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Trying to Avoid Other People's Wisdom
The Body, Brain, & Books: Eleven Questions with Courtney Maum
What are you reading now?
I’m reading a galley of Emily Austin’s second novel, Interesting Facts About Space. Her dark humor is so infectious and odd and charming. It’s like Ottessa Mosfegh on MDMA.
What are your most beloved books from your youth? Did you ever hide any from your parents?
I was absolutely obsessed with Shel Sliverstein’s poetry when I was little—I read those books over and over and aped his style and illustrations in the “poetry collections” I created using my dad’s electronic typewriter and dot matrix printer. The Babysitter’s Club and Anne of Green Gables were next up, followed by The Secret Garden. When I was around ten, I started reading a copy of The Prince of Tides that was in a rental house we were having a vacation in and that one, I hid from my parents, definitely.
What’s your favorite book to reread? Any that helped you through a dark time?
I love re-reading Miranda July’s The First Bad Man. When I feel stuck in what I’m writing, or like everything I’m doing is old and stale, that book reminds me how fresh and weird and vibrant and eclectic fiction can be.
What’s an article of clothing that makes you feel most like you?
That’s a great question. My father recently gifted me this patchwork jacket that is lined with sheepskin. It’s something he bought for his wife, my stepmother, but she didn’t like it. It has these Paddington bear closures in the front, and on the whole, isn’t really my style, but I love this jacket. When I was younger, my dad was always giving me clothing that was a bit out of my comfort range, style-wise—like too flashy or eclectic— and so I also refused it or just didn’t wear it, and now I regret that because looking back, some of those gifts were so awesome—these wild ponchos and western jackets that I would kill for, now. So with this coat, I thought, go for it. And it’s one of my favorite things. Plus, it’s so cozy and well-made. I take it everywhere.
What’s the best piece of wisdom you've encountered recently?
Honestly, I think I’m trying to avoid other people’s wisdom. There’s too much of it on social media and in the media in general: drink this, blend this, use this supplement, don’t engage with toxic people, be this, do that, hydrate, sleep, relax. The truly best advice I’m getting at the moment is from an online equestrian video subscription I’m signed up for called “Featherlight Academy” run by a world-renowned Danish trainer, Yvet Blokesch. She specializes in working with troubled horses the world has given up on. Her whole approach is about asking the right questions, and listening to the horse’s response, and using “feel” instead of force. She always counsels people to relax when the going gets tough: when a horse is acting up, that’s when you relax and loosen the reins, instead of tensing up and yanking at the bit. That’s a piece of wisdom I apply daily not only in my riding, but in my writing and domestic life as well. I’m a pretty high-strung person, so actively working to chill out when things get stressful is something I need reminding of.
Tell me about any special relationship you’ve had with an animal, domestic or wild?
A few years ago, I rescued an ex-racehorse named Abuelita; a difficult red mare who had been in a bad situation of neglect and abuse. I have a rescue cat I also had to go through it with—because our cat also came from a rough background and had to learn to trust again, but I will say that getting a 12 pound animal to trust you is much different than a 1,200-pound horse. I actually wrote about Abuelita for The Guardian, and they sent a photographer out and everything—I was so proud of that accomplishment, proud that I went to bat for this horse even though everyone had given up on her. She hadn’t given up on herself though, and that made all the difference. Today, she’s sort of half domesticated and half wild—she’s living in a big pasture with her friend Lilly, rolling around in the dirt and getting to be a horse for maybe the first time.
What's one thing you are happy worked out differently than you expected?
When I was in my 20s, my first book was supposed to come out. I got an agent for it pretty quickly and then an editor interested in it at Doubleday that I was revising it for and with. When that editor quit her job, the whole thing fell apart. Long story short, the book didn’t come out for ten more years when I was with my third agent. At the time, I was heartbroken. Truly heartbroken. It took me two years to heal from that horrendous disappointment. But looking back now, I wasn’t ready for a book deal. I would have been intolerable. I would have been too green and cocky and probably would have made a mess of the whole thing. Plus, the writing wasn’t as good as it was ten years later, when I actually knew what I was talking about in that book (motherhood, marriage, infidelity, making a living as an artist). That lesson was hard one, for sure, and it hurt for a long time, but ultimately it made me put out a vastly better book (I AM HAVING SO MUCH FUN HERE WITHOUT YOU) than the one I’d originally drafted (THE BLUE BEAR).
Singing in the shower or dancing in the kitchen? Or another favorite way your body expresses itself?
I’m a singer in the car, never in the shower. I take quick showers! But I love to dance in the kitchen and to dance in general. I’m grateful to have a husband and friends who love a good dance party. Dancing is one of my favorite ways to blow off steam.
What are your hopes for yourself?
Well, in general, I hope that I get to stay healthy, that my loved ones remain healthy, and that my daughter continues to have a happy childhood. On the writing front, I’m working on a novel right now that I’m hoping to sell to a Big Five publishing house when it’s in perfect shape. I’ve done my last three books with indies (my first two books were with the Big Five) and after that deserved dive back into making art for art’s sake, and doing some quirkier projects, I feel ready to play on a larger field again. It’s really hard though, really, really hard, trying to write a novel that could potentially have a large readership. Hard because you need a plot! I deeply hope that I can make this novel work: I want it to work, badly.
What’s a kindness that changed your life?
When I was living in Paris in my twenties, I was in a toxic relationship with a man that had gotten pretty scary. I didn’t have a Visa or a lot of savings, and a friend of mine from K-12 school who I’d reconnected with (who was American, but also living in Paris) opened her home to me until I could get my sea legs back. I hadn’t been particularly nice to this person back in high school or middle school—we were in different social circles—and I will forever be grateful that she rose above that to offer me shelter and friendship when I really needed it. We are extremely close now; she was the Maid of Honor at my wedding.
What’s a guiding force in your life?
Probably, my work ethic. I don’t know where I would be without it. I had a friend who once told me that I was like a shark: If I stopped swimming I would die. I feel like that is true, perhaps to a detrimental extent. Sometimes I look at other creative people, like my husband for example, and feel jealous that he’s comfortable with thinking for long periods of time and just soaking in inspiration without being so focused on actually producing things, tangible results. But I am who I am, and I feel secure and happiest when I have a goal that I am working towards. Having goals and trying my best to meet them makes me feel safe and in touch with myself.
***is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking publishing guide that Vanity Fair recently named one of the ten best books for writers, BEFORE AND AFTER THE BOOK DEAL and the memoir THE YEAR OF THE HORSES, chosen by The Today Show as the best read for mental health awareness. A writing coach, executive director of the nonprofit learning collaborative “The Cabins,” and educator, Courtney's mission is to help people hold on to the joy of art-making in a culture obsessed with turning artists into brands. You can sign up for her publishing tips newsletter and online masterclasses at CourtneyMaum.com.
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Meet me in the comment section
Are you burned out on internet wisdom, too? Do you sing in the car? Have you ever taken in an animal that everyone else had given up on? What’s your relationship to setting and meeting goals?
Tell me all about it!