A quick chat with the renowned essayist before the release of her latest collection, The Unspeakable.
by Kaylen Ralph
When Meghan Daum got her start as an writer, most people told her that she shouldn’t make a collection of essays her first book. My Misspent Youth, a book of essays, was published in 2001, and nearly 15 years later, it is constantly referenced as a premier example of larger picture, issue-driven prose with a deeply personal vantage point.
Daum’s latest essay collection, The Unspeakable, is a return to the genre she popularized with My Misspent Youth (though she’s certainly kept busy in the interim). The book, which will be released later this month, covers exactly what the title suggests–those taboo subjects that all of us, at least at some point, entertain when we’re alone with our thoughts (apathy toward a parent’s death, lack of a maternal calling, wishy-washy feelings about our partners). A general disregard for the traditional markers that denote the progression of middle age, and an exploration of why we beat ourselves up for this disregard, permeates the collection.
In addition to her essay writing, Daum writes a weekly column for the LA Times about social politics and cultural issues. Her recent columns have covered Brittany Maynard’s “date with death,” and the “Republican war on women” versus the war amongst women themselves.
In anticipation of The Unspeakable, enjoy 2.5 Minutes with Meghan Daum. She talks confessional writing, what she thinks about getting name-dropped in the New York Times recently, of course, what’s on her bedside table.
ON BEING AWARE OF WHAT “CONFESSIONAL” WRITING MEANS:
Daum doesn’t qualify herself as a “confessional” essayist (though admittedly the term is a loaded one that can mean different things to different writers and essays.) In her recent New York Times review of Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl, Sloane Crosley writes “every confessional essayist of this century owes a debt of gratitude to Meghan Daum for the opening graph of My Misspent Youth,” but as far as Daum is concerned, there’s a difference between confessing and confiding.
“There’s this sense, especially when you write personal essays, that you want to develop an intimacy with the reader, that you want the reader to feel that you’re speaking directly to her. And so, there are ways in which you can do that in a confessional way, but confession to me means to sort of blurt out everything and sort of…not being thoughtful and being deliberate in what you’re talking about. Now that’s just my definition…but I’m really interested in using my own experience as a tool, or a lens, through which to get to a larger experience.”
ON WHAT CHERYL STRAYED SAID ABOUT HER:
Crosley’s not the only one name-dropping Daum in the New York Times lately. In her Bookends essay from earlier this fall, Strayed brings up Daum specifically as one of the examples of personal essayists who are still being published in book form (rather than the internet).
“There is this notion that you need to write particular content in a particular way in order for people to click on it, so you get into this thing where you’re kind of revealing things about yourself that are going to get attention. That has become this sort of genre. Obviously there are people that are going to put me in that camp and I am very honest in my work and I don’t strive to sentimentalize myself or make myself look better than I am. I’m really not interested in revealing my worst behaviors as a way to feel better about it.”
ON USING YOUR READER AS YOUR CONFESSOR:
“If you’re confessing to your reader, that’s really an imposition, you’re really asking the reader to forgive you and that’s not fair, that’s not why readers read authors, it’s really sort of offensive, I think. It’s like, ‘look what a jerk I was,’ and then you want everyone to say ‘oh, you’re not a jerk, I did that too’…to me that is not the point of writing. It’s enough to ask your reader to read your work, I don’t think we need to ask the reader to forgive us or prop us up.”
ON WHAT SHE REFERS TO AS “TRAINWRECK LIT”:
Daum says certain topics are way overdone. Among those?
- I hate my kids too much
- I love my kids too much
- I love my dog more than my kids
“It’s so many things about relationships, so many things about the family dynamic, you see that all the time…I’m not so much sure it’s the subject matter, it’s the execution, which is a combination of the haste with which it has to be produced and the sort of click bait headlines that get slapped on the thing, and the pull quotes and Twitter lines…and it just feeds into this endless genre of, ‘Look at me and I’m a mess.’”
ON HER COLUMN FOR THE LA TIMES:
In addition to writing essays and longform for various publications, Daum also writes a weekly column for the LA Times. She covers social politics and cultural issues, although she says she won’t be going into “major policy discussions.”
“…I do like to talk about stuff that’s in the news. Political campaigns are really fun. If Hillary runs I will be so happy to be a columnist…it would be a really special time to be a columnist if she was a presidential nominee.”
ON HOW HER JOB AS A COLUMNIST MAKES HER A BETTER ESSAYIST:
Daum’s essays are the opposite of her columns. Her essays are “sprawling” and her columns necessitate attention to consistent and strict deadlines. Because of this practice, she’s learned not to stare at the wall for hours.
“The column has been great, because it’s forced me not to be precious about the work. Every week I have to write a new column and I have a couple of days to write it. I do have to accept that I can’t hit a homerun every week and that’s actually been tremendously liberating. Sometimes you just have to say, ‘This is not going to be the most brilliant masterpiece I’ve ever written, but it does say something, and let’s move on to the next thing.’”
ON WHAT’S ON HER BEDSIDE TABLE:
1. My Avante Garde Education by Bernard Cooper (to be released in February): “It’s a search for identity through aesthetic interest.”
2. My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: “I have not started that yet; it’s been there a long time.”
3. Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis: “Dylan’s a fantastic writer.”
4. Lonely Planet’s guide to India
5. “Various magazines and New Yorkers I haven’t finished yet.”
Photo credit: David Zaugh
Kaylen is one of The Riveter’s co-founders and editors. She moved to Minneapolis, MN after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism in August 2013. In addition to her editorial duties at The Riveter, Kaylen also works as a freelance researcher for The Sager Group. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @kaylenralph.