Calling a Woman Selfless Isn’t a Compliment

In her memoir "The Year of the Horses," Courtney Maum finds healing and empowerment through riding

Courtney Maum chasing a horse
Photo by Kenzie Odegaard Fields

I first met Courtney Maum in 2011 when she was writing the “Celebrity Book Review” column for Electric Literature. Through the medium that is Courtney’s mind, iconic pairings such as John Mayer reviewing The Marriage Plot and Anne Hathaway reviewing The Woman Upstairs ensued. Despite their obvious farcical nature, occasionally readers and sometimes publicists mistook them for real, became embarrassed upon realizing they weren’t, and wrote us angry emails about it. Somewhere amidst forwarding these angry emails back and forth, Courtney and I became friends. 

Since then, she has written three novels—one contemporary, one slightly speculative, and one historical—a guide to publishing, and now a memoir, The Year of the Horses. Through these books, she has exhibited extraordinary talent and enormous range. Who amongst us can channel John Mayer, fictionalize Peggy Guggenheim, envision a touchless society, explain publishing, and write an exceedingly vulnerable, heartfelt memoir about healing oneself through horses? Courtney Maum can. 

The Year of the Horses chronicles the author’s bout of, and tentative recovery from, debilitating depression and insomnia. She also examines the sources of these struggles, including marital rifts, childhood wounds, and the burdens of caregiving. Horses play a key role in her recovery, but Maum extracts larger lessons about the expectations of motherhood and the soulful value of acting just for pleasure, and just for yourself, especially as a woman. 

Like Courtney, I’m a horse lover and amateur equestrian, but the story of healing in The Year of the Horses will resonate with anyone who has ever put themselves last, and given up what they love for underexplored, “selfless” reasons.

Halimah Marcus: Until this point, you’ve been primarily a novelist, with three novels and one book on publishing. How did you decide that this book and these stories needed to be a memoir? 

Courtney Maum: Well, the answer is by trying to write it as a novel. I tried it in all different iterations, and it just wasn’t working. And to be honest, I just abandoned the project. It wasn’t until it was in 2017, when I wrote an essay about trying to learn polo as an almost 40 year-old for The New York Times. The correspondence in response to that essay really surprised me. I got these really tender emails from people that said, thank you. That gave me the courage to put myself first, and ultimately gave me the courage to explore. 

I do see this book as a celebration of doing something you love, but at which you’re not necessarily super talented. Our culture really works against that. You’re encouraged and sometimes forced to pick the part of yourself that can be turned into a brand, and that you can make money off of. 

HM: You write about trying to sneak a horse subplot into another novel. You even refer to riding and writing as “church and state,” as in, they needed to be separated for you to finish the novel. I felt this was such an interesting choice of words. I was wondering if there was something that was difficult about pairing your writing life with your riding life. Can you talk about how they are separate, and the process of integrating them? 

CM: I really tried to write this book for people who don’t know anything about horses. You don’t necessarily need to know what it feels like to be on a horse, or around a horse. But you do need to feel what it is to have wanted something and not gotten it right away. Maybe it’s love. Maybe it’s something you’re really striving for professionally. This visceral drive and very hard work towards something that you want for reasons that maybe don’t make total sense to everyone around you. To me, it’s very similar to what writers are doing on the page, especially writers who are not yet published authors. You know, it’s a weird thing for a lot of people to hear: “Oh, you’re getting up at four or five in the morning before your day job to work on a book that no one’s asked you to write, to work on something that you’re not getting paid for. You’re taking yourself away from your family or friends on the weekends to make up characters in your head.” It doesn’t make sense to people unless you are in that world, right? Writers understand the hustle and the struggle and the yearning and the feeling that you are not quite sane in your head because you want something that is sort of make believe. I find riding such a similar quest, because ultimately, riding matters to us equestrians more than it’ll ever matter to anyone else. Just like our writing matters to us more than it’ll ever matter to someone else, even when we get lucky enough that readers start to connect with our work. 

HM: I really responded to this definition of joy that you borrow from Sally Swift’s Centered Riding, which describes the particular kind of joy that’s able to occur when “the right brain is allowed to take over the responsiveness of your body with no interference from the left.” 

CM: That actually brings me back to your question about the overlap between horseback riding and creative writing. The flow state on a horse is very hard for me to achieve. I am nervous rider. I still struggle with the worst-case scenarios that I explain in the book. But I do achieve it, not for long periods of time. I’m talking about maybe 30 seconds or a minute. I will hit that state of flow where there’s no fear and there’s no worry. I’m one with the animal, and we’re just going into whatever the future brings with joy. Thankfully, I am still quite able to reach that place in my writing. I think all of us writers know what it feels like when you hit that vein, in any kind of genre. Nothing else exists. The apartment could be on fire, and you probably still try to reach the end of the paragraph because you’ve hit something totally life sustaining. It really feels like that. To me, it’s more than the joy. It’s like elation. 

HM: We don’t think of physicality as having to do with creativity as much, unless it’s dance, for example. But I love the idea that flow state is kind of the marriage of physicality and creativity. 

Sitting in front of your computer is not always going to get the words written.

CM: I’ve always questioned this positioning of writing as a sedentary activity, and that that’s romantic or sort of idyllic. It’s a privileged thing, to sit and write. But you know, perhaps we should celebrate the weird: walking, running, dancing around the bed, sex, masturbation; the physical things that us writers do to get to a place where our bodies can actually stay in the chair. Because it’s not easy. It’s actually quite hard, physically. I do most of my breakthrough thinking—not on a horse, because I need to be focused on a horse—but running very short runs. And I just have these breakthroughs. I’ve got some plot problem, or a character that needs a new profession. Whatever the hell it is. Normally, I’ll go for a 15-minute run, in my work clothes, by the way. My poor neighbors. Because I don’t want to take the time and add pressure on myself by making it some big thing. I’ll literally cup my breasts because I don’t have a jog bra on when I’m working, and I’ll run around town until I solve the problem. Sitting in front of your computer is not always going to get the words written, actually. 

HM:  You write that “sadness was the first big secret you kept from your mother.” Secrecy is a theme that runs through the memoir. Secrecy and silence. When you were a teenager and began to restrict your eating, everyone around you could see what was going on, but no one was willing to confront you about it. I’m wondering if you can shed any light on why eating disorders have so much silence around them, particularly when it comes to parents talking to their children? 

CM: Gosh, I wish I could shed light on it, but I don’t see the light yet. You know, there’s a pretty pivotal scene in the book where my therapist is trying to encourage me to just accept that I had some really painful experiences in my past. He suggested that I had neglectful parents, and I got a little hung up, like, “How could they possibly have neglected me? I had everything a child could want for.” And then I remembered, “Well, shoot, you know, actually, I was sitting right there in their house, starving myself, and no one ever said anything.” 

I truly have no answers. I think there’s a lack of courage for some people. Maybe it’s a generational thing. You know, I certainly grew up in a culture where it was expected that you would be thin, and it was expected that you would watch your calories, that most of your calories would come from vodka. All of these things were sort of jokes. When I was going through my period of unraveling [in my mid-30s], there was only one person who called me out on it. He just sort of grabbed me and was like, “What the hell is wrong with you? You look awful. You’re like a skeleton.” That felt so terrible in the moment, because I realized that I hadn’t been hiding what was happening, but that in fact, none of my friends had the courage to take time out and ask me if I was okay. 

HM: We’re revealing that this memoir is not just about riding, it’s about your relationship with your family, your parents’ divorce, your brother’s health struggles, depression, marriage, motherhood, a miscarriage. One theme that runs through all these struggles is silence. Was this book a counterbalance to that silence in some way? 

CM: I didn’t think of it as that. I think of it as an outreach of hands. I would really like to think of this as a connection tool. I actually did not write this for catharsis. What was nice about this book, is by the time I sat down and finally started to get it right, I was well. I already had the horses in my life. Through the revision process, I started excavating things, and I did start to touch upon things that got me really angry. But yet I didn’t write it in a fit of wanting revenge or to have my side of the story told. I just reached a point in my life, as a woman in my 40s, where I thought, “Oh my god, enough of all this. Enough of this selfless woman trope.” If I hear or read another thing about, “Oh, happy Mother’s Day, the most selfless woman in the world,” I’m going to light my hair on fire. 

It’s no longer the time for women to be selfless. We have to get rid of this notion that we pretend it’s not there—but it is still there—that women can do everything.

It’s no longer the time for women to be selfless. Whether you’re a woman who has children, or has aging parents to care for, whatever your situation is, we need to put ourselves first. It’s more than self care. I’m not talking about bubble baths. We have to get rid of this notion that we pretend it’s not there—but it is still there—that women can do everything. That we can spin all the plates, and come through shining, without any damage to our mental health. We get our figures back after having babies, and all this shit. No. The fault lines are expanding, and enough already. We deserve to let people know, and show them what it looks like when we are cracking. To me, it was like an act of sisterhood, this memoir. The best thing I could possibly hope for is that this encourages people—women, men, people of all genders—to start admitting to people around them, “I’m not okay. Actually, I could use some help. I could use some support.” 

HM: One subject that I think women are reluctant to talk about publicly, or with one another, is the experience of having a miscarriage. You write, “The realization I must return to horses came under the hands of the all male doctors who removed the lifeless fetus from my body with little respect for the person still residing inside it.” And then one of the doctors makes a joke about “when you can get back to hanky panky” and then tells you to “just make another one.” And then you continue: 

“I remember yearning for a horse with all the might I had within me when the anesthesiologist said this. Yearning for that power and that synchronicity with an animal who had also been misjudged and mistreated and handled like an ornament. I remember thinking, I am going to gallop over your fucking face you moron. And then he knocked me out with something that he shot inside my arm and I was wheeled into a cold room and then I wasn’t pregnant anymore.” 

Can you talk about your thinking here, how you identified with horses as a woman in this passage? 

CM: I had recently just started riding again that year, and then had an unexpected pregnancy. I was in the second term, so I had decided to stop riding, and it was something I was actively missing. It felt a little bit like a sacrifice that I did not want to make. It was just another thing women have to take on, putting aside certain things for nine months, two years, whatever the hell it is, right? So I really did lie there thinking, “I will have the horses again. I will go back to that. That is my gift to myself when I get out the other side of this.” 

When he said, “just go make another one”—I mean the man had my chart in front of him. He could see my age. He didn’t know if we’d struggle to conceive. I mean, unbelievable. And again, I’m a white woman. This is a fancy town. 

I just pictured these angry horses, especially in the world of polo, who are only used for their bodies,  their speed, their reproductive ability, and then just sort of discarded. The mares, especially. They’re just used for their bodies and their beauty. I just felt like a similar vessel. I felt this bond with these animals that we have objectified as a society for so long. And like I said in that passage, I truly wanted to be on a horse at that moment and make him ride straight over that guy. I really wanted that. I still do. 

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