In the summer of 2016, three days after a gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a poem went viral on social media. Called “Good Bones,” the text captured the balance between the tragedies of the world, the lure of ignorance, and the life of children in these exceptionally chaotic times — perhaps why it resonated with the public. “Life is short,” the poem, written by Maggie Smith, starts, “though I keep this from my children.”
Those lines became a sort of mantra for the Age of Trump. They also made Smith a household name, as celebrities tweeted snippets of her poem, and publications like Washington Post, the Guardian wrote articles about it; the poem was first published in the literary journal Waxwing.
This week, Smith’s new essay collection, “KEEP MOVING: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change” — which was appropriately born out of a series of tweets — hit bookstores. The book follows Smith’s journey over the last couple years, in which she’s had to rebuild her life after a divorce, and cope with the grief that follows the end of a marriage. For Smith, to keep moving isn’t necessarily a physical endeavor, but rather a mindset and a way to not get stuck in the past. While the book was written before the pandemic in a world that feels like a lifetime ago, there are many lessons that can be learned as we cope with constant loss during this tough time. “How do we not look back constantly and try to compare the current reality to what we may have had before?” Smith asks. Here, we talk about what it means to “keep moving” in a scary world.
I interviewed Maggie Smith in August. As usual, this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
We live in such a goal-oriented society, but your book “Keep Moving” defies that mindset, despite it literally encouraging people to move. Can you explain what the phrase “keep moving” means to you, in this book?
That’s a good question. For me, it was mostly about avoiding looking in the rear view mirror, and about being forward-thinking and forward-moving. Someone said fairly early on, “can’t we just stay still today, do we really have to keep praying every day?” And my response has always been, “It’s not about moving, it’s just about not looking back.” So for me, it was not as goal-oriented as you say, but more just about, “how do we not look back constantly, and try to compare the current reality to what we may have had before?”
And I think that can be dangerous in a couple of ways when things are hard in the moment. It’s really easy to get nostalgic about when things weren’t so hard. So when you’re going through a divorce, it’s really easy to be like, “Oh, remember when we were happy,” and to look at photos and rethink everything. And that can be painful. But also when things are good, it’s easy to taint that by looking back and thinking, “Well, it wasn’t always good, so probably something bad will happen again.” Instead of just living in the moment and just taking whatever it is the good and the bad, and just living with it and pushing forward.
I like what you say about living in a goal-oriented society, because I think we do. I think we’re always sort of pressing on and thinking, as soon as we get one thing, it’s like “OK, I have that so now what’s next? How do I top that?” Someone very wise told me recently that I should wake up every morning, and the question I should ask myself is “What else is possible?” Which is not really about setting goals or trying to amass or accumulate or achieve anything, it’s just more about being open to what might happen.
You wrote this before the pandemic, but the sentiment “keep moving” feels really important right now. How have you kept moving during this time?
Oh, this time has been tricky. It’s funny. I feel like I was in a better place emotionally for a while. After the divorce, before the pandemic, I had a narrow window of relative peace where I felt like, “Okay, I’m improving, things feel a little bit more even-keeled.” And then as soon as early March, as soon as we all went on lockdown, it was really interesting — which is maybe a euphemistic adjective for what I mean, in that I felt a lot of the same emotions I felt in the middle of my divorce again, which is very off-kilter, very destabilized. And just that sense of, “I don’t know what’s coming, but I know it’s not going to look like what the six months prior looked like.”
That feeling of, “I know what my life used to be and now it’s not that anymore.” And so in some ways it was really triggering because that sense of losing my balance and my momentum, it brought me back to that place. One of the things that’s kept me moving is having my kids here. I have joint custody, so they’re not here every day. They’re here half the week and I cannot crumble because I’ve got them and they’re having their own struggles with this, not being able to spend time with friends, not having school or summer camp. And so having to parent through this has been challenging, but also it helps keep my priorities in check. I can’t really wallow about anything because I’m really trying to stay positive and things like that for them. So I would say that, that’s been one thing.
Another thing has just been writing. That’s how I process things. So I’ve continued writing maybe more during the last six months than I was in the six months prior. Writing has been really helpful, but I think whenever people are going through tough things, one of the best things you can do for yourself is whatever the thing is that makes you feel most like yourself. I know that’s different for everyone, but what makes me feel closest to myself is writing. That inner conversation I get to have with myself on paper. Regardless of what’s going on in my personal life or what’s going on with work stuff or with the kids or anything like that, it just helps me to kind of debrief with myself a little bit. And so that’s been really useful.
Could you share more about what your writing process was like for this book? You do such a good job of capturing your insights and epiphanies and I’m wondering how you do that?
Well, the book happened in two pieces, which is that I started writing a book without realizing I was writing a book. Really, I started [with] the tweets, and not until a few months in, basically people [were] saying, “This should be a book.” I had just planned on tweeting until I didn’t need it for myself anymore because these were all just notes to myself. And so when I started really listening to people saying, “This should be a book,” and I realized that made sense, people wanted something they could give to someone else who was going through a hard time, when flowers and casseroles don’t quite cut it.
Then I had a conversation with my editor. We thought more about, “how do we give the tweets a little bit more heft, and a little bit more context?” Really just to have a book that’s quote after quote after quote, that didn’t really seem like that was going to be the thing. So my editor was like, “Okay, so what if there are some essays in this book that kind of contextualize the quotes? What can you write about that might give some context to the quotes?” And so really I sat down and thought about it.
And for me, the natural place to go was metaphor and I think that’s the poet in me. So while they’re essays, I approached them with a poet’s sensibility. And I think a lot of what has helped me get through difficult times is telling myself a different story about the experience. When you’re going through something really difficult, it’s easy to default to like, “Well, this is what’s happening.” And it’s usually an unkind narrative that we tell ourselves in that moment. “This person is leaving because I’m X.” Or, “This didn’t work out because I’m Y.” Our self-talk is so unkind. And so, a lot of what has helped me press on […] are metaphors that helped me reframe some of these experiences and think about them in a different way. If that makes sense.
That totally makes sense. It’s interesting how you say that our self-talk can be really unkind. How do you grapple with that personally and as a writer?
I think part of it is just being aware of it. Maybe the trickiest thing is realizing that the way that you think of something may not be the truth. You know, feelings aren’t facts. And so when you’re going through something really difficult, it’s just so easy to blame yourself or to get bogged down and think, “It’s not going to get any better. It’s going to continue to be this hard. I can’t do this.” And, really what the tweets were born from was me needing to believe something different.
I call myself a recovering pessimist for a reason. I was always — anyone in my family would tell you that I was the pessimist in the family, and I think part of it is just self-protection. I think it’s natural to think and expect the worst.
It’s like if something decent happens, you’re pleasantly surprised, but you haven’t set yourself up to have your hopes dashed. And so I’m always the person who expected the worst quietly and then if anything good happens, I would be pleasantly surprised.
But it’s really hard to function as a parent and as a professional and just as a human, when you’re going through something really devastating and you honestly don’t believe it’s going to get any better. You can’t get out of bed if you don’t believe it’s going to get any better. Part of what I was doing with the tweets really was a pep talk to myself into believing over time that it will get better.
After a while, I think you can start feeling the hope. Sometimes I say that hope is like a garment that didn’t fit very well. And I kept trying it on over and over again. At first it was really oversized and scratchy and terrible, but the more I tried it on, the better it fit and the better I felt and I was able to press through and believe my own story.
Another part of the reason it got better was because of the other unexpected thing that happened, which was that in a time when I felt more alone than I’d ever felt in my life, I started being really vulnerable on social media and realized I wasn’t alone at all. And this community happened where I basically just stood up in front of thousands of people and said, “My life is really hard right now, but I’m really trying,” and I just kept doing that every day. And no one laughed at me or said, “No it’s not, it’s not going to be okay.” People showed up and said, “Oh my gosh, it’s going to be fine. And actually, I’m going through the same thing and I really needed to hear that.” Or, “I went through that five years ago and look at the better place I’m in.” And just the act of saying it out loud every day and feeling the sense of community honestly, really, really helped.
You wrote about how loss can be generative. And would you say that this book is an example of that for you?
Oh, certainly. I’ve joked before, like I would definitely have chosen an intact family over a divorce in a book written in the wake of a divorce, but I wasn’t given that choice. So I do feel glad to have had the opportunity to have written it, not just because it was good for me to have written it. It definitely helped, writing this book helped me process a lot, but my hope is that reading this book might help other people going through their own sort of “what now?” times and struggles, especially this year with everything happening around the world and that it wasn’t all in pain. It wasn’t just that I had a terrible couple of years for nothing.
So yeah. This certainly feels like, I don’t know, I don’t really believe in lemonade from lemons, but it feels like I have something to show for how much that hurt.
In the book, you also talk about how strength comes from asking for help and in many ways how we are more resilient when we work together and we’re more like collaborative and I’m wondering, how do you think we can normalize asking for help?
It is really hard. And I think we are, especially Americans we’re such individuals. We’re all about individualism and personal freedom. And unfortunately we still, I think carry a lot of the bootstraps mentality where you are sort of the goal just to be able to get through something on your own and say, “Look how strong I was. I did this by myself.” When really, yes, I guess we could see that as a sign of strength, but it also seems terribly lonely and unnecessary. Why wouldn’t the sign of strength be: “Look, I was really hurting and look at all of these beautiful people who came and lifted this burden with me.” To me, it’s one of the most beautiful things that happened to me over the past two years, which strengthened friendships and also new friendships because a lot of people helped me carry what I had to carry.
And, it’s not that I couldn’t have done it by myself, but it would have been A) a lot harder, and B), a lot lonelier and honestly, a lot less enjoyable.
Smith’s new essay collection, “KEEP MOVING: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change“, is out now from Atria/One Signal Publishers.