Bestselling poet and repeat MDHTTRB guest Maggie Smith joins Zibby to discuss You Could Make This Place Beautiful, a beautiful and heartrending memoir-in-vignettes about how she reckoned with her past and found herself again after the disintegration of her marriage. Maggie discusses her book’s unique structure and style. She also talks about her divorce, parenting, the power of home and community, her hobbies, her next few projects (one is an anti-anxiety bedtime story!), and the writers who inspired her to take risks in her own work.

Zibby loved Maggie’s memoir so much that it is her May pick for Zibby’s Book Club! Join us!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Maggie. Thanks for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss You Could Make This Place Beautiful: A Memoir.

Maggie Smith: I am so happy to be back. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I have to say, when I heard you had even written a memoir, I was like, I can’t wait to read this. Then I saw your gorgeous cover, which is outstanding, amazing, so amazing. I’m sorry I don’t have it in front of me. There it is.

Maggie: It’s beyond.

Zibby: Then I started reading it, and I could not stop. I was like, I’ll just dip into it. That’s why I thought this podcast was a while ago, because I read it as soon as the advance copy came. I was like, clearing the decks, have to read this. Inhaled the whole thing. It was so good. Oh, my gosh. Congratulations. Absolutely loved it. Loved everything about it.

Maggie: Thank you. I love when I hear that people gulped a book down. I’m glad you did.

Zibby: See, there you go using the nice language. For those who have not — maybe they aren’t familiar with your poems. Maybe they haven’t read the back cover and they don’t know what You Could Make This Place Beautiful is about. Could you explain it a little bit?

Maggie: I’m primarily a poet. I’ve been primarily a poet my whole adult life. Yet not everything will fit inside a poem, or at least not one of my poems, which tend to be pretty brief. The memoir, maybe the best way to think about it is — my book, Keep Moving, was about pressing forward through a really difficult time, which for me was my divorce, though it came out during the pandemic, so I think it was just a tough time for everyone. This book is really more looking back and a reckoning with the past and an attempt to find myself again and recover myself in the process. I think a lot of us wake up in middle age in particular and are sort of like, how did I get here? What choices or paths or forks in the road or opportunities I took or opportunities I didn’t take led me to this particular point in my life? For me, the memoir was about reckoning with the end of my marriage and trying to figure out the “Who am I now?” piece, but also the “Who have I always been?” piece. We talk a lot about midlife crisis as being a midlife thing. The opposite of crisis is recovery. I think of this book as a midlife recovery of self or return to self. Women in particular, I think a lot of us need that.

Zibby: I like this idea of a reckoning. It’s a midlife reckoning with who we are and where we’ve gone and what we can do with that spot now. Now where? A lot of your book felt very poetic, obviously. You can take the poet out of a form… I don’t know. Bad joke. You know what I mean?

Maggie: I’m with you. It’s not a hat that I can put on or take off. I’m going to enter every piece of writing as a poet. I probably write emails as a poet, Zibby. Why is she writing emails in couplets? Oh, she’s a poet. I knew when I approached this book that I wasn’t going to be doing it as someone else. I wasn’t trying to think, how would a prose writer write this memoir? I was letting myself do it as a poet, which maybe helps explain the structure a little bit.

Zibby: Some of the chapters, if you will, are short, sometimes even a line, two lines, three lines. Some of the shortest ones seem to follow almost their own conversation. Then you have longer ones that delve deeper into different scenes. Talk about the structure and if that just came as you started writing.

Maggie: There was no outline. I haven’t outlined anything since high school, probably. I wrote it piece by piece. Then at the end of the big first draft, I printed everything out and literally did what I do with collections of poems, which is spread the whole thing out on my living room floor. I got colored markers, borrowed markers from my children, and started to color-code the different strands in the book, so the italicized, more poetic sections and the questions and the forward-moving narrative, and then really tried to leaf in all the different strands together so that not one would drop away for fifty pages and then surge back in. There would be these different breadcrumb trails for the reader to follow. You’re right, I used a ton of white space in this book. I was joking that I made my publisher use a lot of paper and not a lot of ink, in some ways. As a poet, I’m used to using white space as literal breathing room to kind of slow the reader down and also as a space where the reader can stop and reflect and let an image or a line of dialogue or something just resonate, like after a bell has been rung and it hums, just to sit with things. I knew I didn’t want to spoon-feed things to the reader. I wanted to respect the reader’s intelligence enough that I could hand them a four- or five-sentence or four- or five-paragraph or four- or five-page description of an event or an experience or a conversation or a therapy session or an internal monologue and then let them make the connections and sit with it for a minute before moving on to the next thing.

Zibby: It’s like prayer, in a way. It reminds me of, silent devotion now. Now we go to this. All those same sort of beats in a service.

Maggie: I love that. It’s about having time to come to your own conclusions, too, and think, even if it doesn’t completely match or rhyme with my experience, how does it ping off of something that feels familiar to me? I think if you’re barreling through narratively, it’s hard to give the reader time and space to consider some of those things or the connections. I wanted to be able to do that in the structure of the book.

Zibby: I feel like your book also deals so much with home and what home means and what it looks like, what it feels like, who’s in it, what that does to you at different times, what different homes feel like. Then how do you look at them again from the present into the past? Where is our home? What does that even mean?

Maggie: It’s funny. I think we’d probably be better off thinking of ourselves as home so that no matter where we are, we are sort of grounded in a sense of self and agency. For me personally, I still basically live in my hometown. Central Ohio is sort of a character in this memoir. I was saying to a friend recently, there are a lot of weirdly painful things that can happen when you stay in the same place for a long time and through major life changes. You drive past a place, and you remember being there with a certain person. Even living in my house, my kids have only lived in this house. Yet on the flip side of that — for me, the tradeoff is absolutely worth it — I’m still with my people. I still have Sunday dinner at my mom and dad’s house where I lived from age six to age eighteen. My sisters and brothers-in-law are still here. If I lived in a new place and gave myself a fresh start so I didn’t have constant reminders of the before times, I also wouldn’t have neighbors showing up on my porch with cake when they know it’s my first Christmas morning without my children here in the house. They’re offering things to me. The amount that I felt held by my community throughout the past few years, I can’t even overstate it. It’s enormous. Nobody gets through the tough stuff on their own steam alone. It takes a village to raise kids. It takes a village to grieve and overcome deep loss. I feel really lucky to have home to help me through it.

Zibby: It’s amazing. I remember I wrote this whole essay about divorce pain because I feel like it is such a raw, painful thing to have your kids and then not have them, to have them be just out of grasp and know they’re okay, but just, you’re prevented from being with them by divorce in some way. So many people feel this, moms, dads, caregivers. I didn’t feel it had been properly named. Why don’t we talk about it? It’s such a shared feeling. Obviously, not compared to actually losing a — you can’t compare it to all these big things, but it is its own special breed of hell, that feeling. When I read that in your book, I was like, oh, my gosh. I just felt it through my bones, through everything.

Maggie: It is. We don’t really have a lot of names for different kinds of ambiguous grief or anxiety. I think divorce is one of those experiences where it’s a loss but not a loss. How do you talk about it? I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I used to say “I’m sorry” when people announced their divorces. I’m actually not saying that anymore unless they communicate a lot of grief and sadness that tells me that that’s how I should be responding. That’s not necessarily everyone’s emotional weather when they come out of their marriage, isn’t necessarily one of grief. Yet it’s so complicated, especially if there are kids involved. No one comes out unscathed from it.

Zibby: I had people burst into tears when I told them about my divorce. I realized very soon that it had nothing to do with me. It was the biggest litmus test or Rorschach or whatever. When you share, what their reactions are says much more about their own stuff. I was telling all these people at the time among my friend group. This was almost ten years ago at this point, not quite that long, most of whom had not gotten divorced. Then I told this one woman. She didn’t get that sad face or anything. She was just like, “Oh, how do you feel about that?” Just very straightforward. I was like, “Here’s how I feel about it.” Then I found out she had been divorced. It came as no surprise to hear you say that. Yes, as soon as you’ve been through it, then you know what you’re supposed to say, which of course, always keeps seeming to be the case in times of bad times.

Maggie: I love, how do you feel about it? Let me hear your emotional response before I put my stuff on you. That’s good. I’m going to borrow that if I can.

Zibby: You can borrow that. I’ll tell her.

Maggie: Thank you.

Zibby: There was a lot about your ex that had to be in this book. How did you come to terms with that? How did you and he navigate that, if at all? How did you deal with all that? Not at all?

Maggie: I dealt with it on my own. Really, the key for me is I can only speak for myself. I knew going into this project that I was going to be doing it really focusing on my own experience and my own perspective and not ever speaking for anyone else or assuming what they might have thought or felt or putting words into anyone else’s mouth. It’s not a book about anyone except for me. That was really the thing that kept me grounded. It was, how do I write about my life in a way that I’m doing so with honesty and integrity but also honoring the fact that the way that I feel about this and would tell the story is not “the” story? I talk about that, actually, in the first page of the book. I can only speak from my own experience. This is not a book about anyone else. This is a book about me. We all have the right to write about our own experiences. Sometimes that involves writing about other people because they’re in our lives.

Zibby: Very true. I also found it very interesting how you wrote in this book about your own success as an author and how that impacted your relationships and your life. You don’t often get the interior glimpse of an author’s success in their writing. I loved getting that behind-the-scenes look. What did that feel like? How did that affect everybody? Maybe you could just talk a little about that time and what that was like.

Maggie: It’s not uncomplicated. I do think this is gendered too. If you are the primary caregiver of young children and your career takes off in some way — it doesn’t even need to be a creative career. It could be some big promotion at a “regular job.” I don’t have a regular job. That in particular is something that I’m hearing is resonating with women in particular who were like, how am I supposed to do all of it? How am I supposed to be a hundred percent taking care of the kids and the house and also honoring this other part of myself that is really important to me? That’s something that I do dive deeply into in this book. It’s not without a cost. The good things that you see happening to people aren’t necessarily a hundred percent good. There’s, oftentimes, some other trade-off or downside or complication because of it. When my poem “Good Bones” went viral and I started having the opportunity to travel more for readings or book festivals — you know how this is. The question then became, if I’ve been home with the kids all this time, then what happens to the kids for the few days a month that I need to be gone? How is that handled? It’s heartening to me that I see it being handled pretty well in a lot of households. I have a lot of writer friends. You have a lot of writer friends. I see a lot of rallying and support. I see people being encouraged to live to their full potential and see where things can go and be free to do that. Unfortunately, I also see and felt the opposite, which is, it can be really inconvenient, if you are accustomed to being around and available, for you not to be around and available. It’s a shift.

Zibby: It’s still a change. Any big great thing is still a thing that shakes the foundation of stuff, whether it’s in a good way or a bad way. Things are moved and displaced a bit. They have to resettle in a new place and a new way.

Maggie: Yeah, like a snow globe. We recognize that when we know it’s bad news. Someone loses their job. Someone is evicted from their home. There’s a death in the family, and that person was the primary breadwinner. We know to recognize how really traumatic upheaval and bad news can shake a family, but I don’t know that we talk enough about how somebody’s good news can be somebody else’s bad news. That’s the hard thing to reckon with in a family system where you want to think that one person’s good news is everybody’s win. It’s not always that way.

Zibby: It’s so true. It has sort of A Star is Born undertones. I watched that movie again recently. Oh, my god, so good.

Maggie: So good. Both of them, so good.

Zibby: I have not actually seen the original one. Is that terrible?

Maggie: The original’s so good.

Zibby: I know. I have to go back.

Maggie: That’s your homework. With all your free time, I want you to watch the original and report back.

Zibby: Every so often, I just completely crash. I have to just watch something. Then I’m like, what to watch? Then I get all stressed. I’m like, I just shouldn’t even relax.

Maggie: Now you have a default answer. If you need something to watch, there you go.

Zibby: What do you do when you’re totally crashing and stressed? Do you watch movies, TV, music?

Maggie: TV. You know what’s funny? I don’t actually watch TV generally. I’m not a TV person. I’m more of a music and book person. When my brain is just mush because my output is at a max and I don’t feel like I can absorb too much, my really soothing thing is to watch TV I’ve already watched, like start over Peaky Blinders again at the first season or start over Six Feet Under again at the first season. Then if it’s not new to me, I’m not super invested. I can get up and change the laundry or make myself a sandwich. I don’t have to pause it because I’ve been through this all. Even old Law & Order franchises, any of them. I’ve seen it. It’s formulaic. Somehow, it’s soothing to just reengage with some chips or some ice cream.

Zibby: I feel the same about Sex and the City. I’ve seen every episode probably twice, twenty times. I don’t know. I can just put it on. I feel like I’m with my old friends again.

Maggie: I’m not alone in it, then, I see.

Zibby: So funny. What are you writing now?

Maggie: What am I writing now? Poems when they come. I’m so glad. Every time one shows up and sort of taps on the window, I’m just like, I thought the last one was the last one. I’m so happy to see you. Poems, but slowly. I can’t force it. I just have to wait for them to come to me. It’s like a small wild creature. If you move too fast, you’ll startle it. It’ll run back into the woods. I have to just sort of sit with my palms open and hope they arrive and don’t find me intimidating. So poems, and then the next book I have out is actually a picture book, which will be out next winter. Mercifully, I did not illustrate it, so it’s not just Sharpie-d stick people. It’s gorgeous. I’m waiting for that to happen and continuing to write poems and build the next collection poem by poem as often as I can coax them away from the trees and toward me in the clearing.

Zibby: What is the picture book called?

Maggie: It’s called My Thoughts Have Wings. It’s coming out with HarperCollins, I think on my birthday next year, which they didn’t even know. I think it’s tentatively my birthday next February. It’s really an anxiety bedtime story for kids, when you have those difficult tuck-ins and your kid says something like, “I’m trying to think good thoughts, but the bad thoughts keep shoving them out of the way. I’m trying to relax, but I’m worried about — what about gym tomorrow? What about my test? What if I don’t make the soccer team? What if? What if? What if?” which, frankly, we all do. I could use an anti-anxiety bedtime story myself most nights. I would probably get more rest. It’s really about filling yourself up with good thoughts right before sleep.

Zibby: I need that personally. I have one child in particular who needs that. I can’t wait for that. You will be helping a lot of families. I feel like it’s so unfair that bedtime is when you’re at your most tired, and it’s the most challenging part of the day.

Maggie: It really is. Kids are like us. They’re busy during the day. They’re occupied. They’re playing. They’re in school. They’re doing sports. They’re doing homework. They’re busy, busy, busy talking with people. Then as soon as you lie down and your mind is quiet, that’s when the little worrier kicks up because then you have all this time and space to start ruminating and fretting. We do it. They do it. It’s really about a strategy I came up with with my son to calm him and get him uplifted before bed.

Zibby: Interesting. I keep trying the same thing that I think my mom told me and probably her mom told her. It’s going to seem better in the morning. Things in the night get so magnified. I guarantee you, when you wake up, this problem will seem really small again. Right now, this funhouse mirror has made it seem so huge. It won’t be as bad as you think.

Maggie: That’s so true. I’m always telling my kids, imagine the giant timeline of your life. This one quiz in eighth-grade math, you probably won’t remember it next year. You definitely won’t remember it in five years. It’s actually not going to impact your life at all. Pretty much, none of this matters. The way that you treat yourself and the way that you treat other people matters. All of this other stuff, if you zoom up and out, it is such a tiny dot on the big timeline. None of this makes a difference. I don’t remember anything, really, about eighth grade, except for a bad home perm. It’s fine.

Zibby: I say that too. I’m like, in the grand scheme of things, on a scale of one to ten, how important is this? Really think about it. When you look back, is this a ten, or is this fight you’re having right now really a one? They’re like, okay, it’s 2.2.

Maggie: Perspective, the gift that keeps on giving.

Zibby: I need it myself a lot of the time now.

Maggie: Same.

Zibby: How important is this afternoon of work? I don’t know. Probably, not important.

Maggie: Maybe you should just turn on A Star is Born and relax.

Zibby: Maybe. Cut it all off. Sorry. Out of office, to my family. So funny. Are you reading anything good? Do you have a memoir that you love? Your memoir is such a different form from other memoirs. Are there memoirs you turn to or that you love or you’re reading now or any of that?

Maggie: Yes, for sure. I wrote something on my Substack recently about books as permission slips, the idea that you read these books that are doing something differently, like innovating stylistically or maybe just really going there content-wise. You’re like, oh, so you can do this? If they can do this, then I can do this thing that I’m attempting. There were a lot of books for me as I was writing You Could Make This Place Beautiful that acted as permission slips either in form or content. The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch, oh, my gosh, that book. Motherland by Elissa Altman.

Zibby: I love that book.

Maggie: I love that book. Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, which is almost like prose poetry in its repetitive form. There were lots of them. Reading all of these books, a lot by poets in particular, people who were taking risks, gave me the shot of bravery to be like, okay, my book doesn’t need to look like everyone else’s book. In fact, if it doesn’t, maybe it will, at some point someday into the future, serve as a kind of permission slip for another writer who wants to tell a story and isn’t quite sure how to do it. They’ll say, this book does it in this way. That gives me permission to take some chances.

Zibby: That’s kind of what art is, really. Everybody builds on something before it a little. Then it adds to the conversation in a new way. That’s how it all propels forward.

Maggie: A hundred percent. I kind of feel like every book I’ve written has been part of a bigger conversation that I’m having both with myself and with readers and with the world. This is just a different part of that big conversation.

Zibby: I love, by the way, how sometimes you take poems apart and show all of us the words you chose and your markups of them. That is so cool. I love it. Keep doing it.

Maggie: I’m so glad. I’m going to. It’s funny. In some ways, that impulse of peeking behind the curtain and showing how a thing was made and writing a memoir, those are similar impulses because they’re both vulnerable. Let me show you this thing. Let me show you how I made it. It didn’t come out fully formed. It actually was really bad for a while before it got to be kind of good. Memoir is the same. It’s vulnerable and also demystifying. Let me show you what it’s really like, which is not the veneer. It’s not what you think you know.

Zibby: Right, but you could make it beautiful.

Maggie: You could make it beautiful, and should if you can.

Zibby: Maggie, thank you so much. Thanks for talking. I read this book, as I said, months ago. It’s like I just read it. It’s just seared in my mind. It’s so powerful. It hit home for me in a lot of ways. I just loved it. I’m so glad you’re coming to book club and have more people to read it. Not that you would have any trouble anyway, but I love ushering in things that I’m super passionate about. This is one of those things.

Maggie: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thanks, Maggie. Have a great day.

Maggie: Thanks. You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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