Owning Your Piles: A Conversation with Maggie Smith

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When I teach college introductory creative writing, I always begin the poetry unit by having my students read Maggie Smith poems. I do this because the magic of a Maggie Smith poem is not just in the lyricism and beautiful language, but in the way her words provide an entryway into this often-mysterious genre. Smith’s poems are complex in structure and content, but something in the presentation makes them feel accessible, and this presentation mimics Smith herself. Smith is one of my best friends, and so I can attest that the “Maggie Smith” that readers and fans see as presented on the page or on social media is all genuine. She has a kindness and heart and sense of humor that make her easy to be around, but she understands deep sadness, too. Part of Smith’s magic is in the way that, in her writing and in her life, she can hold space for both the light and darkness in the world. Because of that, it’s no surprise to me that Keep Moving, her book of essays and meditations, is enjoying such a powerful critical and popular response.

Keep Moving began as a series of tweets that Smith wrote to herself as comfort during her divorce. The tweets quickly took off—readers saw their own stories in hers—and Keep Moving, the book, was born. Smith is the award-winning author of several books of poetry including Good Bones, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, and Lamp of the Body. A 2011 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Smith has also received several Individual Excellence Awards from the Ohio Arts Council, two Academy of American Poets Prizes, a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has been widely published, appearing in the New York Times, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, and more.

I was thrilled when The Rumpus asked me to interview Smith, and in the spirit of our friendship, this interview was conducted at my kitchen table while eating Buffalo Cauliflower and drinking beer.

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The Rumpus: How are you doing?

Maggie Smith: I’m doing okay? [Laughs] I have to think about that. My honest answer is that things are both really wonderful and pretty terrible. There are a lot of really wonderful things going on in my life personally and professionally, but there are also a lot of really difficult things going on, and some days, it tips one way or the other, depending on what is yelling the loudest.

Rumpus: I feel like sometimes people think that, when you’re having really good professional success or personal success, it counteracts the problems in the other. Do you feel that way? 

Smith: That reminds me of when—and I know this has happened to you, too—you write a book that was inspired by something really painful, and people are like, “See, you got a book out of it!” as if that makes it okay or better or somehow closes the wound, and it doesn’t. I am glad that I wrote a book out of a really painful year, but it also means thinking through that time and experience long after it’s over in a way that maybe you wouldn’t be otherwise.

Rumpus: I was watching that episode of The OA where the author reaches out to the family, and they ask her why another family told their story to her, and the author says something like, “The mother said that, when we finished the last page of this book, their story was finally over,” and I turned to [my boyfriend] and said, “That is such bullshit. It doesn’t work that way at all.”

Smith: First of all, the story is not over. Second of all, the person doesn’t live in the book, the person lives in the world, so, especially when we’re writing memoirs or essays, the book is you distilling this experience and offering it to other people, but having made it doesn’t mean you’ve trapped the experience in this container that you can then shut the lid on and put away. Having something in book form doesn’t contain it in your life.

Rumpus: I feel like, not only readers think that, but writers who haven’t finished their own books think that, too. I know a lot of writers who think that, if they actually finish the book, their story will finally be over.

Smith: Catharsis, right?

Rumpus: Right. And it’s not my duty to tell them, “You know, that’s probably not true.” And maybe it will happen for them?

Smith: “Bless your heart.”

Rumpus: It’s absolutely a “bless your heart” kind of moment when someone tells me that finishing their book will give them closure.

Smith: I mean, maybe for some people it does feel like that. Maybe working through things on the page exorcises things for some people. I don’t regret writing about my divorce or miscarriages, but I don’t think it healed me to write about them.

Rumpus: You healed you, right?

Smith: Yeah, I lived through it, and I’m constantly living through it, and some days are easier than others, but I think part of what makes me feel good about having written the book—and I imagine it’s the same for you because you still hear from people who read your book—is that it didn’t necessarily heal me to write out these experiences, but I see it helping other people, and that means something. It feels like it wasn’t all for nothing if you can describe something or articulate something painful that is somewhat universal, and people can say, “That’s exactly how it happened for me,” or “I wish I would have read that ten years ago when I was going through this because it would have helped.” That has been the most rewarding part of writing this—feeling like it’s useful in some way to somebody other than me.

Rumpus: I’m curious if there might be some kind of delay for you where you don’t always get as much gratification from that. My book wasn’t super commercially successful, so I think my feelings are bound up in that, but a year later, I just felt so drained and sucked dry, and people would say, “Your success is all the people whose lives you’ve changed,” and I was like, “I’m a shell of a human being.”

Smith: [Laughing] My favorite part of this is that you just said, “I’m a shell of a human being” while we’re eating buffalo cauliflower, and we’re laughing.

Rumpus: Okay, so I’m not a shell of a human being.

Smith: You’re not a shell of a human being because we’re cracking up about you saying you’re a shell of a human being, but also, I don’t know how I’m going to feel a year out. It’s interesting because I’m two years out from starting the posts that became the book. I’m almost two years out from publishing that Modern Love essay, so, in some ways, time feels very compressed to me, like not that much time has gone by, but my life is so different now. My kids are two years older, I’m living on my own, and I’m in a new relationship. Everything is very different from the life I lived two years ago, and that’s where the wonderful and the terrible comes in. It’s harder in ways that I had not anticipated, but it’s also better in ways I had not anticipated. If there is anything I’ve learned from the divorce and the pandemic, it’s that we have no way of knowing what’s coming around the bend.

Rumpus: If you could go back, and tell your really sad self in 2018 how well you’d be doing in 2020, would you reassure her, or would you not because all of those experiences were necessary to be who you are now?

Smith: Oh, I think I would want to reassure that person because, probably, the person I was in 2018 wouldn’t have believed the person in 2020 would be happy. Probably, the person I was in 2018 wouldn’t have believed some of the harder things I’m going through now, too, but I don’t subscribe to the idea that somehow the pain is needed to be alchemized into art. I do not buy into the idea that “I’m glad I felt so terrible because that’s what enabled me to write this book.” I just would much rather be an at-peace human being because there are always other things to write about. If I hadn’t gotten divorced and written this book, I would have just written a different book, but I wouldn’t have been feeling betrayed and heartbroken.

Rumpus: Right, although I will say that I’m glad you’re divorced because I get to spend so much time with you now.

Smith: I mean, there are definitely some people in my life who are glad I got divorced because it would be awkward if I weren’t. [Laughs] I actually don’t regret being divorced. There was a time when I really fought it, even though there was a part of me that knew it was necessary. I was just terrified of what life on the other side would look like, and I couldn’t see how I would support myself; I couldn’t see how my kids would grow up well-adjusted. It really felt like the end of everything I had worked for, and I was willing to let a lot of stuff go in order to maintain some kind of normalcy, but ultimately, it was just untenable, and in some ways, I’m glad that it was so untenable that I didn’t have a choice in the matter.

Rumpus: My situation was different than yours because it was domestic violence, but I’ve said the same thing because, violence aside, I was never going to be the person I was meant to be in that relationship, and if he hadn’t been violent, because I’m very loyal, I would have stayed with him.

Smith: Yep, I am also very loyal, and you know, my parents have been married for years and years, and I always thought of being married as being in a family, and one of the most shocking parts of the divorce, and this probably sounds so Pollyanna, was my feelings of, What do you mean I’m temporary or expendable or disposable? We’re family. Families stick together and work through things. And now I realize that’s not always possible. But you’re right, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now professionally if I were still married, and it has nothing to do with writing that book. It has to do with the freedom and autonomy to do what I want to do and make my own decisions about my career, which I was not really able to do comfortably in that marriage.

Rumpus: I feel like a lot of times people think that, if they end their marriage, they’re going to lose all of this freedom, but there can actually be a lot of free time that opens up after divorce.

Smith: I feel like I’m closer to my kids than I was before. I was with them all the time before, and now I’m with them half time, but during that time, I’m really focused on them because I schedule work commitments when I don’t have them, so when they’re with me, I definitely feel like I’m more dialed in.

Rumpus: I think there is something to be said for your kids getting to know you as a person without the other parent there.

Smith: Well, especially if you’re able to be more yourself outside of the marriage than you were able to be yourself in it. It would not surprise me if, if in five years, my kids are surprised or sort of incredulous that we were ever married. We’re only two years out now, but I can see my ex-husband and me moving in different directions, and I can imagine a day that, instead of thinking we were so happy, my children can see that things weren’t going to work long-term, and I hope that they see that I’m happier, and in a better place, and more myself, and more at peace in a lot of ways.

Rumpus: I’m not going to put this in the interview, but did you see that Instagram post where the woman was like, “I get so tired of cleaning up after my husband, but then I realize how lucky I am to have a husband!” I mean, it’s so attached to heteropatriarchy. Like, “If I don’t do these things for my husband, he will leave me because there is a whole world of women out there at his disposal, and in the meantime, what do I get? His dirty underwear.” And it’s hard because there is maybe some truth to that.

Smith: Maggie sips beer and looks knowingly across the table. [Maggie actually said this.]

Rumpus: Maybe I will put this in there.

Smith: You can. My response is just raised eyebrows and a drink of this beer. I think one of the things I wrote about in the Modern Love essay was about my ex-husband coming home and dropping a pile of his stuff on the dining room table every day, and there were always little piles, and it’s one of the things I like most about living alone. If there’s a pile, it’s my pile.

Rumpus: I know; I don’t resent my own pile like I resented my ex-husband’s pile.

Smith: Amen. [Holds up glass in toast] Here’s to our piles.

Rumpus: The joy of divorce: just owning your piles.

Rumpus: One last thing, because I’m curious. What’s your greatest dream for this book?

Smith: Honestly, my dream is for this book to find its way to someone—even just one person—who feels like I did two years ago. I want that person to read this book and realize that they can survive their own worst year, and maybe not just survive it but build something new, something they can be excited about. That’s my hope.

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Photograph of Maggie Smith by Patri Hadad.


Kelly Sundberg's memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl was published by HarperCollins in June 2018. Her essay "It Will Look Like a Sunset" was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and other essays have been published in a variety of literary magazines. She has a PhD in Creative Nonfiction from Ohio University and lives with her son in Athens, Ohio where she is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Ohio University. More from this author →