MEGHAN DAUM IN NEW YORK, DECEMBER 2014. SWEATER: OAK. PHOTOS: JASON RODGERS. MAKEUP: JUNKO KIOKA FOR JOE MANAGEMENT USING CHANEL. HAIR: LAURA DELEON FOR JOE MANAGEMENT USING ORIBE HAIR CARE.
When I read Meghan Daum’s first collection, My Misspent Youth, not long after it was published in 2001, I remember thinking I had found the rightful heir of the personal essay. I can’t recall why I thought the personal essay was in danger in 2001—maybe it had just been a while since I had come across any exceptional ones by a young writer. But it turned out that I reason to worry. The 2000s was a decade of “I” writing, an online and magazine surplus of self-oriented blog posts and quasi-neo-New Journalistic first-person fodder—”this is what happened to me and here is why I’m annoyed about it”—none of which did much to advance the form. It seemed for a while that the personal essay had been confused for public journaling, and, like movie or restaurant reviews, everyone felt their take merited multiple paragraphs on any outlet that would have them. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with this kind of writing and some of it broke through in exciting and nuanced ways, especially in the humor department. But overall much of the glut of first-person writing seems a lot like picking up someone else’s basket of laundry from the laundromat: similar enough to my life, filled with the usual delicates and wearables, familiar, uninteresting, and nothing I really want to take or try on.
Daum herself was busy during this decade. She moved from New York to Nebraska, wrote a novel loosely based on that city-to-deep-country experience, moved to Los Angeles, became a newspaper columnist, wrote a memoir, married, buried one dog and took in another, and bought a house. Now she has finally released her second collection of essays, Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion [FSG]—all first-person, all “personal” in that the genesis of the topics sprout from her life, and, most fulfilling, all reminders of what an essay can achieve in the hands of a master. The topics include meeting Joni Mitchell; volunteering as an advocate for a child in foster care and deciding not to have children; dogs; her attraction to the culture of lesbianism; losing her mother to cancer; and nearly losing her own life to a rare disease contracted while moving houses. Daum’s 10 exceptional essays are the furthest thing from blog posts or loose pages of a journal: by using the “I” she snaps us out of our own lives and sharpens the focus on the world. I spoke with her by phone—me in New York, her in Los Angeles.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: I remember back in the early 2000s, you did a conversation with Joan Didion for Blackbook. It was a smart pairing because your collection of essays, My Misspent Youth, had already come out and there was a sense of you being the Didion-like essayist of your generation. While reading Unspeakable, I was thinking of Didion—or rather I wasn’t. I really didn’t find many Didion-esque tics in your writing style, as I often do with younger essayists who have taken her as an inspiration. I feel like your voice is so solidly your own.
MEGHAN DAUM: That’s interesting because people ask who my influences are and I don’t even like to mention Joan Didion because it seems so obvious. I feel like she influences all essayists—particularly young female essayists, the same way Joni Mitchell sort of influences all singer/songwriters. It’s very similar. It has to do with the sound. Joni’s alternate tunings are sort of analogous to Joan’s sentence structures and the rhythm and pacing of the prose. I think it’s just something that gets in your ear. So that’s a great question because I felt like when I was studying at Columbia 20 years ago and I started seriously reading deeper into Joan Didion’s work, I kind of figured out—not necessarily how to be an essayist, but it was more a feeling of, “Oh, you’re allowed to do it this way? This is acceptable?” It gave me a freedom. And I think some of her rhythmic tendencies and stylistic habits got embedded, which I think is a very common thing to happen.
BOLLEN: It happens to me. I can write a piece for a magazine and I’ll read it back and I see that I’ve taken a Didion shortcut—I’ve fallen back into a tic that belongs to her because I wanted that Joan lifejacket.
DAUM: You know what? I’m just thinking this now. None of these pieces were written for magazines. I wonder if that Joan tendency is a sort of a magazine manifestation. Back in the ’90s I was writing all of these magazine pieces and aspiring to write in a certain way—not snarky, but in your face, that type of New Journalism. And a lot of the essays in My Misspent Youth were from that period and were pieces that had originally appeared in magazines.
BOLLEN: You obviously made a decision to create a collection of essays for Unspeakable that had never been previously published. That’s good for the reader as it often happens that you’ve already read much of the material in essay collections. Were there other reasons, though, that you felt like you needed the content in Unspeakable to be entirely new?
DAUM: I guess I wanted them to be surprising. And I just wanted to write them the way I wanted to write them the first time. What happens when you’re doing a piece for another publication is that it takes on the tone and perimeters of that publication. You end up having to sort of undo a piece and restore it to its natural self. I wanted these essays to be in their natural state from the beginning. And I’m not even sure where I would have published these pieces. None of them are the kinds of topics you could pitch. “Hi, I want to write a piece called ‘Honorary Dyke!'” [laughs]
BOLLEN: That might be hard to place.
DAUM: And the reason for this book is that I’m an essayist. I have written other books but the one book people seem to keep talking about is my early essay collection. So I said well, “Why don’t I just return to form?” I told my agent that and she said, “Really?”
BOLLEN: She wanted you to do another novel.
DAUM: But I’m glad I did it because I actually do think there’s an audience for essays more so than is typically assumed by the publishing industry. I think everyone’s kind of catching on.
BOLLEN: The title is Unspeakable. But you mention in the introduction that you started off thinking about ideas of sentimentality—and how we spin our lives.
DAUM: I’ve always been interested in this notion of what is authentic and how we define that and why our culture imposes certain emotions and emotional constraints onto experiences. Initially, I was thinking that this book would be about sentimentality in American life. I wrote the first piece, “Matricide” before I even really thought about doing this collection. It started with that piece. But that started me off and I thought, “Well, I should write about my own experience with almost dying.” Those two pieces emerged as the bookends of the collection. And it made me ask, “What is this really about?” It’s sort of about this idea that we expect to be redeemed by having some kind of traumatic experience. The culture is wedded to this idea that you’re going to become a better person from crisis. Or that characters are going to go through a change. I think that’s one of the major themes running through the book. I wasn’t trying to write each essay with a theme in mind, but I did want them to have some kind of through-line. And I just wrote them because I was interested in those topics. I mean, I had always wanted to write a piece about this “Honorary Dyke” concept. And for decades I wanted to write a piece about Joni Mitchell.
BOLLEN: The opening essay, “Matricide” is beautiful and brutal. And it’s not the way you are culturally supposed to discuss a parent’s death. You’re not supposed to look back at your mother on her deathbed and summon her faults.
DAUM: I very seriously considered never publishing that essay or sending it to anybody. It took me a really long time to write—it’s the most difficult thing I ever wrote. I gave up on it many, many times. I went to [The] MacDowell [Colony] for a month to write it, during what was a really difficult, dark time anyway, and I was just a miserable person. I think when I went to dinner, everyone kind of thought, “Oh, let’s hope she doesn’t sit with us!” I would not recommend working on that kind of essay while you’re sitting alone in a cabin in the winter in New Hampshire. I gave up on it after a month and I just said, “This is not gonna work.” Then I pulled it out maybe eight or nine months later and looked at it again and was able to finish it, but I still thought it would never be published. I just thought, “I guess I need to write this for myself. It’s not appropriate to publish this. It’s not doing anyone any good except possibly me and it might do me the opposite of good if anybody actually read it.” I ended up showing it to a couple of really smart, thoughtful friends who are also writers and they just said, “Meghan, this is what you’re suppose to be writing.”
BOLLEN: You mention in a few of the essays that you are the kind of writer who, drawing from your own experiences, purposefully puts yourself in situations and positions that might be good material for an essay—even down to some of the men you dated. Do you have this double mindset of living an experience and already writing it in your mind as it happens—or does the writing come much later?
DAUM: It could be six months later; it could be six years later. The worst thing you can do is try to force that—to try to write about something when you’re in the middle of the situation is never good. That’s just a journal basically.
BOLLEN: So you don’t keep notes.
DAUM: No. I really don’t. I don’t keep a diary or a journal. Sometimes I’ll send emails to friends and that’s a way of recording what I was thinking at any given time. But I’ve never been a journal keeper. I feel like part of that is because I’m always on deadline. I’ve been a freelancer my entire career and, at any given time, I have several deadlines for all sorts of things whether it’s some magazine piece or ad copywriting or anything. Not that that’s a reason not to keep a journal. Obviously, people with deadlines keep journals all the time but, for me, the idea of doing more writing is never appealing. It’s why I never blog.
BOLLEN: I often think, too, that you get one crack at writing a scene, and maybe first recording it in shorthand subtracts from a more enhanced, nuanced version later. That might not be the case. Most painters, for example, did do sketches before their final work. But maybe a journal psychically drains a bit of the discovery and imagination out.
DAUM: That’s interesting. What I think is important about essayists, about the essay as opposed to a lot of personal writing that kind of finds it’s way into public view is that the material really has to be presented in a processed way. I’m just not interested in writing, “Hey, this is what happened to me today,” or “I did this terrible thing, look what a jerk I am.” You have to transcend it and get to another place with it. You get to a place that really has very little to do with your personal experience and talks about some larger idea or something in the culture or something fairly universal. I don’t think you can get to that unless you have had a lot of time to gestate and maybe if I was taking a lot of notes while stuff was going on, I wouldn’t be able to get to that place as easily. There are those who do take notes—Joan Didion always did. So it’s just my thing. But I’m really adamant about saying that this is not confessional work.
BOLLEN: I remember hearing that you had moved out of New York for Nebraska. I was a few years younger, and I thought, “That sounds like a terrible idea.” And then I was in my thirties, just a few years later, and I thought, “Oh, I get why she did it; that’s a brilliant idea.” I think there becomes a tipping point with the city….
DAUM: When you’re not in your twenties anymore….
BOLLEN: When leaving New York might, in fact, save your life…
DAUM: Or, just, I do want to have more than 300-square feet to live in.
BOLLEN: But now that you’ve settled in L.A., do you think your style has changed away from New York?
DAUM: Stylistically, no. I got pretty dug in stylistically and aesthetically in my twenties and when I go back and read My Misspent Youth pieces, I can see the same tendencies that I have now. They were there from the beginning. In terms of content, yeah, I think moving away made me less provincial. A lot of the reason I left New York, in addition to being so broke, was that I just felt I was becoming provincial in that way that only New Yorkers are. My points of reference were really insular. They were insular in that fantastic New York way, but they didn’t go much beyond that. I didn’t have any sense of class and geography, because the economy of New York is so specific. So I definitely had access and exposure to a huge variety of people that I wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed in New York—much more so in Nebraska even than in L.A. I mean L.A. we’re back into that thing where it’s a huge city and you have the quote-un-quote luxury of hanging out mostly with people who are just like you. The thing about living in a place like Nebraska is there aren’t that many people, so your circle of acquaintances is going be much more diverse. Everyone would go to the same bar, like the local politicians and construction workers. There would be college professors who were married to manual laborers. The class intersections were fascinating to me. And of course there’s a whole other conversation about what a huge source of growth it was for me in terms of understanding people and the world in a way that I hadn’t in New York. I used to say—and I mention it in an essay in the book—that L.A. is essentially New York with yards. [Bollen laughs]. But that Nebraska experience was hugely influential.
BOLLEN: I agree. People always say that New York is the one place artistically that isn’t provincial. It’s supposed to be cosmopolitan, global, the big leagues. But it is so provincial in its way.
DAUM: The most provincial. Because it just consists of little provinces. I mean, being provincial is a privilege in a way. Also people in New York think everybody interacts because they all take the subway. “Oh, I see all these different people! All these different walks of life on the subway.” Well, they’re not coming to your dinner party. Certainly, in small-town Nebraska, everyone indeed did mix together.
BOLLEN: And L.A. is provincial in that it’s the entertainment industry.
DAUM: Being in the entertainment industry in L.A. is the equivalent to being in the publishing industry in New York. You don’t ever have to hangout with anybody else.
BOLLEN: Okay, so besides our mutual love of Joni Mitchell and Joan Didion, we have another thing in common: we both have an obsession with dogs. You devote a whole essay to your dog fix.
DAUM: Do you have a dog?
BOLLEN: No. Every cell in my body yearns for a dog. But my New York apartment is too small for one of the larger breeds that I’d want.
DAUM: But don’t you think that a big dog is calm and sort of comatose and doesn’t really mind?
BOLLEN: They say Great Danes are excellent for small apartment life.
DAUM: I can’t live without a dog.
BOLLEN: A piece on love of dogs may seem like a surprising inclusion in a collection bookended by death. Do you give yourself a lot of rope in terms of what you want to write about? A dog celebration could go terribly wrong.
DAUM: I had written a lot about my dog dying before. I wrote a newspaper column about it and it turned out to be the most popular column I’d ever written. That and the lame Joni Mitchell column I did. But the dog column, my god! People love dogs. Anybody who writes regularly should know, when in doubt: dogs! If you’re a columnist, when in doubt, write a column about the culture of narcissism—like a scolding column about the culture of narcissism—or write something about dogs. That’s the homerun in my take. [Bollen laughs] The piece is called, “The Dog Exception” and I sort of knew in the back of my mind that I was writing these pieces against sentimentality, but the one thing I’m sentimental about is animals—especially dogs. So I knew that there was going to be a piece called, “The Dog Exception.”
BOLLEN: Oh, by the way, thanks to your near-death essay, I’m never going to scratch a fleabite again.
DAUM: Now that’s not going to happen to you. It’s like The World According to Garp, the plane crashes into the house and he says, “Now I’m going to buy this house because the chances of another plane hitting this house are next to none.” So the fact that we are having this conversation means that it will never happen to you because it’s so random.
BOLLEN: Are you still susceptible to Murine Typhus?
DAUM: No, no! They say I’m immune now. It’s funny because I wrote a couple columns about it after it happened and now I hear from people who get it…anybody who gets it, they Google it and then they find my columns. They’ll email me and they want to talk about it. I started a Facebook page: Survivors of Murine Typhus.
BOLLEN: How many followers do you have?
DAUM: Like 12.
BOLLEN: A vibrant community.
DAUM: It’s very niche. But the main thing is people who get it feel sort of alone because it’s such a weird, rare experience. Mostly they just kind of want to talk. Every time someone joins the page, every once in a while, I get the message, “You have a new member!” Maybe I should open it to friends and family of survivors.
BOLLEN: There is Meghan Daum, the writer. But in your essays, there is very much Meghan Daum, the character. The “I.” Does it feel weird when readers reach out trying to connect with that second Meghan Daum?
DAUM: No, I love it. I feel like that’s the reason that we write. That’s the reason I write. And that’s the reason we read a lot of the time. For me, one of the reasons I love this form—the personal essay form—is because it’s a way of forming an intimacy with the reader. What I’m saying to the reader is: I’m going to tell you something; I’m going to be generous; I’m going to offer. The confession, on the other hand, is sort of an imposition because you’re asking the reader to forgive you or somehow exonerate you or say, “Hey, I’m even worse.” But what I’m interested in doing is being generous and offering a perspective or suggesting a way of thinking about something. I do this in my newspaper column, too, so when I hear from people who say, “Thank you for writing that” or “What you’re saying is how I feel, but I just didn’t know how to articulate it or I was afraid to say it out loud,” that to me is exactly why I write. It means more to me to hear from people saying that kind of thing than it would be like to sell a million books or something. That’s why I do this—or choose to write about subjects like choosing not to have children. I find that is something that people are really hungry for and are really appreciative when I take it on.
BOLLEN: It reminds me of what you said in the Joni Mitchell essay about the difference between putting yourself out there and letting it all hang out, which is a critical distinction to make. And you’re right, most people don’t see that difference.
DAUM: “The Joni Mitchell Problem” is obviously not just about Joni Mitchell. It’s a sort of problem of life, but also the problem of creativity–of being appreciated for the wrong thing.
BOLLEN: Putting yourself out there is often confused for narcissism too.
DAUM: Or confused with complete disclosure. For everything I say in the book that seems very revealing, there are hundreds of things that I haven’t said and will never say. I really don’t see this as a book about me. I see this as a book about stuff that’s in the world right now and how we might look it in slightly different ways.
BOLLEN: There’s a footnote in the Joni Mitchell essay where you speculate that your suggestion that Bob Dylan is not the greatest poet will be the most scandalous thing you say. Has the backlash been merciless and swift?
DAUM: I haven’t gotten anything yet! But I haven’t been Googling myself.
BOLLEN: There’s an essay on Nora Ephron in the book and on her influence on you as well as on many other young female writers. With that and Joni Mitchell, the book does have a sub-theme of honoring these important influences.
DAUM: I remember I sent Nora My Misspent Youth because I mentioned her in one of the pieces because I’m so real-estate obsessed and she lived in the Apthorp. I asked for a blurb from her, and she said that she no longer blurbed for anyone because her gynecologist wrote a book and asked her, and her veterinarian wrote a book and asked her… [Bollen laughs]. So she said she couldn’t, “but I’ll take you to lunch,” which is how a lot of us met her. So it is a celebration of Nora. That’s interesting. And obviously being able to meet Joni Mitchell was a highlight of my life.
MEGHAN DAUM’S UNSPEAKABLE: AND OTHER SUBJECTS OF DISCUSSION IS OUT NOW VIA FARRAR, STRAUS, AND GIROUX.