Maggie Coughlin: Living a Life of Adventure

I remember the day I met Maggie Coughlin. It was March 2011. We were in a hotel conference room on the northside of Atlanta that Georgia Romance Writers had reserved for the day. Published authors were reviewing unpublished authors’ works and a good friend of mine had been paired with Maggie for review. Understandably, my friend was nervous at meeting a multi-published author so I went along for moral support…and, if necessary, to drive the getaway car.

January 2020
Photos by Marie Thomas
Makeup by Bridgit Crider

But within the first few minutes, I knew we wouldn’t need it. The first thing that stood out about Maggie was her huge, genuine enthusiasm—emphasis on the genuine. She didn’t tell upcoming authors what they wanted to hear. She told them what they needed to hear, framing her critiques in a way that was inspirational, not discouraging.

The second thing that stood out? No one works high heels like Maggie. She walked out of that meeting in seven-inch open-toed platform slingbacks with lime-and-white polka dots and made it look easy. Then again, that’s quintessential Maggie: she makes everything look easy. There’s her successful consulting business, multiple novels, and a staggering portfolio of articles. She’s written over two thousand of them, including 42 covers for Fayette Woman Magazine between January 2011 and November 2019, a record no one’s topped yet. And recently she launched a new book, 52 Tips for Low Salt Living, a funny, poignant, and realistic look at taking control of your diet. So yes, Maggie often looks like everything just falls together for her. But that isn’t the whole story.

Maggie and her mother, Eileen Coughlin Schnepper.

Other kids might have been raised by a village, but growing up in Ohio, Maggie says she had “The Committee.” Eileen Coughlin, her mother, was a theater major working as head chef at an Italian restaurant when, one night after closing, she walked across the street to see a traveling carnival and met Maggie’s father who was working as a ride boy. The connection was instant, and for a while, her mother traveled with him, running the carnival’s duck pond, but when Eileen became pregnant, she returned home and they lived with Maggie’s grandparents until she was six.

These weren’t your stereotypical grandparents though. Her grandmother, Mémé, was born on a Wyoming ranch and had been a rodeo trick rider in her youth. Her grandfather had grown up in a Boston street gang and wanted to go to art school. Since that opportunity was out of reach for his family, he taught himself engineering and eventually ended up with nine patents before his death.

The rest of Maggie’s extended family was equally extraordinary: two aunts who put themselves through graduate school in the 60’s and 70’s and were both educators, an uncle with a conservation degree—obtained long before most people were even aware of their effect on the environment—and a godmother who was a professional clown with a registered face.

Maggie and her cousins Elizabeth, Katy, and James, Christmas 2018.

“It it essentially means her makeup was trademarked,” Maggie explains. “People couldn’t copy her look.”

If it sounds eclectic, it’s because it was. These were the people who formed The Committee, and since almost everyone lived nearby, Maggie experienced a wealth of perspectives. “No wonder I turned out a little quirky,” she says. “I was exposed to a lot of unusual careers and ideas at a young age and they were normal.”

It’s hardly remarkable then why she would be drawn to all things creative. In fact, her uncle remembers even at two or three-years-old Maggie was already telling stories. She would sit next to Mémé as Mémé did the dishes and they would trade stories: “Raggedy-Ann tea parties, birds that spoke, fairies,” Maggie remembers. Mémé believed in magic—not necessarily that talking birds were real, but “for us…they sort of were.”

Maggie and MéMé, freshman year

With her grandmother, adventures could be anywhere and everywhere. You just had to be willing to jump into them.

Unfortunately, school life wasn’t nearly as idyllic. Six schools in six years would be tremendously difficult for any child, but Maggie is also on the spectrum—a diagnosis she didn’t receive until adulthood.

Today, schools struggle to meet their vulnerable ASD students’ needs. In the 70’s and 80’s, they didn’t know there even was such a thing.

“That’s probably why I had such a hard time fitting in,” Maggie says, “but I’m sure the moving and new schools didn’t help either.”

School staff might not have understood many of her needs, but they did, however, understand she was and is brilliant. Academics came easily. It was the other…stuff that perplexed her.

Heights can be dicey but the lift at the Georgia National Fair in Perry was perfect for Maggie and Armond.

“I couldn’t figure out how to get people to like me,” she explains, “and I didn’t understand any of the rules. Everything on paper said I had this exceptionally high understanding, but I spent most of my life completely baffled by what was going on around me.”

But in typical Maggie-fashion, she’s quick to point out those “baffling” school years also brought her best friend, Heidi, into her life. At fourteen, they shared a love of theater, stories, and maybe most of all The Goonies, a still-wildly popular 80’s comedy-adventure about growing up.

In fact, that deep love of The Goonies nurtured her first screenplay. “We watched it, quoted it, and ultimately, I wrote a sequel on wide-ruled paper in pencil, in cursive, and sent it to Spielberg.”

The director never responded, but it didn’t deter her. Maggie described that summer before high school as “magic,” and no doubt, her grandmother would have agreed. She was figuring out who she wanted to be, and while that journey scares many people, for Maggie it felt more like an adventure.

Gramps and Maggie at his company picnic. After MeMe died, she accompanied him to his Christmas party and other events until he moved to Wyoming a few years later.

Long-time friend, Cheryl Hartsell, would agree that’s typical of Maggie though. “She’s one of the most fearless people I know. She battles for people. She’s always for the underdog. I don’t think I’ll ever meet another person like her.”

Fearless. It’s definitely a fitting description, but Maggie’s best friend, April Saunders, describes it more as a choice Maggie makes. “She takes a situation and tries to find the best in everything.”

Sadly, when Maggie was fifteen, Mémé succumbed to another battle with breast cancer. The loss of her formidable and amazing presence fractured the entire family—perhaps especially The Committee as everyone struggled to battle their grief. Maggie, herself, was bereft and lost. The woman who had unfailingly understood her, who made magic seem real was gone.

“‘Whatever the stuff souls are made of,’ ours were the same,” Maggie says, paraphrasing Emily Brontë’s famous Wuthering Heights quote. “I lost all sense of self and reality. It clipped my wings.

Maggie and Joyce Beverly at Fayette Woman Live

Left mostly alone and dealing with grief beyond measure, she came up with a new adventure—though it might not have felt or looked like an adventure at the time. While her family envisioned a more artistic future for her, Maggie decided she wanted to be a stay-at-home with “PTA, children, and a house in the suburbs.”

By December of her freshman year of college, she was engaged. By the following August, they were married. She was nineteen. He was twenty-one. Maggie packed in credits in order to graduate with an Associate’s degree by the time her husband graduated with his Bachelor’s. She was focused on the future she’d decided would make her happy.

After graduation, they decided to flip a coin over whether they would move to Atlanta, Georgia or Seattle, Washington. Atlanta won. In so many ways, Maggie thought her grandmother’s magic and adventures were gone, but now, she realizes there were still “glimpses” of them when she reflects on that whimsical bet.

At the time, however, she thought she was on the only adventure she really wanted: they’d bought a house in the suburbs, she’d joined the homeowners’ association, and they’d started trying to have children. “I had everything I was set to get,” she says. “But I was so miserable. I hated the job. I hated the yard. I hated pants with zippers.”

Some of Maggie’s favorite covers have been the Women to Watch issues, all of which she’s written

The deadpan humor is so typical Maggie, underscoring her heartbreak with laughter. On the outside looking in, she’d created the perfect life, but it didn’t fit. Eventually, they divorced, and about six months later, she met someone else. A year and a half later, they married.

Determined as ever, Maggie relaunched her perfect adventure with a bigger house and her even bigger job. She threw herself into community organizations and volunteer work, but…nothing had improved.

Then worse came to worst: “Through a combination of circumstances largely out of my control that had to do with job losses, the housing market crash, and family illness, everything fell apart.”

In other words, by the time Maggie was thirty-six, she’d had to file bankruptcy, let the bank foreclose on their home, and had “lost everything that I had spent the prior 21 years building.” But once the shock wore off, she realized she was…happy.

The disconnect seemed unbelievable, but it was true: she was the happiest she’d been since Mémé died, and the fearlessness and positivity her friends have always seen in her started to emerge in different ways:

She started freelance writing with Fayette Woman Magazine. She started working as the Director of Marketing at the University of West Georgia—where she met and became best friends with April Saunders, the Art Director.

“We’ve worked together for ten years,” April says. “I’ve grown as a person from knowing her. She loves to disperse knowledge. Not in a know-it-all way, but in a sharing way. I’ve always appreciated that. A lot of people are the opposite.”

The sentiment is hardly surprising. Maggie herself talked about how challenging she’d found it when people forced her to be one way when she was wired to be another. “I think when that happens,” she says, “the uniqueness, individuality, and adventure squishes out of you.”

Maggie and her writing partner, Romily.

But perhaps more than anything all the giving to others allowed her to give a little more space to adventures she never thought she’d have. During these months, Maggie would cofound a local writing club—where she ultimately met Cheryl. She would join Mensa, learning that other gifted people had similar experiences to hers and she wasn’t alone. She would also find Romance Writers of America and Georgia Romance Writers where we would ultimately meet (and I would admire her ability to walk in stilettos). With all of that…it should have been happily ever after, right?

Not exactly.

Her second marriage wasn’t working, and in 2014, they divorced and she moved to Newnan. Simultaneously, Maggie realized “the staff side of higher education was always going to frustrate me,” though she’d sold the first draft of her first completed manuscript—and six more novels and short stories after that—she found herself itching to switch from romance to nonfiction, women’s fiction, and, of all things, TV scripts.

“It was supposed to be a magical new beginning,” she explains, “A new job, a new house, a new future…and it wasn’t.”

Some people might’ve thrown up their hands, but Maggie isn’t like that. She would say her magical new beginning wasn’t quite right yet—because every step she’d taken had brought her closer and closer to where she really wanted to be all along.

“Everything from the past informed the present,” she explains. “Those weren’t mistakes. I don’t regret any of it.”

Maggie and Rowdy

“Yes, she’d run out of things to say about romance for the moment, but those novels had reminded her how much she loved writing and that she still had so many stories to tell.

Yes, the Newnan house was wrong, but it brought her Jazzy, her beloved rescue who was a lifesaver after she lost her other beloved rescue, Rowdy.

Yes, her current higher-education staff position wasn’t right, but she went back to graduate school and rediscovered her love of learning. Which ultimately lead to a love of…teaching.

In 2019, after some coaxing by her cousin Kate, a history instructor in South Carolina, Maggie applied for an adjunct English instructor position at West Georgia Tech in the summer, and from the very first day, “I knew this was what I was supposed to be doing. It felt right.”

For many of us in her life, this is hardly a surprise.

Just a few weeks before Rowdy died, Jazzy showed up on Maggie’s front porch on her birthday in 2015 and never left.

“She’s always been a teacher in the family,” Kate says. “Being naturally curious, an inventor, an academic…teaching’s a natural fit for her.”

Maggie started a full-time position with South Georgia Technical College in December, 2019. She’s also still writing personal essays, articles, a couple nonfiction books, and at last count, three separate novels. She’s also going back for a second graduate degree and two graduate certificates, consulting a bit, learning Spanish, selling her house, and moving to middle Georgia…and whatever else she’s thought of since I talked to her this morning.

For some people, this is a whirlwind. For her, it’s a happy place. “I think for me, I have to be a little scattered.”

Then again, is life anything but scattered? Maggie would definitely agree.  “People say I’m always reinventing myself but I don’t see it that way. I don’t give a piece of me up just because I’m focusing on other things. I’m the sum of all the things I’ve ever been and done—and will be and do. We all are, really. I don’t know where I want to be in five years and when I’m seventy, I’ll have found all new things to try, so why speculate? Life isn’t a straight line; it’s an exploration.”

And for those of us who are lucky enough to be along for the ride? That’s the real magic.

Over the last decade, Maggie has written 42 Fayette Woman covers and hundreds of feature stories.

 

 

January 5, 2020

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