Meghan Daum has an impressive body of work behind her, and shows no signs of slowing down. At 45, she’s published two collections of personal essays, a nonfiction work about her obsession with real estate, a novel, and has edited a collection of essays about choosing not to have children. On top of this, she’s an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and publishes reviews, profiles and articles regularly elsewhere. Daum is most well-known (in Australia, at least) as a proto-personal essayist – one of those who were writing in this form before it really caught on. Her essays’ subject matter varies – from her love of wooden flooring, to her mother’s death, to her disdain for cooking. Nothing seems too big or too small – curiosity is the driver.
Daum’s writing can be at once both confronting in its brutal honesty, and comforting in its recognition of difficult ways of being. Take these lines from her essay ‘Variations of Grief’:
‘Brian is someone who accomplished nothing in his life other than his death. This is an ugly admission, a brutal interpretation of facts I have not been able to process any other way.’
This plain statement of a feeling that most of us would feel uncomfortable acknowledging at all is typical of Daum’s writing. In her most recent collection of essays, The Unspeakable, Daum insists these insights ‘aren’t confessions. Not even close. They’re events recounted in the service of ideas.’ Instead, Daum sees her mission as one concerned with human connection and authenticity. She actively battles the idea that her style of writing is ‘brave’, as I discovered when we sat down for a chat during her recent visit to Melbourne for the Wheeler Centre’s Interrobang festival.
Sam van Zweden: In the introduction to The Unspeakable, you talk about having mixed feelings towards writing about yourself, and that’s something that seems to come up for a lot of people that write about themselves. I’ve seen Steven Church talk about writing about the self as being less of a job and more of a pathology, like a uniform that you never take off. Geoff Dyer talked about writing about himself because he was available. Charles D’Ambrosio did a good job of describing it in Loitering, where he talks about watching himself from the outside and not being able to turn off the narrator. So we feel a bit weird writing about ourselves, but somehow we keep coming back to it. What do you think that is – what do personal essays have over other forms? And why can people not get enough of that?
Meghan Daum: [laughs] I think that there’s a voyeuristic quality for a lot of readers, especially as they engage with a certain kind of personal essay. I think there are a lot of essays out there that are not fully cooked – a lot of very personal ideas and revelations get put forth, especially on the internet, and then the piece will be published on the internet and it’ll be this very raw, provocative thing, and everyone will say that the writer is brave, and they’ll gush about it on Facebook… I think that that’s one version of this phenomenon.
I write about myself – I guess Geoff’s right, it’s because I am available – but I use my life as a lens through which to look at other things. It’s really about having an intimacy with the reader. We read because we want to have a connection with the author or the words or something. For me, I want to offer something that is going to feel generous. I don’t want it to be imposing – this is the whole ‘confessional versus confiding’ thing. I don’t want to just dump a bunch of crap onto the reader and be like, ‘Okay, you deal with this’. You want to be honest; you don’t want to be that friend – you know, everyone has the friend you meet for lunch and the friend won’t disclose anything and her life is perfect and she is incredibly boring and you dread seeing her, and you feel horrible when you leave… You don’t want to be that person. You want to be the friend that you meet and you get something out of them. That’s kind of where I’m at with it.
Do I choose to do it? Not always. I do plenty of other things, it’s just that nobody seems to be that interested in them!
SvZ: Your other work seems to be a decent chunk of what you do. Is it much of a different process, writing ‘inside stories’ and ‘outside stories’?
MD: Usually the inside stories I’m not being paid for, it’s not an assignment. Almost always with the essays in My Misspent Youth and the essays in The Unspeakable, I just wrote them. They were not written on assignment. Even though, for instance, in My Misspent Youth, most of those pieces had appeared in magazines, I think all of them – maybe except one or two – I wrote, and then sold it to the magazine. So I think it’s very hard to pitch something to an editor that’s so abstract as a lot of these essays are. I doubt that I could get somebody to assign [my essay] ‘Honorary Dyke’ – you really have to write it first.
That would be the main difference – it feels more like I have control over it, in order to maintain the integrity of the piece. It feels more like an art project than a job. I have plenty of assignments and reporting stuff, profiles and reviews.
SvZ: I think you do a great job of taking vulnerabilities and turning them into strengths. How do you do that?
MD: Oh thank you. I guess I see it as, you just have to do the best you can with the hand you’re dealt. That’s actually one of Cheryl Strayed’s quotes in her new quote book. I think she says something like, ‘Don’t complain about the hand that you weren’t dealt, just do the absolute best that you can with the one you were’. For me, there’s a lot of stuff that I don’t want to do. Like the whole idea of the comfort zone is totally under-rated. I think you should stay within your comfort zone but go as deeply into it as possible. And I think that’s exactly what you’re saying.
Most stuff I don’t want to do. I don’t want to cook. I don’t want to have kids. I don’t want to ski. All sorts of things. But I accept this about myself, and I’m going to do the most I can with the few things that I like. That I want to do.
SvZ: So perhaps you’re particularly blessed in feeling comfortable with dealing with that hand then.
MD: Yeah, but I’m also 45 years old. So it’s taken a while. I think you have to go through life and figure out what you don’t like – more so than what you do.
But I’m glad that you say that, I do try to look at it that way. Geoff Dyer’s a great example, he’s very much that way too. He hates everything. Including himself. He talks about how he regrets everything.
SvZ: Your essays seem to stand in, across the two collections, as something of a timeline of your life. You can look back and there are some very specific markers. Some of the essays have dated – like the one about online dating, and the very particular flight attendant piece…
MD: Oh, it’s so pre-9/11.
SvZ: Yes. I was reading that one on a plane and thinking, yes, I get it, but we’ve also moved quite a way from that as well, since it was published. How do you feel about those pieces standing in time and marking your life?
MD: It’s so weird. I was very surprised as to how interested people seemed to be in the resurrection of My Misspent Youth. At the time it wasn’t poorly received, but it wasn’t heralded as this revelatory thing. It was just like, ‘Oh this is this snarky white chick writing about living in New York’. I think of a lot of those pieces, particularly the title piece, I think if that was written today, it’s like the ultimate white girl problem. A lot has happened in terms of the way that we talk about identity and class – we don’t talk about class enough – that would change the context of that piece. I guess you write from where you are. I did think of The Unspeakable as My Misspent Middle Age, a bit.
The thing is, I do reveal myself, but there’s plenty that I don’t reveal too. What I’m offering the reader isn’t really myself, but is this kind of product that’s more interesting than myself actually, because there’s always this heightened level of drama. I’m sure you know this as an essayist – there’s always this drama to the ‘I’ narrator that you have to impose, because unless you’re really unstable you’re probably not that interesting. You’re not that intense all the time. I feel like my persona as a narrator is much more obsessive than I am – much more intense or frenzied or something.
SvZ: You’re very good at saying uncomfortable things and sitting with them, which is really hard, but it’s particularly hard for women to do. How do you feel gender plays into your writing?
MD: Interesting. I think part of the reason I shy away from the ‘confessional’ label is that it’s so gendered, and I don’t like that. And maybe someone like Leslie Jamison is young enough that there’s less baggage around that than someone who came of age in the 80s and 90s.
I feel like when I’m really in the groove and I’m really writing in a very authentic way and it is my voice, that’s when I feel ungendered. I feel like I have no gender. I wrote a column one time about humour, it was when Christopher Hitchens died, because he had always said why women aren’t funny. I wrote this column and I said actually, let’s think about it this way – women aren’t funny because they’re not allowed to be funny. And there’s something very neutering about being funny. I know this because when I am funny, I feel totally neutered and it’s fantastic. It’s like you’re unfettered. And people got really angry about the column because of course they put some stupid headline on it. And I don’t have a lot of space, and it’s hard to make a nuanced point… But I really believe that to be true. I really see myself as a person before a woman. I don’t think of myself as being terribly feminine, actually, whatever that even means. Which is what ‘Honorary Dyke’ is about. I guess, to answer your question, you can sit with it if you stop caring what anybody thinks, if you cut yourself off from that.
Also, I think it’s pretty relevant that I started writing this kind of piece before the blogosphere. I never had to deal with comments when I started out. I never had to deal with stupid blog posts or Twitter. I certainly got push-back, and I got a lot of people mad at me, but it took the form of letters to the editor that came weeks later, or sometimes people calling me. I was listed in the phone book, in my twenties and I’d write these pieces… I was living with roommates, my roommate would answer the phone. ‘Somebody’s on the phone calling you a total asshole, here you go’. I think that actually helped a lot, that there was a detachment about it.
I see this in my students often – there’s all this anticipatory anxiety about putting themselves out there and making a controversial point, because they don’t want to be attacked. The fact is that if you’re not being attacked, you’re not doing your job as an idea-haver.
SvZ: There’s a continuing theme throughout your work about cutting down mediation, and reaching an authentic place, and sitting with those uncomfortable things – saying the unspeakable. Why do you feel like that’s an important thing to be doing?
MD: To me, that’s the point of writing. To connect with the reader on a level that’s going to feel important to them, so they feel that they’re making a connection in a way that’s more than ‘This is nice writing’, or ‘This is funny’, or whatever. That you’re actually experiencing the world in a similar way. When you connect with what you’re reading you feel less alone. And it’s important – there’s nothing more satisfying to me as a writer than if somebody writes and says, ‘I feel less alone because you wrote this’. That makes up for all the people being mad.
The book I edited about choosing not to have children, that has been so interesting because that’s the thing I hear all the time. ‘I feel less alone’. I wanted to have all these voices because I wanted people to be able to connect with things in different ways. There’s really no other reason to write. It’s certainly not for the money. So it has to be satisfying in some visceral way.
SvZ: Who do you read to feel less alone?
MD: There’s so many! I really love this writer named Terry Castle who is a Stanford professor. She has this book called The Professor and she’s a very maximalist writer. She’s the one who very famously wrote this piece about Susan Sontag. They had this friendship and when Susan died, she wrote about what an unbelievable narcissist Susan Sontag was, and their friendship.
Sally Tisdale has this fantastic new collection that’s coming out in the spring. In the 90s she wrote a lot of essays, but she kind of disappeared. I love her stuff.
Joan Didion was obviously very influential to me. In terms of tone and style, I’m not sure that Joan Didion makes me feel less alone, because she’s a very cold force.
SvZ: She has quite a particular experience, as well.
MD: It’s funny, it’s very aspirational. I feel like people get into her when they’re young because she’s really cool, and rich, and ‘I want to relate to this!’. But then at a certain point you’re like, ‘I’m never going to relate to this. Move on.’
SvZ: Joan Didion as rite of passage.
MD: Yeah – or even Joni Mitchell. The reason I put the Joni Mitchell piece in the book was because that piece is a primer for how to read the whole book. This idea of confession. To me, that’s the most important piece in the book. And some people have felt like it’s a throw-away, or that it doesn’t belong in there. But what she is doing is exactly what we want to do as writers, but she can also just be interpreted as totally confessional and girly and crying about boys, but it’s not like that at all.
SvZ: There’s that gendered aspect, isn’t it?
SvZ: Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you’d like to talk about?
MD: I guess the main thing I would say, one of my pet peeves is being called brave. I just feel like that term is over-used. It’s also a very gendered thing. If you’re a woman and you say something controversial, especially about yourself, then you’re considered brave. But I feel like if you’re a writer, then that’s your job. You’re just doing your job. So I really want to get away from that idea. But I also know people love that idea, and it sells books.
I see the essay as a suggestion. And this is true of a newspaper column also, because that’s really just a mini-essay. I’m really just saying, ‘Come along with me as I think this through’. So I’m inviting the reader to think alongside me. I’m not trying to convince anybody. I’m not a polemicist. Half the time it’s like I’m throwing it out there and saying, ‘Let’s think of it this way.’ I don’t mean to have a hard and fast assertion.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer. Her work has appeared in Voiceworks, The Big Issue, The Victorian Writer and others. In 2015, she’s a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship and Melbourne City of Literature Travel Fund recipient. Her work-in-progress, Eating with my Mouth Open, was shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She tweets @samvanzweden and blogs at samvanzweden.com