Positive Tension and Unstructured Time: A Conversation with Courtney Maum


In Courtney Maum’s most recent book and debut memoir, The Year of the Horses (Tin House 2022), the acclaimed novelist takes readers on an exploration of the places we fear the most: the sites and homes of our vulnerabilities. Through stories about her coming-of-age in small-town Connecticut, Maum arrives, as the best self-interrogations do, at where it all began: with horses. After thirty years away from sawdust and stables, Maum literally gets back in the saddle to reconnect with the freedom she found there as a child. When she returns to this beloved pastime, she also rediscovers a network of fellow humans disengaging from trauma—and their egos—to bond with these powerfully gentle creatures.

In this intricate but clearly-told narrative of questioning her mind, her body, and her choices, Maum investigates not only what led her to a deep depression in her late thirties, but the conversations around what depression looks like, who is “allowed” to struggle with mental health, and what it means to reckon with a past she thought she’d left behind.

I had the chance to connect with Maum over the phone to discuss her book’s structure, the role privilege plays in discussions of mental health and works of personal narrative, horrifying 1980s children’s movies, and what horseback riding and writing have in common.


The Rumpus: One thing that stands out for me in this book is the fluidity of time. How did you land on that as the best structure for this story?

Courtney Maum: I landed on it by writing it chronologically at first, and it was so boring and unreadable. It just didn’t reflect the experience the way I wanted it to. Linear narratives are not usually the best format for memoir because our lives aren’t linear. I mean, we wake up in human bodies every day and move forward with our lives, but every second of the day we’re thinking ahead, we’re thinking backward. Unfortunately, we’re rarely in the present time.

So the first couple of drafts, like I said, were chronological and they didn’t dig very deep. When I paired up again with my Tin House editor, Masie Cochran, she started asking me questions that literally opened up this underground bunker in what I was writing. She not only gave me permission, but really encouraged me to start exploring my childhood.

In the first couple drafts I was dancing around the question of privilege. I’m a white woman, and my book has horses in it, so I didn’t want to bring in Greenwich, Connecticut, and my childhood at the risk of excluding readers.

Masie is so amazing, because she said, “It’s your childhood. Just show us your childhood.” At the time I was still in therapy and all my work in therapy was about going backward and trying to understand some of the difficulties I have presently. Where does it come from? Why do I have this? Why is everyone the way my parents are? You have to go backward to look at that.

So as with most answers to How’d you do it?: I did it through revision.

Rumpus: I’m glad you brought up the topic of privilege. You just summed it up so beautifully, and you do the same thing in the book by addressing it head-on. What would you say to other writers working within a similar framework? How do you give yourself permission to tell those parts of the story in a way that is both empathetic and constructive?

Maum: I can only speak for myself, but what certainly helped me get out of that Oh, poor sad white woman of privilege story was to accept that my story wasn’t dwelling on those things. There is a quest, right? In this case my quest is to learn polo, and a lot of people helped me.

People are going to feel called to write their stories. We are in a really turbulent time, the pandemic is going to be in us like a tumor for probably the rest of our lives, and we are going to be reckoning with a changed scope of humanity for decades to come. Regardless of where you’re coming from, if you’re writing about sadness and depression, you often feel, “What right do I have to complain?” I mean, I had an amazing education, I always had a roof over my head, I’ve always had enough skills to get a job. You have to pivot outward. Who helped you? What external things helped you?

I think it’s important, when writing from a place of privilege, that people focus on the external activity that is helping them through what they’re struggling with. They can look around and give credit to the people, animals, and things that are helping them and making sure their process is a communal activity. Generally, when someone is getting out of trauma or depression, they’re not doing it alone.

I worked through a lot of that in the book. For a long time, I felt so proud of how self-sufficient I was, when in fact that has never been the case. This is true for most people, but especially for a person from privilege.

Rumpus: In the book, you mention interviewing another writer and feeling a sense of shame when you discovered that you and she wrote for very different reasons. At the time, you often wrote for an escape or as a way to process emotions while she did very much the opposite, she was always sure to write after she had worked through things and was calm. What does that difference mean to you now?

Maum: When I was interviewing that author, my world kind of cracked open. I realized how sheltered and selfish I had been, because I think I had assumed up until that point that most writers, and certainly the ones I admired, were constantly working through some sort of pain or quest to grapple with things that made them angry or sad.

During our conversation I realized that wasn’t actually the majority, that there are some people who have a more balanced mood and they write in a more analytical way. Maybe they’re not as mercurial as me. I was just really embarrassed to see that I had fallen for the Tortured Artist trope in just assuming that my colleagues are all tortured artists. I felt humbled and childish.

Rumpus: Would you say that’s changed for you, now? I mean, are you better able to write when you’re calm?

Maum: I have changed, not within the scope of writing this book but over, I’d say, the last two decades of rejection, rejection, and then some publishing success, I’ve become able to write when I’m calm. I definitely used to write in and from my moods, and then submit in those same moods. Now I’m so much better at taking time off from the work. I’ve become, I think, a skilled editor of my own writing. I can still be a mess on the early pages, but I now have a better, keener ability to weed out what doesn’t need to be there, whereas before there was some egocentrism. I used to feel called to leave certain things on the pages because they made me feel vindicated, and that’s fine when you’re in your twenties, but, at this point, I’m trying to make a living at this. I want to be published for a wide circle of readers. I can write poems in my journal and leave them there, so I think I am maturing. I still feel things very, very deeply, and that’s fine. I’m an emotional writer, and that’s okay.

Rumpus: This connects to a key thing you had to relearn as a horseback rider: the concept of positive tension [riding when your body is open, supple, soft, and strong, and your muscles are stretched]. There seem to be a lot of potential connections, or overlap, in applying positive tension to investigating human psychology and, at the same time, to writing. I wonder if that resonates with you as well.

Maum: Oh, definitely. It’s a beautiful statement and a great question, and I think one that I’ll be grappling with for the rest of my life.

I don’t know that I can sum it up here, but I continually say, alone in my room, because I live in a really isolated area, that I have never written as well, or as productively, as I have when I started riding again. Positive tension, which is kind of the Holy Grail of horseback riding, is where you are relaxed but in control, and that’s the ultimate place to write from, right? If you write from a place of positive tension, you are in the state of flow, but you’re not flowing all over the page. You’re able to say, Okay, I think this flashback has reached its natural end, you know, three pages is good, I don’t need thirty.

Every single book, short story, article, whatever, that I worked on after I was with horses again, has been much more pleasurable. I became less panicked about everything, because I had the great privilege of being able to say, God, this morning’s writing is just awful, I’m not going anywhere, there’s no point, and so I’m going to go to the barn.

The same way that some people walk or run it off, or drive—I do a lot of good thinking driving—the barn is a place I am able to still my thoughts. A lot of the time the right path would show up for me, whereas before I would use that afternoon to just linger on Twitter or, I don’t know, look at my Amazon sales ranking, nothing positive, and that would mean that the next day I started writing from a place of downtroddenness. I think that writers who read this book, even if they don’t give a hoot about horses, will think, Oh wait, I know this feeling and I know this longing, I know this state.

Rumpus: Toward the end of the book, to better communicate and connect with your teammates, you start taking Spanish lessons, which you write has another benefit, that with less unstructured time your mental outlook and creativity kept improving. That can be a really fine line to walk for a lot of creative people, and maybe especially women, the tendency to keep ourselves constantly busy so we don’t let the hurt in or don’t let the anxiety take over, but at the same time there is definitely a good kind of constantly busy. How would you say you’ve balanced “good busy” versus that kind of “coping mechanism” busy?

Maum: I literally block out time on my calendar. I never work on weekends. Once in a while, I’ll have to do something, but generally I do not work on weekends. I often leave Fridays for just being tired.

I’m self-employed. I do a lot of consulting and book coaching and things like that, so I’m fortunate enough to be able to plan my week. I always structure my week so that Mondays and Tuesdays are incredibly busy, and then my activity tapers off. I follow my energy cycles. Heavy lifting things, like revision, do not happen on Fridays.

I’ve also gotten to where I have a timer in my head. I really like Tik-Tok, so sometimes at the end of the day, I’ll say to myself, I actually want to look at Tik-Tok for twenty minutes. But twenty minutes is the right amount, almost like the set amount of screen time I set for my daughter. I’ve been doing this for so long that it just becomes an instinct.

If I know I have like a big block of unstructured time, something like a vacation, I actually really go for it. I’ll throw up the “Out of office” signal, and won’t look at my email. I just veg, and then I am able to do nothing. I’ll just lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling. As long as I know it’s coming, the unstructured time, I’ve learned how to enjoy it. I feel a lot less successful with surprise-unstructured time.

My husband is a filmmaker, and recently we were invited to a film festival in Korea and were told we were exempt from the quarantine. But when we showed up, there’d been a miscommunication and there was a quarantine period in an incredibly small hotel room. And I did not deal well with that, I can tell you, there was no grace. I can do well with the free, unstructured time, but I have to know it’s coming.

Rumpus: I’m really, really glad you wrote about Artax, the horse who dies in the Swamp of Sadness in The Neverending Story. You make a very good point about how isolating it was to learn about those sorts of feelings, the kind of depression and hopelessness that drown that poor horse. As a mother of a young daughter, what do you think are the most important issues, in terms of discussing mental health?

Maum: My daughter is only eight, so she’s not quite there, but if she had been me and watched that scene now, she could text a friend or go to social media and say, Oh my God, I just watched like the saddest freaking movie, what the hell is up with that? Tons of people would weigh in and say, Oh my gosh. I know, I was ruined by that scene. That would provide her with a sense of camaraderie, but there’s problems with that. I see it in my own friends and their children, that there is a reluctance to form our own judgments before having other people weigh in.

We’ll see how all of this crowdsourcing about mental health plays out. It’s really great that it’s in the national conversation, but you have to wonder how much of it is performative. Young people are going on social media and saying, I’m feeling really sad today or I felt triggered by this, which is great, but I bet a lot of people are still tracking their likes, which is not the healthiest behavior. It looks like we’re having conversations about mental health, but I don’t think they’re happening on a deep level.

Rumpus: Toward the middle of the book, you discuss the history of equine therapy, particularly how many women have found it helpful. One of the key benefits is that the emotional work happens at a non-verbal level, whereas in traditional talk therapy half the battle can be trying to find the words to articulate what we’re feeling. As a writer, what’s it like to connect with the idea that words can be limiting?

Maum: The idea that words can be limiting, what it means to me as a writer, is that less is more. When I first started writing I had a very exuberant rococo style, lots and lots of adjectives, lots of pomp and circumstance. I still find that a really fun way to write, but when I write non-fiction, it’s quite pared down. The tonality is completely different, because it’s always in our best interest just to find one true word instead of ten words.

Rumpus: In addition to that section, you have a lot of research in this book. When did you know that the YouTube channel rabbit holes and the late-night Google searches were going to be directly incorporated into this book?

Maum: That came later. There was more formal research that I did that saw me actually purchasing books or going to the library. It wasn’t until, with my editor’s encouragement, that I really started opening this up and making it quite intimate.

My first draft was a shitty draft. The only reason [Tin House] purchased it is because I’ve worked with Maisie before, and they knew I was capable of producing a better one. Masie and I had one phone call, for probably about an hour. When I hung up, I plotted the whole thing out on a storyboard. It was an entirely different book, and I could see it. I find storyboards to be more useful than outlines, because they’re visual.

Once I had the larger scope of the memoir planned, I realized those weird months where I was scanning the Sundance catalog, considering fringed ponchos were actually as important as the formally researched parts, because it was all part of my journey and it’s all relatable. I’d already had a little section of the storyboard, where I showed myself scrolling through Instagram and some of the lighter material. I just needed the partnership with the right editor, which unlocked everything.

Rumpus: The heart of this book seems to be the understanding that we can’t have positive relationships with others until we figure out how to have a positive relationship with ourselves. What are you doing now, in addition to horseback riding, to continue to remember that?

Maum: I think my emotional challenge, right now, is about dropping agendas when I interact with other people. It’s important to meet people on their own terms and where they’re at, especially now, when people are starting to socialize more regularly again.

I rescued a racehorse last winter who was severely abused, more or less left out in a pasture alone to die. She’s been so damaged by humans! Even though she knows I’m the person who got her into a healthy situation, she still associates me with those people who hit her. When I go to see her, I think, Well, I would like to ride this horse today, but all she wants to do is eat grass and have friends and act like a horse again. So, today is just going to be me standing at a safe distance and admiring her.

I’m going to start there.


Author photo by Kenzie Odegaard Fields

Haley Hamilton is Boston-based creative nonfiction writer and journalist. Her writing appears in EATER, Catapult, Mel Magazine, Greatist, Truly*Adventurous, and elsewhere. She also tells stories live on stage with folks like The Moth, Boston's Lit Crawl, and WGBH's Stories From the Stage. More from this author →