Maggie Smith on her memoir’s unanswerable questions and feeling ambivalent about “Good Bones”

Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” became a viral sensation when it was published in 2016 the same week as the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting in Orlando. The exposure — rare for a living poet, let alone one who was only just approaching mid-career — sparked waves of media attention and unlocked professional opportunities like speaking and teaching engagements. Smith went from “a stay-at home (or, rather, work-from-home) mom who traveled occasionally” to an in-demand literary star, following her third collection of poems (also titled “Good Bones“) with “Keep Moving,” a collection of essays and quotes on rebuilding a life and dealing with grief after divorce. 

Smith dives deeper into that personal journey in her new memoir, “You Could Make This Place Beautiful” — the title references the last line of “Good Bones” — in which she writes, “my marriage was never the same after that poem.”

There is more to the story, of course — you can read some of it in an adapted excerpt in The Cut — but Smith sets expectations from the beginning: This is not going to be a tell-all divorce memoir. “There’s no such thing as a tell-all, only a tell-some — a tell-most, maybe,” she writes. “This is a tell-mine, and the mine keeps changing, because I keep changing.” 

A poet’s memoir through and through, “You Could Make This Place Beautiful” is both intimate and tightly controlled, as concerned with the meaning of the language we use to describe our lives and the permeable membrane between the private self and its public presentation as it is with its narrative of grief, transformation and rediscovery. 

I spoke with Smith via Zoom recently about using poetry craft elements in memoir writing, the challenges of writing stories that also involve other people, and how her work sustains her. (I should note: Smith and I both teach in the same MFA program.) Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s talk about the title of this book. It’s the last line from “Good Bones.” In the poem, the line refers to selling the potential of the world to your kids. But it feels different as the title of this book. Who is the “you” in this version of “You Could Make This Place Beautiful”?

Well, I suppose it’s me. Which is to say, I think I kept talking myself. It’s a call to action, so it’s also the reader, right? And [my previous book] “Keep Moving” was like that, too. All of those notes to self were in second person. But I was really just talking to myself through that whole book. You know, there’s no dedication to this memoir. Who was I supposed to dedicate it to, myself?


Honestly, they asked for a dedication. And this book isn’t for my kids. This book isn’t for my mother. I’m thinking of all the people I’ve thanked before, and it’s not for any of those people. The only people that I thought, actually, this book could be for were my female friends. I was very tempted to be like, This is for my friends. Because they got me through the time period in which this book takes place. But mostly, it’s for me.

I love to hear that, especially given the themes of this book. How often do we see, “This book is for me, I dedicate my memoir to myself”? It’s a position of strength. I think it’s good.

If I had to write a dedication like that, I wouldn’t do it, because I think it would be hard for it not to be seen as cheesy. But it’s for the me who didn’t think that better things were possible. It’s for the smaller, folded-up version of me who accepted things and who made not-wise choices for herself, and who didn’t think that there was another way to do it. So it’s like past-self dedication. But there’s not really any elegant way to do that. 

One of the many things I admire is how tenderly you write about Violet and Rhett, your two kids. They’re fully-realized characters in this book. And in some ways — at least in my reading — they are also the love story. I imagine there are complicated considerations that go into writing about your children, on top of all the other complicated considerations that we’ll get into about writing nonfiction. How did you approach that?

I worked on early drafts of this book with [author] Megan Stielstra. I said, “Can I hire you to work on this book with me? I’m a poet. I’m supposed to have so many words and so many pages. I’m not sure exactly how to do this. And I know I’m going to do it as a poet. I need someone to help me with the shaping and considering how to make this work.” And when she read the first insanely messy draft, she said, “This book is a love letter to your kids.”

I love that because of course I tried to keep most of their inner lives out of this book, because those are their stories to tell, if and when they ever choose to — or never do — tell it all.

And I think it is, in some ways, a love letter to them. And it’s a story of one love story ending, but not all love stories.

They’re the loves of my life, period. No matter what else happens in my life, they’re my people — and also my friends and my family and my community and my village. And so writing this book, my main focus was not writing a book about anybody else. I can’t put words into anybody else’s mouth. I can’t try to think what they might have been thinking or feeling at any given time. Because it’s not really for me to say this is what it was like for them. That felt like overstepping to me. And so honestly, the greatest editing work I did in this book, up to the very last final draft where I was supposed to only be proofreading, I was still reading it [the intention of] how can I protect them and their inner lives as much as possible, so that whatever they want to say about this, or not, is still left up to them. When in doubt, take it out.

In the book, you write, “It’s a mistake to think of my life as a plot.” But a narrative memoir demands a certain amount of sculpting or shaping of our experience. Poems give us so many tools for that sculpting, like form. Can you talk about the form of this book, and how being a poet influenced how you shaped it?

“There’s a whole lot of cultural baggage to what it requires, I think, for a person to claim the artistic part of themselves, even if it’s not paying their mortgage.”

It’s definitely a poet’s memoir. I realized that can be used as a compliment or a backhanded sort of insult, like, it’s a poet’s memoir. And I think if you say something is a poet’s memoir, what expectation does that bring to your mind? I’m thinking it’s going to be lyrical, probably piece-y, there are probably going to be metaphors or motifs that repeat. And probably at the sentence level, it’s going to be pretty tight, and probably more concerned with tone and being evocative about a time and place and experience than necessarily straight narrative storytelling.

And I think all those things are true about this book. And they’re true because I don’t know how to write like anyone other than myself.

So when I thought about writing this book, I [thought], Well, I can either do it as me, which is going to mean it’s going to be a poet’s memoir. Or I can try to sort of ventriloquize through what I think a prose writer would do. And I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to talk about my experience in a way that feels handed to me.

When you sit down to write a poem, you’re thinking, OK, what’s the best form to embody this experience … or emotion? How do I distill this as much as I can? It’s going to get smaller and smaller, the better it gets. That’s how it works. And how do I make the form reflect something in the content?

My experience through the time I’m talking about in this book was a sort of circular ruminating. It was much more like a spiral moving forward in time, but kind of turning back on itself, constantly, because I think that’s what memory is, in a way? You know, it’s associative. And so when you think or hear something, you don’t think, next on a timeline … it shoots you off, it pinballs you back to this time. And this song reminds me of this [and] oh, remember that one time with so and so, and remember those shoes they wore, and remember that store where they got the shoes. And so those little constellations that burst out, that happen when you’re remembering things, I didn’t know how to get at that except for by doing it in a sort of vignette style so that I really could shuffle things around in a way that felt psychologically true.

Also, I write small, so the idea of having to write, like, 20 unbroken pages — wait, I don’t get white space in which to let the reader sit with something or consider something? Wait, I can’t just give them a nugget and then walk away? And so I wanted to bring my poetry sensibility and those tools to this book.

That reminds me of Jane Alison’s “Meander, Spiral, Explode,” where she shows how the traditional pyramid structure plot is not the only way to tell a story.

Because grief is waves, right? It’s like this ebb and flow, and then rumination as that anxiety is circling.  And so none of it looked like a straight line, none of it. It’s going to have to have some sort of forward narrative that is a spine, because I don’t want the reader to be confused — it’s not going to be that experimental. But I also wanted to be able to keep all of these other threads juggling in the air. It involved colored markers and a lot of printing and moving things around.

I really love how you use this piece of repetition — which is, of course, another poet’s craft element: “A friend says every book begins with an unanswerable question.” That’s a repeating title of many vignettes, but then every time the question is different. Did you ever land on one question that you think drove this book, above all others?

You know, in some ways, some of those questions are really asking the same thing in different language, like how to heal and how to set it down are kind of similar in a way, but also how to heal and how to remain yourself, in a way, are kind of related.

The first draft of this book had one chapter called that and a list of questions, all together in one fell swoop. And Megan, in one of our late-night Zoom chats about the book, [said] what would happen if you split these out and let the reader really live with each question, and consider it without quickly having to move on to the next one.

I liked it, because this is a poem thing, too, right? Exploding them out and sort of spreading them out.

Narrating the audiobook, when I got to that question, I was thinking about what just came before in the book. And it was kind of pinging in that way. And then when I got to the next page, that question was sort of lingering. There was a residue of that question in my mind as I went to the next bit of the story. I think that hinge relationship between what came before and what came after each question would have gotten lost with them all being in one list.

Absolutely. So let’s talk about the poem. “The Poem.” It’s like The Stew or The Cookies. 

People come up to me all the time [and say], “I read your poem.” 

We’re on first-name terms with The Poem now. One of the running themes through the book is how hard you have to work to have the work of being a working writer and a working poet taken seriously. I don’t know if people who aren’t poets understand how rare it is for our discipline to see this huge explosion of viral attention being put on a really good poem. To see poetry as a form validated on such a large scale was really exciting to me as a poet and as a fan of poetry. Then also, I think one of the many devastating lines in this book was, “My marriage was never the same after that poem.” How did that play out, and did you have expectations that it would maybe be something different?

“For years, people have asked, ‘How did you feel about that poem going viral?’ I’m really ambivalent about that poem.”

You know, I had no expectations for what it would be like because it was so unexpected. I think by the time when, when “Good Bones” went viral, I had published two books of poems, both with small independent presses. People knew I was a poet, I gave readings, I went to AWP [a major annual writers conference], pre-“Good Bones.” So it wasn’t like I was toiling in complete obscurity before that poem. But the BBC wasn’t calling me, right? And there was really, until then, no money in it whatsoever, unless you count an NEA grant, which I do count.  And so [the success of “Good Bones”] sort of … gave me the opportunity to professionalize my creative life in a way that I hadn’t before. I didn’t have a speaker’s agent before that poem went viral, because I didn’t need one. I still didn’t have a literary agent until years later, because I didn’t need one. I was a poet and what agent wants to represent a genre where there is no royalty money, really, for them to get a percentage of? A percentage of “not much” is even less?

I wouldn’t say that I treated it like a hobby. But I definitely also didn’t treat it like my work. And I think there are lots of reasons why. It wasn’t how I made money. When someone asks you, “What do you do?” If you paint, but you don’t make money as a painter, you’re not as likely to say “I’m a painter.” There’s a whole lot of cultural baggage to what it requires, I think, for a person to claim the artistic part of themselves, even if it’s not paying their mortgage.

When that poem went viral, I was a freelance editor, working in educational publishing, and a mostly full-time parent. So when people asked what I did at the elementary school pickup, if anybody ever wanted to know, I might say “I’m a writer,” because I did write, because I was writing educational textbooks. Or I might say, “I’m a writer and an editor.” I don’t think I said “I’m a poet” until after “Good Bones.” It really did kind of give me the — I don’t even know what the word is. I felt like I’d earned it somehow at that point.

So I actually didn’t have any expectations for what it would be like to professionalize as a writer. I didn’t know what the impact on my marriage would be, certainly, to professionalize as a writer or, or even … just to become more well known in that way. Maybe it was naive of me, but it didn’t actually occur to me.

But for years, people have asked, “How did you feel about that poem going viral?” I’m really ambivalent about that poem. And mostly because it’s kind of a disaster barometer. But now, thanks to this book, people are seeing some of the other complicated aspects of having your work become well known, and how sometimes that doesn’t gel well in your home.

We were talking earlier about writing about your kids. Now let’s talk about writing about an ex-partner.  I just saw it again, someone posted it on Facebook, that Anne Lamott quote about how you own everything that has happened to you and if people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better. People love that quote. But the realities of writing with that energy and publishing with it are very different. What was that process like for you, having to step into that space of negotiation between the things that happened to you that you own, according to that rally cry, versus the reality of publishing?

Yeah, I remember that Anne Lamott quote, and I think I found power in it, too, at a certain point in my life, but it’s not now. Melissa Febos, wrote about this in “Body Work.” She puts it in the terms of the writer wins. Early in her career, she says, with her first memoir, she was like, you know what, the writer wins. If it’s part of the story, and it’s real, and it’s true, and it’s compelling, then the daughter, the friend, the whatever, doesn’t win. The writer wins. The writer gets to use that material. And she talks about in “Body Work” maturing into — I don’t know if compassionate is the word, but a sort of more considered space, where it’s not enough that it happened to you, that you actually need to think about the ethics of what you’re saying and how you’re saying it and how you’re framing it.

And so of course, it’s terrifying. It didn’t go well for me in small bits. And so I obviously proceeded with a lot of caution going into this project. You could pick up on that in the way that the story is told … there’s a lot of stuff I’m not saying. And that is as much to protect me as to protect anybody else.

And for me, it really came down to how do I stay focused on my own experience? How do I not point fingers? How do I take responsibility for myself? And my own behavior? I knew I didn’t really want to write a book where I was the good guy. And I don’t really want to read a book where somebody’s the good guy. It’s not a commercial for me. Right?

So I had to be real about like, oh yeah, and I did that too. I’m not perfect. It’s not an indictment of anyone else.

“There’s a lot of stuff I’m not saying. And that is as much to protect me as to protect anybody else.”

I’m just trying to figure out, à la David Byrne, how did I get here? What choices did I make along the way? What things did I allow or not allow? What things that I accept or turn down? What did I put energy into, what did I not put energy into, that led me to be in this space in my 40s? And it’s never just simply someone else’s fault.

Coming to this book really wanting to be at peace by the time I was done writing it changed the way I wrote the book. I really didn’t want to write this book from an angry place. I didn’t want to write this book from a place of feeling wronged and needing people to hear my side of the story. That’s what happy hours are for. My friends have heard tons of stuff. That’s fine, but that’s not a book.

Getting straight with myself and getting real with myself in my head and knowing that my motivations were the right motivations … if you’re not clear on the why, and if it’s not a why that you can feel deeply with integrity, then that’s probably your first tip that maybe this is not the time to be embarking on a project like this.

There’s a moment right around the end of the book where you write that your previous book, “Keep Moving,” kept you and your kids in the house that you love. You write, “My work was the solution, not the problem.” Did you experience an epiphany moment or was that a gradual understanding?

I was literally waking up sweating, my heart racing, for months thinking, how am I going to keep us in this house? And not until I sold that book did I have any inkling how I was going to do it. I was literally like, can one make a GoFundMe to not make their kids live with their grandparents while you live in the basement? I honestly didn’t know how I was going to do it. And so it was immediate: Oh my gosh, this just sort of saved us. It was the solution.

In a wider sense?

Of course, I mean, because it’s who I am. I think that kind of goes back to the moment I had where I realized I’m doing all of this work to try to maintain this family structure, for myself but also for my kids. And really, what is that doing to me? What does my life look like inside this system? Not good. It doesn’t look good in the future, either. There’s not room for me in this, not really. There’s room for a diminished version of me. But there’s not really room for me to be myself — my whole self — in this relationship, therefore, in this family. My work is part of the solution. Because ultimately, it was the big crux — I could either keep doing it at the level I wanted to be doing it or I could stop.

It actually seemed viable, very briefly, to not do it anymore. Or to not do it at a level that would require travel or much attention. To sort of try to turn back the clock and do it like I had done it 20 years ago — just for myself. And then the more I thought about that … who wants that for their partner? Who wants to turn back the clock on their professional or artistic achievements for comfort or convenience? What is that? Thinking about my work in a really clear way helped me see that anyone who’s in a relationship with you should want the best for you, period. They should want the best for your health. They should want the best for your work. They should just want you to be the best you can be and if you’re being asked to sort of snip away pieces, that’s not a good deal.

Final question: What were some of the books that helped you see the shape of this book?

Oh, well, Carmen Maria Machado — if she can do “In the Dream House,” certainly, I can get away with this. And this is less piece-y, but I would say Lidia Yuknavitch’s “The Chronology of Water,” not only the form, but the vulnerability and the telling. Gina Frangello’s “Blow Your House Down,” holy s**t. It’s contentious. It’s hard. And I remember thinking, I’m not sure I can do this, and then I read that book. And I was like, if she can say that, I can say this. And I think I can do it in a way that formally provides cover.

“Thinking about my work in a really clear way helped me see that anyone who’s in a relationship with you should want the best for you, period.”

You’re talking about the cover of poems … I was making tea the other day and all of a sudden, a phrase … I actually wrote it down in the Notes function on my phone … “form as deflection.” Part of me was like, if I write this book the way that I want to write it, I’ll also have the opportunity to talk about craft, and maybe I won’t have to talk so much about content. I mean, I do not want to talk about my ex-husband, I don’t love talking about my kids. I prefer to talk about the writing of the thing. So if you build a thing in a way that invites readers to ask, “Why did you make it like this?” It’s like, don’t look over here. Look over here. And that is also poems, right? Let’s talk about this as a sonnet. We don’t need to talk about the fact that they’re having sex in it. It’s a sonnet. So how is it a sonnet? How is it not? Where’s the volta? 

Right. “The speaker of the poem” — not me, the speaker.

Not me — the speaker, and the speaker’s beloved. So yeah. Form came naturally to me. But I also think it’s been wonderful, the amount that I’ve gotten to talk about craft [while] talking about this book, which I don’t think would be the case if I had written a straight narrative and included the same stories, because there’d be nothing else to talk about except the content. 

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interviews with authors of memoirs


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