Maggie Smith is the author of "Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change" (One Signal/Simon & Schuster, 2020), and three books of poetry, most recently "Good Bones" (Tupelo Press, 2017). Her poems and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Poetry, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Guardian and The Paris Review.
For our 2020 Holiday Care Package project we included a copy of Maggie Smith's latest book in most of our care packages. We thought it would be fun to also talk with the author about her inspiration and humor.
Humor Beats Cancer: What made you decide to write your most recent book?
Maggie Smith: The end of something is also the beginning of something else — we just might not know what that new thing is yet. I started writing "Keep Moving" when my marriage ended after almost 19 years and two children together. It began as a series of notes-to-self — little self pep talks I’d write each morning and post on social media. I wrote the posts for myself, day after day, even when I felt less than hopeful. I tried on hope like a garment over and over — and at first it was itchy and oversized and uncomfortable, but over time it fit better and better, and seeing the notes-to-self touch other people gave me a sense of community and purpose, too—a sense of not being alone when I felt alone.
HBC: Where do you get your inspiration to stay positive -- particularly during tough times?
MS: In "Keep Moving" I call myself a “recovering pessimist.” I came around to optimism rather late. I think, like many of us, I used pessimism as self-protection. If I didn’t get my hopes up, then I wouldn’t be as disappointed. But of course worst-case scenario thinking doesn’t protect us from worst-case scenarios — it just eats away at our capacity for joy in the present. So I’m trying now, every day, to remind myself that as many things can go right as can go wrong, and to keep an open (soft, vulnerable, hopeful) mind. I don’t know a way to joy and positive thinking except through gratitude — recognizing, even in extremely challenging times, what is still going right, and doing my best to feed those parts of my life.
HBC: Can you share a funny story from a tough journey in your life? What did you learn from it?
MS: There have been many times I’ve laughed when something I thought couldn’t get any worse just absolutely tanked. You know those times, when you’re like, “Well, this is as bad as it’s going to get,” because life feels like you’re trapped in a car that’s dangling off the side of a cliff, but then suddenly the car stereo starts blasting a song you can’t stand? Those “if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry” times, when you realize the absurdity of what you’re expected to handle? I don’t have a specific story, but I do laugh a lot about the hard stuff. I think we have to.
HBC: What advice do you have for our readers who face cancer to help them "keep moving”?
MS: When I’ve been at my lowest, it helped me to carve out time each day — even just a little time — to do something that reminded me of who I am at my core. For me it was writing, taking long walks, listening to music, spending time with people who loved me just as I was.
For other people it might be painting, running, meditating, birdwatching — whatever makes you feel like you. It’s so easy to lose perspective when we’re in pain, and to lose sight of the person who predated that pain — the you who existed before. I think finding ways to connect with yourself is so important.
HBC: What makes you laugh in your daily life?
MS: I laugh a lot in my daily life — and often at myself. My kids make me laugh daily, because they are naturally hilarious and have had impeccable comic timing since they were very small, but also my friends, my family, my partner. My dad, definitely. If I need to laugh at the end of a long day, once my kids are in bed, I can count on Broad City, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Arrested Development, Mike Birbiglia’s standup, films directed by Christopher Guest (Best in Show is a favorite), and the audiobook of really anything by David Sedaris.
HBC: Aside from your work, what are your top three favorite inspirational books?
MS: The books that helped me the most, and the ones I usually give to friends who are having a difficult time, are "Kitchen Table Wisdom" by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., "When Things Fall Apart" by Pema Chodron, and "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" by Sogyal Rinpoche.
HBC: How often are you confused for actress Dame Maggie Smith? Have you had any funny experiences because people got you two confused?
MS: You would laugh if you saw how much Harry Potter fan mail I received via email, and how many times I'm tagged in Instagram photos of Minerva McGonagall or the Dowager Countess of Grantham. On Dame Maggie Smith's birthday in December, I received so many messages wishing me a Happy 86th Birthday that I decided I should have some cake to celebrate, too. Any excuse for cake!