Poet Maggie Smith on embracing ambiguity (Transcript)

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ReThinking with Adam Grant
Poet Maggie Smith on embracing ambiguity
November 21, 2023

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.

My guest today is poet Maggie Smith. Her beloved and bestselling collections of poetry and prose include Good Bones, Keep Moving, and Goldenrod. And she recently published her debut memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful. If you haven't read it, it's a poignant exploration of rethinking her life in the wake of divorce. It sparked many thoughts and questions for me as a writer and a psychologist, especially about how we manage our emotions and forge our identities.

I think I'm a few minutes late because despite showing up in studio five minutes before start, I was so engrossed in rereading your book that I lost track of time.

[00:01:01] Maggie Smith:
That's the best excuse ever. Even if it's not true, I'm going to believe that it's true.

[00:01:06] Adam Grant:
It, it actually is true. I paused on page 101 on read two, realizing, wait, it's after 11.

[00:01:15] Maggie Smith:
The author awaits.

[00:01:17] Adam Grant:
Yes, she does. And I would, as much as I love your writing, I think I'd rather talk to you than read you.

[00:01:22] Maggie Smith:
Fair enough. I’ll take it.

[00:01:24] Adam Grant:
Although, I don't know. We'll see how this goes. Maybe, maybe I'll change my mind on that by the end of the conversation. Because—

[00:01:30] Maggie Smith:
Maybe I'll really disappoint you.

[00:01:32] Adam Grant:
No, no, not that. It's more that when reading you, it's easy to forget that you're a Buckeye. But when talking to you, I have to say, “Go Blue!”

[00:01:41] Maggie Smith:
Oh, right. Oh, I think I knew this about you. I think I knew this about you. Yes, I know. Well, I'm...

[00:01:46] Adam Grant:
I understand you've seen the light, though, because you were teaching at Michigan recently.

[00:01:49] Maggie Smith:
I did. I taught at Michigan last year. I drove up once a week, and they sent me a Michigan poetry t-shirt in the mail, which I was not allowed to wear in my parents’ home.

[00:01:58] Adam Grant:
Whatever I feel for Michigan football, I also feel for your work.

[00:02:03] Maggie Smith:
Oh, I'll take that. Thank you.

[00:02:04] Adam Grant:
You've earned it. So I have so many things I'm curious to talk to you about. I feel like, though, for our audience, we ought to begin with Good Bones, because that's where probably most of our listeners became aware of your existence. Is it reasonable to see if you might be willing to read the poem to us?

[00:02:21] Maggie Smith:
This is Good Bones.

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

[00:03:21] Adam Grant:
And I think with those words, you did make this place more beautiful. That being said, I have questions. So…

[00:03:28] Maggie Smith:
I hope I have answers.

[00:03:29] Adam Grant:
You know what? I, I have to say, one thing you do really well is you manage to make me think a lot without giving me the answers I thought I came for. And I want to talk about that too, but this, this poem went massively viral. It was everywhere. It was all over the internet. It was on TV. Um… Why do you think it struck such a chord with people?

[00:03:49] Maggie Smith:
In some ways, I think that's none of my business. Making things often feels like writing a message and rolling it up and putting it into a bottle and sending it off to sea and having no idea where it might turn up, on what shore, whose feet it might be found at, who might pick it up or throw it back or, or open it and what their reaction might be.

And what helps me make things, quite honestly, is not thinking too much about what shore it will land on or what it will mean to the person who fishes it out of the bottle. Obviously, I've had a lot of time to think and talk about this poem. It first went viral in 2016. So, it's been a few years now.

And, I think, mostly because this is what people tell me, I think people attach to it because it's ultimately hopeful, but it doesn't, it doesn't fail to acknowledge the difficulty. There's a kind of optimism in this poem that's not a Pollyanna kind of optimism. I think it's the kind of optimism we come to from having spent time in darkness, and therefore value light all the more.

[00:05:01] Adam Grant:
What I felt reading it was what psychologists call grounded hope.

[00:05:07] Maggie Smith:
Oh, I like that, which is maybe what I would call realism.

[00:05:11] Adam Grant:

[00:05:11] Maggie Smith:
Although I don't think that's quite right. You know, people are always like, “Are you an optimist?” And I'm like, mm, and I hem and haw a little bit about that. Um, but I like, I like that idea of grounded, grounded hope, hope that it also acknowledges reality.

[00:05:26] Adam Grant:
You are a realist with this streak of optimism in believing that things can be better and more beautiful. I did want to sort of push back, I guess, on the level of darkness expressed. So, if you'll indulge me, can I challenge maybe an assumption or two there?

[00:05:45] Maggie Smith:
Of course, although if you're going to come at me about statistics, I will tell you that I'm not a mathematician, and the math is metaphorical in this poem and not actual.

[00:05:54] Adam Grant:
Good. That might settle the first one then, which is I, I took some of your math too literally, and I thought, in crisis, especially if we think about during the pandemic, um, everyone remembered those awful instances of people hoarding soap and hand sanitizer and masks. It sort of looked like people were terrible, but actually if you look at the evidence, the dominant human response to suffering, um, is not selfishness, it's generosity and even altruistic self-sacrifice.

And so I thought even when I've studied, like, the tendency to be a giver versus a taker versus a matcher, I found that the vast majority of people are givers and matchers. Our default is to either want to help or trade fairly. And it's actually a small minority of people who want to screw others or actually enjoy harming others. And in fact, to enjoy harming others, we would call you a, a psychopath.

[00:06:44] Maggie Smith:

[00:06:44] Adam Grant:
So, so yeah, so you're, that was a metaphor for you, not a literal statement.

[00:06:49] Maggie Smith:
You know, they say don't read the comments. They say that for a reason. And I remember when the poem first went viral, people saying, “Well, that's not true.” Like, for every good person, there isn't a bad person. I don't care, actually, about the number of stones and birds in the world. It’s, it’s metaphorical math, not actual numbers. It's just, it comes really from the fact that feeling of things being so precariously balanced and that at any moment things can tip toward good or can tip the other direction and that feeling of having everything be so precariously balanced sort of actually defies the reality of the situation, which is things are often tipped much more in the favor of positive than, than negative.

[00:07:34] Adam Grant:
That makes a lot of sense. You talk about how, on the one hand, the world can be very dangerous, and on the other hand, you don't tell your kids this. And it reminded me of, of some recent research led by Jere Clifton, which shows that a lot of parents think they're protecting their kids by teaching them that the world is a dangerous place.

And yet, across a whole series of studies, people who grow up believing the world is generally good and safe end up with better mental health and more success. And it seemed like that intuition was at the very heart of your poem, that I can teach my kids that most people are good, that the most of the world is good, fearing that that's not true, but still preparing them to guard against the bad.

[00:08:18] Maggie Smith:
Yeah. I mean, I think you have to be fundamentally optimistic to raise children. I, I, I can't imagine bringing children into the world as, like, a fundamental pessimist. It seems completely counterintuitive to me. If you're a pessimist, you think the world is such a terrible place that your job is to populate it with people who can make it more beautiful.

That is not my plan. I have not deployed my children into this world to make it better. I believe it is a fundamentally beautiful, good place where things happen. And I want them to love it here because I brought them here with, by no choice of their own. I'm actually desperate for them to, to love it here because I brought them here by no choice of their own.

But yeah, a lot of the sheltering that I wrote about in Good Bones was also a function of the age that my children were when I wrote this poem. I had a toddler, and I think my kids were three and six. So, you're not really sitting down and having hard conversations about the world or politics with your kids when they're three and six. You know, having said that I don't keep as much from them now.

I mean, frankly, my daughter's in high school and has an iPhone that will ping her before I even have a chance to talk to her in the morning with the latest headlines. So there's no keeping the darkness, whether you believe it's 50 percent or not, there's no keeping it from them anymore. That was my job for a while, and now my job, I think, is to help them navigate that news that I can't protect them from.

[00:10:01] Adam Grant:
You end the poem with “you could make this place beautiful”, which is the title of your latest book, your first memoir.

[00:10:09] Maggie Smith:

[00:10:09] Adam Grant:
And there's so much in the book that's moving. I, it’s a rare book where I felt like I wanted to stop and process every page. Whereas most, even great books that I love, I'm in a hurry to get to the end. I want to know what happens, I want to see the resolution, and, and here I felt like I was doing the book a disservice if I didn't pause.

[00:10:31] Maggie Smith:
I love that. I think you were reading it right, if there's a right way to read this book, and I built a lot of white space into the book to give the reader that kind of processing time.

So if I'm going to drop something a bit heavy, even if it's only three or four sentences long, the rest of the page gets to be blank instead of just barreling on to the next idea to give you that sense of, okay, I'm gonna just sit with that for a beat, and then move on to the next.

[00:11:01] Adam Grant:
One, one of the things that really stuck with me on the first read and also the second is this point about ambiguity that surfaced a couple minutes ago, which is, you say this, you say this thing that to me is horrible, but I also recognize the power of it, which is that a book is supposed to begin with an unanswerable question. I think part of the reason I became a social scientist is I don't believe in unanswerable questions. I want an answer to every question.

[00:11:30] Maggie Smith:
I'm a poet. That's all we have.

[00:11:35] Adam Grant:
How do you accept that level of ambiguity? Like I, I, I mean, you just, you, you bring different lenses to it. Um. You turn it into words and into feelings and back and forth, but you very clearly leave it unresolved, not just for the reader, but it seems for you.

And if there's one thing we know from half a century of psychology on cognitive dissonance, it's that people do not sit well with that kind of ambiguity. Or at least many of us have a, a real aversion to it. So how, like, tell me, how do you sit in it?

[00:12:06] Maggie Smith:
Uncomfortably. I mean, I'll be really honest, uncomfortably. So much of life is built to avoid it. We plan to avoid it. We structure our lives to avoid it. Honestly, as a firstborn, sort of like, perfectionistic or recovering perfectionistic person. I'm not comfortable with ambiguity at all. I, I love that I seem to be, but I'm really not. And, and yet I think so much of suffering, not pain, but suffering comes from resistance to change and from resistance to ambiguity, um, from needing to know the answers.

I actually sat down, Adam, to write this book thinking so naively, as a poet, because I'm not a social scientist… I entered this book thinking if I apply enough heart and mind to the question of the unanswerable questions of “What happened? How did my marriage end? When was it okay? When did it stop being okay? Could I have done things differently? Should have my priorities have been different?” All of these things. I really thought if I apply enough thinking in writing this memoir that by the end of the book, I will have forgiven everyone who ever wronged me. I will have figured out my adult life. I will have solved all of these mysteries that are, in fact, not solvable.

And then I can just set it down and wash my hands and move on and write other books and be done with it. Spoiler alert: I didn't come away at the end of the book with all of the answers. But I think I became a lot more comfortable, not fully comfortable, but a lot more comfortable with the not knowing.

Through spending a year lowering myself into this mine of experience and spending all this time kind of bumbling around in the dark, digging for things and coming up at the end of the day and time for my kids to come home from school so I could be smiling, I really learned a lot about, about myself and my life and the way that all these different pieces of my life touch. But those finding out about yourself and having answers, those are different things.

[00:14:35] Adam Grant:
Yeah, I think they are. And that was one of the big things that I took away from this book, is that maybe answers are overrated and the quality of the questions we ask, um, is underrated. I think it was the first two questions that you had posed as unanswerable that really got me thinking on this track. The first one was, “How do I carry this?” And then the next was how to set it down.

[00:14:59] Maggie Smith:

[00:15:00] Adam Grant:
And I guess, you know, as I, as I reflected on those questions, I thought, I can make a list of resilience tips from psychology. I can back them with evidence. But crystallizing that those are the questions you want to ask might be more useful than any of those specific suggestions I could give you.

[00:15:17] Maggie Smith:
Maybe it's the poet in me. I've gotten comfortable with sort of l-living questions fully and not always expecting a clear answer. And I honestly am much more in love with things that I don't understand fully than I am by the things that I do. And in that case, I should love my life because I often don't understand it.

[00:15:40] Adam Grant:
You have a remarkable gift for turning feelings into words and words into feelings. And I hesitate to even call that a gift because I know it's a hard earned skill as opposed to something you magically woke up with one day. But the gift part for me is that it's a gift to readers. And I think one of the things that allows us to do is to, to see things in a new way.

You write a lot about emotions, and I love the way that you characterize not that fear was inside you, but you're inside fear. Not that you were angry, but that anger possessed you. And I think this is a different way of thinking about emotions than most people tend to. And I wondered if you could riff on it a little bit, ‘cause it led me to some interesting questions and maybe a, an aha or two.

[00:16:25] Maggie Smith:
As my divorce was happening, I felt angry a lot. And it felt like something I was carrying around, like in my body, physically carrying around, that heavy feeling. And I think that's often the way we describe it. It's in you. And then I read a book that described it in a completely different way, which is that you're actually inside the anger.

So it's holding you. And that is the opposite of being free. You know, being held in possession of something else, like that is the opposite of being free. My big wish is always sort of peace, right? Like, how do I get to greater peace? And to me, that's freedom from that kind of anger, that kind of negative energy.

And so rethinking it as something I was inside of made me approach it differently. Like, I don't have to get it out of me. I need to move myself. I need to free myself from this thing. And so approaching it as a “how do I get free” was a much more interesting approach than how do I, like, extract this part of me.

[00:17:35] Adam Grant:
That really strikes a chord for me. It makes me actually think about your message in a bottle metaphor. Um, I think one of my favorite takes on emotion in psychology is, uh, what’s called the Functional Theory of Emotion. And the basic idea is that emotions evolved for a purpose, to send us a signal. And sometimes that's directly to change our behaviors.

Like, the message from anger is stand up for yourself, you've been wronged. The message from fear is get out of danger. And then other times emotions seem to be teachable moments that give us a lesson for next time, and we learn to anticipate them and then to avoid them. So, with that in mind, I've always tried to apply the functional theory is to say, “Alright, so right now I'm feeling angry.”

And in your language, “Anger has taken hold of me.” It's possessed me. I'm in it. The best way for me to get out of it is to say, “What is the message that anger is sending me?” It's sending me a message that somebody is mistreating me. And if I don't pay attention to that message, then I’m gonna be a pushover or I'm gonna get taken advantage of.

And so once I've received the message, I no longer need the emotion, like, great. Lesson learned. And now I can choose the right course of action. I wonder if you think about this similarly or if I'm articulating an overly rationalist take on emotions here.

[00:18:54] Maggie Smith:
I think the way that I just sort of describe it to myself is that, like, all of experience and emotion are teachers. What do I have to learn from this experience? Even if it's painful, even if I feel terrible, there's still something, there's still a little teacher, maybe a big teacher in that moment if I'm willing to sit with it and listen to it instead of just pushing it away because it makes me uncomfortable or, you know, ignoring it or pretending it doesn't exist.

What do I have to learn from it? And I think you're right. I think that, like, anger can be a particularly useful teacher. It's also a hard teacher to listen to sometimes. It makes you tap into parts of yourself that aren't necessarily the most polished parts of yourself.

[00:19:47] Adam Grant:
I think what a lot of people do, um, is they, they get sort of taken over by intense emotions and then they, they sort of beat themself, themselves up afterward for not behaving in a way that they're proud of. And then they, they try to learn to manage their behavior differently next time. The, I guess I think the mistake there is that they allowed the emotion to stick around longer than needed.

Like, it’s, it's not the intensity of the emotion that was the problem. It was the duration in many cases, like you had an argument with someone, you got mad and instead of figuring out how to get the message from the anger in the first hour, it took you three weeks.

[00:20:32] Maggie Smith:

[00:20:33] Adam Grant:
And I wonder how you think about that? Because I think a lot of the book is you feeling like you sat with emotions that you didn't want for a long time.

[00:20:42] Maggie Smith:
If you are beating yourself up about how you feel, you're compounding it. For me, I found that one of the things that happened is I got into sort of a loop, a kind of rumination loop. And I think a lot of us do this, where we replay like a tiny film in our minds, like old arguments or conversations like, “Oh, if I had said this…” We sort of get in this little spiral where we are pacing in our minds until the carpet has, you know, a path in it, and it's really hard, once those grooves are in the carpet, to get your feet to travel a different path. You just normally kind of find that track and go around and around and around, and so part of writing the book for me was how can I understand it differently in order to walk a different path and not be stuck in the same kind of grooves of my own old, frankly, not that useful thinking about myself and my life?

[00:21:45] Adam Grant:
For those of us who love the, the data driven approach there's some work by Maya Tamir and Iris Mauss and their colleagues showing that, um, judging your emotions, um, actually hurts your well being over and above, like, looking at what the emotions are in the first place.

So people who feel bad about having negative emotions actually end up with poorer well being than people who recognize and accept that unpleasant emotions are part of life. And I think that, that really underscores your point that judging your emotions, it compounds it, as you've said, and remembering that just because something feels bad doesn't mean it's bad for you or you shouldn't have felt it.

[00:22:26] Maggie Smith:
Unfortunately, we don't always get to pick our lessons.

[00:22:31] Adam Grant:

[00:22:31] Maggie Smith:
If only we got to design our life syllabus, right, at the very beginning and say, "These are the things I would like to learn, and these are the kind and gentle and enjoyable ways via which I would like to learn those lessons.” But we don't get to do that. Life just makes up the syllabus as we go. And sometimes those lessons are ones we don't want to learn, and sometimes we learn them in ways we are not up for but that’s how it works.

[00:23:02] Adam Grant:
I want to make sure we do a lightning round before we get to f—a few other topics. What is something you've rethought recently?

[00:23:10] Maggie Smith:
My attitude toward and relationship to rest.

[00:23:16] Adam Grant:
Alright, I want one more sentence there.

[00:23:18] Maggie Smith:
It's hard for me to take a break. It's hard for me to rest. Um… it’s hard for me to give myself a beat. I tend to be a little bit overproductive sometimes, and so I'm trying to learn how to give myself breaks.

[00:23:33] Adam Grant:
I have to say I really appreciate the irony that somebody who writes so beautifully about humanity has difficulty recognizing her own humanity.

[00:23:42] Maggie Smith:
Yeah, it, isn’t that ironic?

[00:23:45] Adam Grant:
Don’t you think?

[00:23:46] Maggie Smith:
Or just a bummer?

[00:23:46] Adam Grant:
Uh, no, it's not, it’s not a bummer, actually. It's reassuring to the rest of us. I know this might be, like, choosing a favorite child, but do you have a favorite poem?

[00:23:56] Maggie Smith:
My usual go to answer for this is the poem, Song, by Brigid Pegeen Kelly. I mean, I have lots of favorite poems, but if, if you said, “You could be buried with one poem, what would the poem be?” I think I would choose Song.

[00:24:12] Adam Grant:
And then a favorite writing tip?

[00:24:12] Maggie Smith:
Read everything you write out loud. Just read it out loud. You will hear the splinters that need to be sanded before you see them. If you read it out loud and it doesn't sound right, type it up as sentences with spaces in between each sentence, so that you can see the sentence variety, length, structure at a glance, and then you will likely see why things start feeling clunky because you have repeated sentence structures over and over again, or sentence length, in a way that's not helping you.

[00:24:43] Adam Grant:
I do feel the need to say that as somebody who only started reading my writing out loud three years ago, it's excruciating.

[00:24:51] Maggie Smith:
Oh, it, and it should be. It's gonna hurt, but it's like a, it hurts so good.

[00:24:56] Adam Grant:
So good for the reader.

[00:24:58] Maggie Smith:
So good for the reader.

[00:24:59] Adam Grant:
Eventually. What's the worst piece of advice you remember receiving?

[00:25:04] Maggie Smith:
Write what you know.

[00:25:06] Adam Grant:
Instead of write what you know, you should write what?

[00:25:10] Maggie Smith:
Write what you can imagine, write what you're curious about, write, write into questions. I mean, actually, write what you know is, I think, the worst thing you could possibly do as a poet. You know, of course, if you're writing a manual, writing what you know is exactly what you're supposed to be doing.

People don't want your questions in the manual. They want to know how to use their rice cooker. But that's not what people want from a poem, you know? And so, the, the best way to kill a piece of writing, for me, is to think you know best, and to go into it sort of ego forward, as if you know where the piece is going.

And the, the best way to sort of save, or open yourself up to a piece of writing, is to forget what you know and go in with lots of questions and curiosity and openness and listen to where the writing is taking you. And don't be sort of wedded to some sort of previously decided upon outcome for whatever that piece is.

[00:26:10] Adam Grant:
Well put. Last lightning round question. What is a question you have for me?

[00:26:18] Maggie Smith:
Oh. Okay. What is your favorite part of the writing process?

[00:26:25] Adam Grant:
Number one is the eureka moment of figuring out the insight or the story or the study that's gonna fill a gaping hole that's been just sort of, like, taking over my entire field of vision and thought process for weeks or months.

That is incredibly satisfying. That would be one. I think another is just starting to write something new. The feeling of having a blank page and getting to go anywhere. And then the last is, I think, honestly, I think my favorite part is, yeah, no, I think, I'm rethinking this now. I, I think my favorite part of—

[00:27:05] Maggie Smith:
Wait, you're rethinking this, you said?

[00:27:07] Adam Grant:
How dare I? Who would do such a thing? What a terrible idea. No one should ever rethink anything at all. We should just—

[00:27:14] Maggie Smith:
How on brand.

[00:27:15] Adam Grant:
We, we should just freeze our beliefs and put them in place for a lifetime. Uh, yeah, no, I, I actually think my favorite part of the writing process is, is flow, but not, not just the ordinary flow of time disappeared and an hour zipped by and I, I didn’t even realize I was working. It's the flow of feeling like I'm in the story, or I'm part of the narrative. That's my favorite. What about you?

[00:27:43] Maggie Smith:
I love that. I also love that Eureka moment. I love that sort of honeymoon period with a piece of writing when you're just starting and you think, “I might be on to something.” It's like the first date that you have with the piece of writing and you haven't actually like, okay, seen the way they pick their teeth yet, or seen the way that piece of writing might let you down. Like, are their socks mismatched? Oh my goodness. I think my favorite part is actually revision, the sort of re-seeing part of, of getting into a piece of writing that I've started and realizing, oh no. Like, actually, I have the wrong words in the wrong order, not the right words in the, in the right order, but trusting myself to get there.

Maybe it sounds a little masochistic, but I really like the feeling of when things aren't quite clicking, and I get to do the kind of creative problem solving around how to get it to work.

[00:28:43] Adam Grant:
That's so interesting. I, I think that might be my least favorite part of the writing process. Literally, because the joy of discovery is gone, and once I know there's a problem, I want a more linear path to it. And the fact that I have to go on all these, like, false starts and dead ends and wrong turns in order to find it is, to me, really frustrating.

[00:29:03] Maggie Smith:
But there, the joy of discovery is not gone, because inside all of those problems is a discovery. Every time you fix something, you're discovering something new. Every time you're like, “Oh, I know why it's not working,” because the end is supposed to be the beginning. know why it's not working. It's because the title is wrong, and the whole umbrella for this piece doesn't make any sense. You get to discover every time you, you kind of realize where you'd gone wrong in the first draft.

[00:29:35] Adam Grant:
Well, you’ve given me something to rethink about.

[00:29:39] Maggie Smith:
How dare I?

[00:29:39] Adam Grant:
I, I am struck though, as I compare our answers or think about what's missing from both of our answers, neither of us mentioned the euphoria of writing a sentence that's maybe not perfect because we're both recovering perfectionists, but, um, like, a sentence. I love the feeling of “I'm really proud of that sentence, and I'm not sure I could write a better one”.

[00:30:02] Maggie Smith:
No, that's a good feeling. I mean, the feeling of being done and satisfied is also a good feeling. I, I just think that feeling is so short lived because for me, the real pleasure of writing is in the writing. For people who want to be writers, I always say, like, well, you have to love doing it more than you have to love having done it.

[00:30:23] Adam Grant:
Yes. And this is, of course, something else that psychologists find, which you didn't need them to find ‘cause you already know it, which is enjoying the process of writing is probably more important for maintaining motivation than being interested in the content of what you're writing.

[00:30:40] Maggie Smith:
I love this. Honestly, I wish I could just sort of like have you, if I were riding on a motorcycle, you could be in the sidecar. Whenever I had an idea, I would look over to you and you would say, “There, that is actually based in real research,” because I'm also just constantly spouting off ideas that I have no grounds to assert, and yet you are helping me by saying, “Maggie, that's true, and I can prove it.”

[00:31:05] Adam Grant:
Well, send me your, your observations anytime, and me to say, "Hey, there's a study that backs this up.”

[00:31:11] Maggie Smith:
I love this.

[00:31:11] Adam Grant:
Makes me occasionally feel useful. I mentioned before, uh, how much I marvel at your ability to turn your feelings into words, but also to give your words such deep feeling for the reader. Can you talk to me a little bit about how you do that?

[00:31:26] Maggie Smith:
The short answer is probably not. And not because I'm being coy or because it's like a secret family recipe that I can't share with you. I don't know. I often don't understand it. I mean, and I think that's part of what makes writing fun for me, which is why I keep doing it.

If it were easy, and if I understood where the stuff came from constantly, I probably wouldn't do it as often because it would lose its mystery to me. Sometimes I find a poem and I know because it's sitting on my desktop that I wrote it. It's in Garamond 12. It sounds like me, and in fact, like there's just an experience I've had that lives inside the poem, yet I don't remember writing it, and it feels, I feel already estranged from that piece of writing, and I have that experience looking through the memoir now, I have that experience looking back through my books of poems where I get to something and I think, “What part of me thought that?” Like, what part of me accessed that metaphor, or that image, or how did, how did that actually happen? And I, and I don't really fully understand it.

[00:32:43] Adam Grant:
Well, I think this is why a lot of, a lot of creators, artists, writers of all kinds talk about having a muse that's a little bit fickle. Um, but it's also in some ways, it's the more uplifting version of your point that emotions take us over and possess us, isn't it?

[00:32:58] Maggie Smith:
Yeah, like, that sort of, that feeling of flow, I think is also something you can get inside of that's kind of holding you, although I never want to leave it. Somehow, somehow, I haven't found a way to be possessed for years and years and years on end by that kind of feeling, but when I, when I can get there with enough sort of, like, time and, and, and space, it's the best feeling of just sort of feeling like something is coming through you in a way that is not logical, really, and, and hard to teach. You know, I can teach craft elements. I, you can teach creative writing. Like, you can absolutely teach people how to express themselves and, and make their writing better. But that kind of, like, where does it come from is different for everyone. And it's not really teachable as far as I can tell.

[00:33:54] Adam Grant:
Not that I can tell either. Maggie, when I was thinking about the emotions that you don't just express in your writing, but you actually transmit to your readers, I guess the dominant emotion that I had throughout… I’ve had it in your poetry, and I definitely had it in the memoir, was what psychologists call aesthetic chills. Um, one of my most brilliant colleagues said that the top aesthetic chills moment for her in the book was the cento chapter. Describe a little bit what you did there. I thought it was incredibly original, and I also think it's something that works not just in writing, but in life.

[00:34:30] Maggie Smith:
Yeah, so a, a cento is a kind of poem in which you actually do know writing. So if you are someone who wants to try poetry or if you're a poet and you're stuck, like you just don't have any ideas, a cento is the perfect form to write because you just go to your bookshelf or go to the library, pull off a bunch of different books of poems, and you assemble a poem using the lines of other poets.

You may not have written any of the lines. But you've collaged it together to make a new narrative or a new whole that is yours. And so, I was thinking about poetic forms as I was writing the memoir, thinking about repetitive forms and how that kind of felt like a metaphor for life and living in the same place.

And I thought about the Cento as a kind of assembly project. And I wanted different pieces of the book to get to live together and touch. It’s sort of metaphorical for me, in a way, because writing a memoir, it's almost like having a giant map of your life sitting in front of you, and then getting to sort of fold it so different pieces touch. In that way, in that really sort of tactile way, and so in this book, I pulled sentences from the entire book and reconfigured them in a sort of collage of words into one chapter so that they get to sort of ping off of each other and be in conversation with one another in a way that they're not in their respective chapters.

[00:36:09] Adam Grant:
One of the things that it made me wonder about is, I, I know a lot of people who journal. I know people often like to read and reflect back on their old journals to get a sense of how far they've come or just to even see that they've kept moving, to, to borrow a phrase of yours.

[00:36:24] Maggie Smith:

[00:36:25] Adam Grant:
And it, it made me wonder if this is an exercise more people might be interested in doing with their journals, to say, take a line, take a, a thought, an emotion, an experience from four years ago and three years ago and two years ago and stitch that together into a quilt of who you're becoming.

[00:36:41] Maggie Smith:
Oh, I love that. I love that as a prompt, honestly. Because I actually did, and I had a feeling, I had a hunch, that when I let some of these different sentences and ideas and emotions live side by side, like two rocks coming together, that they would, there would be sparks. And I did find that. And seeing things in... In new context, you know, reframing old ideas in a new context, it was really transformative.

I mean, writing that chapter felt different from writing the others. I felt like I was lassoing a bunch of myself into one place. And getting to spend time with those words all together. So I think that could be useful for other people to try. To see what they come up with. What the sparks are.

[00:37:28] Adam Grant:
It seems like a, a very meaningful exercise. I would say try it at your own risk, but…

[00:37:24] Maggie Smith:
And reward.

[00:37:35] Adam Grant:
Yes. There, hopefully there is a reward there. You've said, Maggie, that you often find it easier to write a hard truth than to speak it. And I thought that was profound, and it, it made me think right away about why is that? Is it the self distancing effect that when you say something, it feels real, and it feels like it's yours, whereas when you write it, you're separated from it, and it's on a piece of paper, or it's on a computer screen, and you, you don't have to take ownership over it? And I was just curious to hear you elaborate on that a little bit. Or tell me my explanation is wrong.

[00:38:11] Maggie Smith:
No, I think that's true. Even when you're writing about yourself, even when you're writing an “I” statement, e-even an “I feel” statement, there is still a distance between you and then the sort of you that you're writing about on a page.

There, and there's a physical distance, and you're not speaking it out loud so it's not in your own voice. I’m, I’ve actually had people come up to me and say, “Oh, I, I listened to your memoir on audio, on Audible and then I bought it so I could read it. And it's a really different experience hearing you narrate your own story.”

And I thought, “Oh, that might be too intimate for me.” I don't think I could listen to myself read this book aloud, personally. I like the distance of having words on white paper. It's cooler to me, temperature wise. Writing, speaking is hotter for me, temperature wise. Just like, first person and present tense are hotter modes of communication than third person and past tense.

And so there are all these like formal devices we can come up with, almost like oven mitts to hold hot material away from ourselves. See, I can't stop talking in metaphor. I just apologize to the listener.

[00:39:27] Adam Grant:
I, I can't believe you just apologized just for speaking metaphor. Like, okay, at least—

[00:39:33] Maggie Smith:
I do that all the time.

[00:39:34] Adam Grant:
I mean, it's terrible. It's one of the skills I most want to have. And as somebody whose default is to be cognitive and abstract, like that, that ability to be concrete and emotional, I'm like, you're apologizing for a virtue, a strength, an enviable skill. We started on you reading Good Bones, and I want to land there because I, I think it says something about ambivalence, emotional ambivalence.

That on the one hand, it's pervasive, and yet on the other hand, we're always trying to make it go away. I feel like that theme is reflected throughout your writing. It's all over your poems and your books. I think, I think your work has made me value emotional ambivalence more than I used to and made me want to embrace it more as opposed to trying to erase it.

[00:40:23] Maggie Smith:
I mean, of course, my instinct is like, well, what other kind of emotion is there? I don't know how to live not in the gray. That's where poetry happens. That's where most relationships live. I think that's where life happens. Any real suffering I have felt in my life has been from me trying to make something gray not gray. It's been from me trying to make something black and white that cannot be, which is mostly everything in my life. Um, parenting and writing and being a friend and a daughter and a partner. There's nothing certain about any of these things. There's no hard and fast rules. There's usually no right and wrong.

So all of that goes out the window. And so here we are back to how do we live comfortably with ambiguity and emotional ambivalence? And the answer is like, comfortably might be a stretch, but I do think, you know, it's the idea that, like, pain is part of life, but suffering is optional. And if suffering comes from being resistant to change and insisting on things having to be a certain way, then the only way to get free from that is to lean into the, and accept the ambiguity and the ambivalence and, and sometimes just shrug. Like, I really, I'm learning to shrug in middle age more than I ever did in my teens or twenties or even thirties. Shrugging was not something I could do. I couldn't just be like, “Well, it is what it is.” So being able to shrug now, even in a sad shrug, it feels better, if that makes sense.

[00:42:16] Adam Grant:
It does. Thank you, Maggie. Wow. Your words have made this place more beautiful for many, many people, including me.

[00:42:24] Maggie Smith:
Goodness, thank you. This has been a joy.

[00:42:32] Adam Grant:
In the spirit of Maggie's perspective, today's takeaway is not gonna be an insight. It's a question I'm left with. Actually, two related questions. If most things in life are ambivalent, how do we recognize the pain without turning it into needless suffering? And how do we appreciate the good without becoming purveyors of toxic positivity?

I don't know, but I'm eager to start finding out.

ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard.

Our fact checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.

[00:43:23] Maggie Smith:
I, actually, I love Ann Arbor and I realized it's really probably like a SWAT team is about to kick into my glass window beside me right now wearing full Buckeye gear because someone has just heard me say in Columbus, Ohio that I love Ann Arbor. Um, you know, we're not even allowed to say Michigan here during football season. Like my son says McChicken to avoid saying Michigan.

[00:43:49] Adam Grant:
There are a few things I enjoy more than a, a native Ohioan and, and Buckeyes singing the praises of Ann Arbor and the Wolverines. Made my day.

[00:43:56] Maggie Smith:
Wait, I mean, no one’s gonna listen to this, right, Adam, no one's going to hear this. Okay.

[00:44:02] Adam Grant:
Nope. No. In fact, um, there, there's already, um, an AI tool that's gonna edit this part out for anyone who lives in Ohio or listens from Ohio.

[00:44:10] Maggie Smith:
I, I might be, I might be sort of like moved quietly out of state after this.