Even more than usual, this year Maggie Smith has embraced the idea of letting people in.
In January, the writer launched , a Substack that gives readers an unvarnished view into her creative process, with posts that feature unedited first drafts and early notes for poems such as “How Dark the Beginning.” And this week Smith published her intensely personal new memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful, a heartbreaking, occasionally maddening and ultimately empowering collection that opens with the events that led to her divorce and then loosely stumbles its way forward through time, the writer reestablishing her footing and coming to a gradual sort of acceptance.
“I hadn’t really connected the idea of publishing a memoir and in the same year starting a Substack where I’m like, ‘Hey, do you want to see my messy handwritten drafts and how bad these poems start out?’” said Smith, who will celebrate the release of You Could Make This Place Beautiful in conversation with Saeed Jones . “But I think both of those things are vulnerable acts, and they’re not at all about looking cool. I think there’s something about only letting people see the finished-finished product of anything – the sort of polished part of you, and polished part of your work. I understand that impulse, and I think that’s maybe what the ego wants, which is to seem like you have it all together. … But I’m really comforted when people let me see their human side.”
It’s this human side that comes through most cleanly in Smith’s memoir, which she said lives comfortably in “the messy middle” when she struggled to reconcile with everything from the dissolution of her marriage – accelerated by a pinecone and the discovery of a postcard signaling a greater betrayal – to the unbalanced gender roles that came to shape the relationship between the two. Smith writes of frequently sidelining her writing career in order to care for the couple’s two children and manage the household. “What would I have done to save my marriage?” Smith writes. “I would have abandoned myself, and I did, for a time.”
While the first third of the memoir can be impossibly heavy – Smith said the first recording session for the audiobook covered this section and left both her and the engineer emotionally gutted – eventually the weather breaks. In the final two-thirds of the book, the multifaceted text begins to serve a number of purposes: a love letter to the author’s children; a rediscovery of self; an acknowledgment of the serendipity that can be present when we’re open to receiving it; and a recognition of the unexpected beauty left for us to discover after our lives diverge from the path we thought we were meant to follow.
Even in writing the memoir, Smith said she came to understand that expectations are there to be upended. Early in the book, she writes about carrying a lantern into the dark caverns of her past, hoping to illuminate all of its shadowy corners. As the action progresses, however, she accepts that the light can’t possibly extend into all of these crevices, though it can help her blaze a singular trail forward through the black.
“I thought going into it, slightly naively, that I could solve something for myself if I looked back far enough. If I retraced my steps, somehow I could figure out what went wrong and how and when it went wrong,” Smith said. “And I think I was being really analytical in my initial approach to writing this book, which is funny to me now, because that’s not how any of this works. Your life is not something to solve. … But I really wanted to show my thinking and show that I was coming to different conclusions along the way, and then rethinking and reconsidering those conclusions. We might think we have things figured out, but it’s like standing in the outfield shouting, ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it!’ And the ball beans you in the head.”
Smith also upends expectations for readers, a number of whom might come to the memoir expecting a tell-all. “This isn’t a tell-all because ‘all’ is something we can’t access,” she writes in the second paragraph. “We don’t get ‘all.’ ‘Some,’ yes. ‘Most’ if we’re lucky. ‘All,’ no.” And throughout, there are intense scenes in which the action either fades to black or Smith allows the camera to drift elsewhere. The moment when the author confronts her ex about the postcard, for example, she shifts focus, directing the reader elsewhere in the room by giving more granular descriptive details, such as the color and pattern of the comforter draped across the bed.
“Because this is my first memoir, I was thinking a lot about reader expectations,” Smith said. “I know, basically, what reader expectations are of a poem or a novel, but when we read someone’s memoir how much access do we think we’re getting? … I think we’re really narrative driven and very curious, and there’s something about reading about other people’s lives that either makes us feel better about our own lives or is somehow instructive. But I wanted to be really upfront with the reader, like, you might have come to this restaurant expecting something that is just not on the menu.”
At times, You Could Make This Place Beautiful reads like a poem, with Smith favoring short chapters and abundant white space. This structure also mirrors another of the memoir’s key themes: Healing arrives incrementally, in short, almost imperceptible paragraphs rather than in voluminous, easily recognizable pages of text.
“Progress, in my experience, is three steps forward, two steps back, and then five steps forward, if we’re lucky,” Smith said. “On balance, there is forward movement. But it’s not neat, and the narrative arc doesn’t map well onto real life experiences.”
Rather than grand revelations, Smith’s rediscovery of joy reveals itself in these small moments: singing along to “The Rainbow Connection” in the car with her kids; a needed mid-pandemic trek to the seashore with a new romantic partner; seeing one of her Twitter posts by Mountain Goats singer/songwriter John Darnielle.
You Could Make This Place Beautiful takes its name from the closing line in Smith’s most famous poem, “,” which she wrote in a legal pad while sitting in a Starbucks in 2015. The poem is raw and unflinching, staring down life’s harsh realities (“The world is at least fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children”) before pivoting ultimately toward promise.
Smith's memoir takes a similar tack – a point the writer said revealed itself during the audiobook recording, which was the first time she digested the narrative straight through start to finish.
“It’s not like I sat down for two months and wrote the first third of the book. I would write a piece here and piece here, and then come back and write a piece here,” Smith said. “And reading it all in one fell swoop, and having to spend time in that first section was hard. And I immediately thought of the reader, and I thought, ‘I hope they stay with me.’ And day two of recording was better than day one. And day three was easy, like, ‘I can do this. This feels good. And I’m actually laughing about things at this point.'"