Interview: Maggie Smith, Author Of 'Keep Moving' Smith says she started writing Keep Moving as her marriage was ending. It began as a series of affirmations she wrote for herself on Twitter; she found that the posts were helping other people too.
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For Poet Maggie Smith, An Ending Was The Beginning Of Her New Book

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For Poet Maggie Smith, An Ending Was The Beginning Of Her New Book

For Poet Maggie Smith, An Ending Was The Beginning Of Her New Book

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right. Have you ever had this experience? You are having the most awful, terrible day and a stranger does something kind, and it nearly brings you to tears. Maybe they wave you on instead of honking when you cut them off in traffic, or maybe you get to the front of the coffee line to find the guy in front of you already paid for your drink. And in the midst of your total misery, this total stranger has done you a good turn, and it means - for that moment, it means the world.

Well, reading Maggie Smith's new book feels kind of like that. It is a meditation on kindness and hope and how to move forward through grief. It is titled "Keep Moving." And Maggie Smith is with us now. Hey there.

MAGGIE SMITH: Hello.

KELLY: Welcome. And if I may start by asking - what was going on in your life when you sat down to write this?

SMITH: Well, every ending is also a beginning. So when my marriage ended, I began writing this book without knowing I was writing a book.

KELLY: Huh.

SMITH: Yeah, "Keep Moving" began as sort of notes to self that I wrote for myself each day to pep talk myself through this really dark time. And I posted them on Twitter as a way to hold myself accountable and to sort of share my struggle with others, and a couple of surprising things happened (laughter) because of those tweets. I found my way into a new kind of optimism that I hadn't experienced before. And I found that the posts were really meeting people where they were in their lives at that time, too.

KELLY: It sounds like this is a case of you sitting down and writing the book that you really wish somebody else had written because, man, you really needed it; you needed somebody to be telling you these things in that moment.

SMITH: Yeah, and I think, you know, other people can tell you in hard times you're going to be fine, but if you're not telling yourself that, sometimes it's hard to believe. And I think one of the things I realized when writing this book is the most important conversation that you have each day is the one you have with yourself. And if that's not a kind and gentle, sort of brave-making conversation, then what other people are telling us sort of slips off of us.

KELLY: Well, give us an example. You've got the book there, right?

SMITH: I do.

KELLY: Pick a page that got you through an awful moment. Read it to us and, if you would, tell us about the moment and how it helped.

SMITH: Here's one. (Reading) Focus on who you are and what you've built, not who you'd planned on being and what you'd expected to have. Trust that the present moment, however difficult, however different from what you'd imagined, has something to teach you. Keep moving.

I think in some ways this really summarizes what I was trying to do with the book, which is to think about reimagining my life at a time where I thought it was over. You know, it felt like a catastrophic change. If I imagined a Venn diagram of emotions, I think my feelings was sort of that spot where fear and sadness and anger and confusion overlap (laughter).

KELLY: Yeah.

SMITH: That's not a good Venn diagram. And I think we're...

KELLY: It's a dark one.

SMITH: It's a dark Venn diagram. And I think we are all feeling a lot of that now because of the pandemic, because of so much unrest in this country and in the world. And so we have to think about not the life that we had last year, but thinking about what the life we have now still offers us and what is still possible in the future.

KELLY: I was thinking about that parallel, too, because not all of us have gone through divorce, but every single one of us are living through the pain of this year and this pandemic. And so many people are waking up every day and thinking, what now? How can I possibly feel hopeful about anything? It's fascinating to hear you talking about a very private personal moment, and yet there's a common thread there, which is hope, I guess, and rebirth.

SMITH: It is. I mean, I sort of joke in the book that I'm a recovering pessimist...

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: ...Which is to say that before my divorce, I used pessimism almost as self-protection, which is to say, oh, I won't get the job; they probably won't publish the poem. And I think a lot of us do that as a way of guarding against getting our hopes up because if we expect the worst, we'll just be pleasantly surprised if things go well. And if we expect the worst and the worst happens, well, then we were right.

And I realized in the middle of this time, A, I couldn't live like that because I just couldn't function with that sort of pessimism - either as a writer, as a human, as a parent. But also really thinking about it logically - as many things can go right as can go wrong. And, you know, remembering that was really important and remains really important to me.

KELLY: As a recovering pessimist - and you're writing all these pithy, hopeful, kind, self-loving passages - I have to ask, did you believe yourself at the time (laughter) or were you - did you have to kind of convince yourself of this as you went? Was it a case of, I'm going to write this, that this is going to sound hopeful, and I hope that tomorrow it sure feels that way?

SMITH: I sort of say that hope was like a garment that I tried on every day. And at first, it was very oversized and itchy and misshapen and uncomfortable, and it didn't fit at all. The idea of finding optimism in your darkest moment seems very counterintuitive, and it felt really strange, even though I knew it was probably what was best for me.

But something really strange happened, which is that the more I tried it on for size, the better it fit, and also, the more that I told myself it's going to be OK - and I told myself that publicly, being vulnerable in front of thousands of people - the response I got from people who were going through their own struggles, whether it was divorce or a diagnosis, the comfort that other people were receiving from what I was writing actually gave me a sense of purpose and made me feel better in that moment, which was completely unexpected.

KELLY: Well, I wonder if there's a reading you want to send us out on.

SMITH: I would be happy to. Here's a little one. (Reading) Do not turn away joy. Even if it arrives at an inconvenient time, even if you think you should be grieving, even if you think it's too soon, joy is always on time. Keep moving.

KELLY: That is Maggie Smith reading from her new book, which is titled "Keep Moving: Notes On Loss, Creativity, And Change."

Maggie Smith, I loved this. Thanks so much. Thanks for coming and talking to us.

SMITH: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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