Maggie Smith on How She Approached Plot in Her Memoir
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Maggie Smith about her new memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: Can you talk about plot? You know, memoir is our life, it’s not a plot and you ask questions about plot in the book, but you also write it’s not about the plot, it’s just about what it means. Why was this idea of plot so interesting to you that it was something you came back to throughout the book?
Maggie Smith: I think probably because I was approaching this book as a poet. So, plot has not been on my list of things to make, right? I haven’t needed that. That’s not been on my radar. I’m not a fiction writer, I write poems, I write essays. And so, going into this memoir, I realized, okay, so I’m having to tell the story of my adult life. What does that look like?
When I think about story, I think about that famous plot diagram that looks l kind of like a steep mountain, right, where we’re kind of climbing up the rising action, and then we hit this sort of peak crisis, and then we have the falling action in the resolution. And I was imagining, you know, being a Gen X, or being an 80s kid, and having the teacher lay that transparency back when we used to have transparencies instead of smart boards, and the teacher would lay this transparency and would draw in a marker and shine the light up to the front of the class.
And in that way, I just kept thinking, this as a transparency, this rising action and this plot structure, I don’t know how to overlay this or map this onto my lived life, like lived experience does not feel as neat as writing the plot of a story. First, this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. And then if we’re lucky, they lived happily ever after. It just didn’t feel that neat. So, in the same way that I felt like the vignettes were the most psychologically true way of telling the story, I also really wanted to have a discussion with the reader about what am I doing here? How do I tell you this story? I’m trying to tell you the story, but how do I do it? And to kind of show, you know, in the Wizard of Oz, you get to sort of peek behind the curtain and see the man working the levers?
I wanted to show the reader behind the curtain of the writing process a little and say, hey, me, me to you, person to person, this is something I’m struggling with. I’m not sure how to tell this story. I’m not sure where I am in the plot of my life. I’m not sure if it’s even helpful to think of it that way, because this is a life not necessarily a quote unquote, story. And if it had been a book, if I could step back objectively, and read this experience, like a book, the reader in me would have seen certain things coming, because I think there is foreshadowing in our lives.
You know, that’s what we call red flags. Or little things that maybe we kind of shake off, because we don’t really want to look at them, or the sort of tiny cracks that can happen in a relationship that foreshadow the large the larger crack when they finally all meet and become something that is a little larger than a small hairline fracture. But we’re not invited to look at our lives that way unless we’re writing about it. And so, in some ways, writing it was a gift because it allowed me to look back and process some of some of what now I see as foreshadowing for some of what happened later.
Maggie Smith is the author of the national bestsellers Goldenrod and Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, as well as Good Bones, named one of the Best Five Poetry Books of 2017 by the Washington Post and winner of the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal in Poetry; The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, winner of the 2012 Dorset Prize and the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal in Poetry; and Lamp of the Body, winner of the 2003 Benjamin Saltman Award. Her new memoir is You Could Make This Place Beautiful.