place Beautiful.’

Maggie Smith Against a Backdrop of Her Book, "You Could Make This Place Beautiful"

In her debut memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful, Maggie Smith renders a profound portrait of divorce, motherhood, friendship, and loss. She discovers and confronts her pain in the ordinary: a pinecone, a postcard, a photograph, a playlist, a vision board, a wedding dress, a house. She takes readers into rooms where hard things have happened. She stays in a place that feels like—and still is—home. And throughout these elegant snapshots, Smith ultimately constructs a home for us in her words. "Breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the reader was a way of leaning into the intimacy and vulnerability of the genre instead of backing away from it," Smith shared.

The memoir's title is from the last line of Smith's acclaimed poem "Good Bones." Ever the storyteller, Smith is also the author of various books, including the poetry collection, Goldenrod and, Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, a series of affirmations and essays (much of which are in conversation with what she explores in You Could Make This Place Beautiful). Whether you're reading her prose or poetry, there is a magic to Smith's writing that keeps moving toward the light. In this way, You Could Make This Place Beautiful is a graceful meditation on time: how the good and the bad times elude us, define us, and remind us to make the most of our experiences with loved ones—and ourselves. As Smith notes: "... the more time passed, the less I hurt. The less I hurt, the more I was able to see how beautiful, how full, my life was."

In Keep Moving, you write about what you call "beauty emergencies," and in You Could Make This Place Beautiful, you capture the beautiful—and heartbreaking—process of healing from a tumultuous time. Beauty remains a strong through-line. I'd like to know how you define beauty in life and writing.

“Oh, that's a great question. I was just joking with someone the other day that I'm one of those people who tends to prefer the before picture in ‘before and after pictures’—or I can't tell which one is supposed to be the better one because beauty is so subjective, whether you're looking at a person or a piece of writing or a remodeled kitchen.

“Beauty often stops me in my tracks. It can be a tiny thing. This morning while walking my dog, a hawk flew across the street and landed in the tree above me, and that was beautiful despite the rest of the very blustery setting. It can be something someone says: a memory—even a painful one. Often, it's something that stops and jiggles me out of whatever mundane head space I might be in and makes me focus for a moment.”

Do you look for beauty or truth in writing?

“I'm not sure there's a difference for me. If something feels true to me, that's beautiful, and if I see something and recognize it as beautiful, that feels true. Though I'm not an epistemologist, so I suppose there probably is technically a difference! But truth and beauty are inseparable to me.”

It's interesting to think about those themes as it pertains to your story. We put our trust in people, and they can still let us down, and we can also put our trust in art and writing, and sometimes that lets us down, too. How do you sustain a level of trust in your writing or practice? How does writing help you trust the world?

“Writing is one of those things where even if it's not going particularly well, it's always there. There's a moment in You Could Make This Place Beautiful when I have just signed my divorce papers, and I'm thinking: What do I have now? Where's my anchor? In many ways, a marriage or a long-term relationship is a kind of shelter, right? So now I'm sort of open to the elements. I was sitting outside at a little cafe and just looked down and quite literally saw what I was holding onto at that moment: my pen, my notebook.

“Sometimes life hands you a metaphor—or doesn't even hand you a metaphor; it just hands you the answer. In that case, it was an incredibly quick but important reminder that I still had my writing. Having my writing remain—that's me; what I still have is myself. Even when I'm having a hard time revising a poem or essay, even when it's been a few days and no ideas seem to be showing up and knocking at the door, it's still a constant for me. I've learned over the years to trust the ebb and flow of it and know that just because a few days or even months go by and an idea isn't begging to be written about, I have to be patient because the poems and words always come back.”

Early in the book, we learn that you and your ex-husband initially met in an undergraduate creative writing workshop. I also noticed recurring vignettes that highlight your role as a teacher, even setting up a makeshift school environment for your children during [the COVID-19] lockdown. Less tangible learning environments aside, you write: "My children's father has taught me many lessons, painfully, and the pain has changed me. I want to become a different kind of student. To be a different kind of student, I need a new teacher." I'd love to discuss your relationship with learning and how some of these experiences helped you understand what it means to teach and be taught.

“Teaching is a big part of my life. I do it professionally, but when you're a parent, you're also doing it all the time. We laugh a lot about ‘teachable moments,’ but they're always watching us. Everything we do: the way we move in the world, the way we treat other people, the way we take care of ourselves—or don't. The way we eat, exercise, or sleep. All of these things are ways that we teach the people around us. We also teach them how to treat us based on how we treat others, how we treat them, and what they see. That's something I'm thinking about all the time.

“And yes, pain is instructive—it's one of the most useful things about pain. If you're exercising and something hurts, you stop doing that thing. If you're running and feel ankle pain, you walk. If you're doing anything and feel pain, your body is teaching you to do something differently—or maybe to stretch better—and also an important lesson.

“A friend said her therapist told her, ‘If you need to change something in your life, wish for more pain.’ Why would you do that? Why would you ever ask the universe to send you more suffering? But the answer is if something hurts, it will force you to change. It will force you to do something differently. If you do something the same way over and over and over again with no pain as a consequence, you'll just keep doing it. If it hurts, you will be spurred in a different direction. It's kind of a hidden gift. When someone hurts you, or if an experience causes you pain, the hidden gift inside that is also an opportunity to see that pain as a lesson and as a teacher and then ask yourself: What can I do differently? Now what? I don't want to hurt. I don't want that to hurt anymore. What can I do now?”

You mentioned [in You Could Make This Place Beautiful] at one point, "There are blessings inside every curse."

“True. It doesn't mean it's worth the curse. It's the lemons [and] lemonade thing again: we can be handed lemons and make lemonade, but frankly, I'll take the lemonade if that's the option. I would rather not have had the lemons.

“As writers—especially writers who write about their lives—we can get into dangerous territory with what we consider ‘material.’ I don't really want the lemons, but if I'm handed them, and I don't have anyone else to hand them to, I suppose I will have to make something from them that might, with some sweetness, be something like lemonade.”

On the subject of pain, you wrote about the physical pain and uncertainty you've experienced so gracefully. At one point, you say: "There is a difference between what is built in the body and what is built in the imagination." And later, "To strip away the metaphor: Every day for nine months, I expected blood. From the very beginning, I expected the end. That sort of thing changes you." Then: "At the end of the run, I stopped, bent over, my hands on my thighs, and laughed. Really belly-laughed, just standing on the sidewalk in front of my house. I didn't know my body could do that. There is a joy in surprising oneself." We get the full scope of the human experience here. What is it like to reflect on the body and capture these experiences on the page?

“I love that, thinking about those quotes adjacent to one another, it's about how our body can surprise us in good and terrifying ways. It's a miracle that the body is capable of, and it can scare the hell out of us, too.

“I've been a somewhat disembodied person [for] my entire life! I'm not a particularly athletic person. I'm not someone who goes to the gym. I even joke in the book—and continue to joke—that I have long treated my body like a plant stand for my head. It's the thing that I know is necessary, but I'm a brain that floats around on this body, and I tend to neglect it and not give it too much thought unless it's misbehaving—if my heart or uterus isn't doing what it's supposed to do, according to me.

“I have had some opportunities over the last few years—and running is one of them—to surprise myself positively and start building a different relationship with my physical body. To forgive it for some things. To not put so much pressure on it to perform—in ways that I think I wanted it to perform in the past—and just be pleased with the things it can do that I didn't expect. I think being in my forties is having a different relationship with my physicality and starting to get comfortable with it. But that is an ongoing process.

“It's coming out in my poems more and more. So many of the poems I've been writing over the past couple of years are sort of body and mind poems. They explore: Where is the me of me? How much of it is my physical self, and how much of it is not? It's been endlessly fun to think about those big questions. Some of that comes up in the memoir, too.”

The memoir's structure includes a few recurring chapters. One, in particular, is titled: "A FRIEND SAYS EVERY BOOK BEGINS WITH AN UNANSWERABLE QUESTION." You give answers like "Then what is mine? Where did it go," and "Then what is mine? How to change." I'd like to turn this idea on its head and ask: What is your unanswerable question as you navigate this current life chapter?

“I think it's the title you suggested for my next book. Now what? What now? What's next? The tricky thing is that all the big questions are unanswerable. I don't know how to grieve, how to set it down, how to figure it out, how to move on, how to heal, how to forgive. The answers vary day by day. Moving forward, I want to be clear in my purpose and not devote time and energy to things that don't serve me.

“So to reverse engineer that into a question: How not to waste my own time? How not to get distracted, stay clear about who I am, what I want to do, and what matters to me, and let the rest of the stuff roll away? That's the next big unanswerable question.”

More From the series Culture
You May Also Like