GUT Visiting Artist: Courtney Martin
Seeking wisdom? Look and listen to people standing outside the spotlight.
Hellllooooo GUT family!
What a special month “paywall-free October” was. In the midst of a terrible time in the world it meant a lot to connect with new people and get creative together. Huge applause to all the new folks who joined us for our weekly drawing assignments. And extra special props to everyone who took the leap and shared their drawing with the GUT community in the GUT Chat. I’ve included some of your Ruth Asawa-inspired Kitchen Table drawings from last week’s assignment at the end of this dispatch. I’m certain Ruth is smiling down.
If you missed my Instagram Live conversation with Gretchen Rubin where we talked about how drawing helps us see and connect with one another, and how the five senses help us pay attention to the world and each other, you can watch the recording on her IG feed. Forgive the first minute - we had some tech glitches! Thanks again to Gretchen for being such a great GUT Visiting Artist.
And speaking on super special GUT visiting artists, this week we have a new one, and she is IMHO one of the smartest, kindest, most thoughtful and heart-led people I know: author, speaker and activist Courtney Martin. (She also happens to be a mom, a partner, a friend, a community leader and organizer of groups… not to mention dance party/hiker/basketball/whiskey drinking superstar.)
Full disclosure: Courtney is one of my dearest friends. We met about 12 years ago when our mutual friend Christie hosted a brainstorm to help position my book Meanwhile in San Francisco as a conversation opener around equity in the Bay Area, and she invited Courtney. What I remember most about that first time meeting Courtney wasn’t her considered questions or her systemic thinking. It was she showed up with A BABY, and half way through the meeting pulled out her boob and started nursing. This naive non-mom had never seen this happen in a work setting (or any setting, really) and I was FREAKED. OUT. And still, she forgave any weirdness I gave off, we hit it off and hung out on our own afterward. It quickly became clear that A. she was the coolest person ever, and B. I was the weird one for feeling uncomfortable with the most natural thing in the world.
I've have benefitted from Courtney’s wisdom ever since.
A few weeks ago, Courtney launched her new podcast The Wise Unknown. It’s the most simple, brilliant idea and the conversations are pure gold. She asks famous people like W. Kamau Bell, Ai-Jen Poo and Samin Nosrat (hi Samin!) to name the wisest person they know. Someone who is not famous. And then Courtney interviews that person. It’s just brilliant.
I think her podcast is like the audio analogue of what we do here at the GUT. We use drawing to look closely and connect with people and the world. Courtney uses interviewing to listen deeply to people and connect with them. We are two sides of the same coin.
And I know we can all find a lot of wisdom in Courtney’s approach to listening and looking, along with the wisdom of the people she speaks with.
So this week in the GUT, I’m sharing a short interview I did with Courtney in which I ask her about juggling her life and work and how she maintains a creative practice amidst it all, how she approaches asking questions and how to be a better listener. She also offers us the most wonderful drawing assignment this week that draws on our active looking and listening, and gives us an opportunity to put that spotlight on an unknown wise person we’d each to learn more from ourselves, and share with the world.
And final super fun bonus cool thing for members: if you post your drawings in the chat and send them into Courtney, you might end up on her podcast! All info in the assignment.
I hope you enjoy this convo and drawing assignment as much as I did.
I’ll see you in the chat, my friends!
PS - it was my birthday this week! Yes, i’m a DOUBLE scorpio, thank you very much. And thank you very much GUT members for your bday wishes. We are getting through our laps around the sun TOGETHER. Pretty sure I wouldn’t have come out the other side like I did without our wonderful community. Everything is better….
Q&A with GUT Visiting Artist Courtney Martin
Wendy: Courtney! You are a writer of books and articles (not to mention The Examined Family - her amazing Substack which everyone should subscribe to!), coacher of speakers, mom, partner, friend, co-housing member, women’s group leader, amongst many other things. And somehow, you still make time to draw sometimes… MY GOD, HUMAN. How do you do it and what advice can you give those of us who feel pulled in different directions and want to keep up a creative practice?
Courtney: My whole life is a creative practice! Or at least that's how it feels to me. The way I gather people and facilitate certain kinds of conversations, the way I build a cover story brick-by-brick by learning about something that enlivens and enrages me, the way I accompany my kids through a tough season at school—it's all born of a desire to create and nurture, and is very often quite improvisational. One of my secret powers is that I'm not a perfectionist. Another one is that I'm a self-disciplined Capricorn. I also find that if I'm not writing, reading, and/or making some kind of art with my hands, I can get anxious and grumpy, so that's a nice forcing function to keep me returning to various art-making practices.
Wendy: I think KEEP UP is the key phrase there. What would you say are key strategies for keeping up a creative practice that is NOT your job or main focus. Do you have any routines or rituals that help keep you making, and grounded as a creative person?
Courtney: I loved what you wrote about Ruth Asawa last week because I feel like that really mirrors my reality--this notion of integrating your art into your life so that it's all one big whole. I make art with my kids. I work with my friends. I get editors to pay me to research and report on things I'm obsessed with so I can keep learning. I create podcasts so I can have the conversations I want to have with amazing and often overlooked people. In other words, my "jobs" are all reflections of my values and my creative practice. Sure, some parts of my work are more artistic than others, but I'm always seeking out opportunities to make cool shit with good people and have fun while doing it.
As far as rituals go, I try to carve out time to write first thing in the morning on Monday, because I have always written best in the morning and I know it will make me feel satisfied to have prioritized this sacred time before the rest of life sneaks in. I try to make something—a drawing, a collage, a water color—most weekend days. I put my cell phone in a drawer a lot and have taken all social media platforms off of it. I like to do what I call "small, weird projects"—little series of things like kind of bad water colors of the businesses of my hometown, or fan letters (this one I'm doing with Christie George) where we write people we admire thoughtful notes about how much their work means to us, or still lives that my neighbor Sarah and I were photographing of all the detritus we return to one another after a weekend of kids shuffling back and forth between houses.
Wendy: In your newest project, the brilliant podcast “The Wise Unknown”, you asked well-known people to tell you about the person who is their biggest influence *who is NOT well-known* and then you interviewed that person. So smart - and very similar to our practice of using drawing to look for the overlooked and essential people/things/places around us. What did you learn from doing all these interviews?
Courtney: Oh my gosh, so frickin much. I found that every single person I interviewed was practically ego-less—like I could actually feel a palpable difference in how they spoke. It made me realize how much of our public conversations—TV, podcasts, media, all the things—are focused on ambitious, ego-filled humans. And what a loss that is! It's like we've conflated ego and wisdom, which actually may be contradictory.
These amazing people have taught me to listen to my own wisdom in a different way, to define my own ideas of success with more intention and peacefulness, and to laugh laugh laugh.
Wendy: Speaking of interviews, you are hands down the best interviewer I know. As a journalist, a big part of your job is asking good questions. I also think you are great at it as a friend. Can you offer us any tips on how to ask better questions?
Courtney: That's so kind. Thanks bud. I think the best questions come from genuinely curious people. You can't fake it. I am truly interested in almost everyone and almost everything. I guess that's not great advice, because if you're not naturally curious, what are you supposed to do with that, but it is my truth.
I will say one of my go-to questions is—what surprised you? Surprise is always a good seed of a question, not matter what the context is.
Wendy: Here in the GUT we focus on looking closely at the world and people. In your work, you focus on *listening* closely to people. You also draw!! Can you talk about any similarities you’ve found between Looking and Listening? Is being a good looker and listener something we are born with, or is it something we can learn?
Courtney: For me one of the main similarities is what we might call aperture. When I'm drawing something, I have to figure out what the aperture on the drawing is: what am I focusing in on, what's the scale? When I'm asking someone questions, I'm also pursuing a sort of graceful aperture: which part of their life, their world, their wisdom, am I focusing on? Some of the best questions invoke very small, deeply sensory stories; so the aperture is very tight on that. The story may reveal something huge about what that person thinks really matters, but you get it through the story rather than through a big, open-ended question that might end up leading to a cliche-sounding answer. In other words, framing and details are everything in both mediums, right?
Wendy: Finally, you are giving us our assignment this week. (Woohoo!) So excited to hear what you have in mind. So without further ado, I pass the whole mic over to you….
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