Meghan Daum on Writing What Nobody Will Say

Photo: David Zaugh

Maybe you once found yourself in the dimming light of your 20s. And maybe someone handed you a copy of the book My Misspent Youth and maybe you thought, Finally, someone has written exactly how I feel. That someone, in this tortured hypothetical, would be Meghan Daum. She was in her own waning 20s when she wrote the title essay for The New Yorker in 1999. In the collection that followed, she served up her own life as a case study in what it meant to be a young, smart woman full of ambition and complexity. This week, Daum’s latest book of essays applies the same wit and brutal self-examination to life’s middle years — the 40s. The book is titled Unspeakable, and it takes its name from the idea that so much of the real stuff of life is off-limits for conversation: that we fail to learn from our mistakes, that we don’t want the things we’re supposed to want — like kids — or feel the things we’re supposed to feel — like sad at the death of a parent or changed by a near-death experience. It’s rich stuff, and so, of course, we had a lot to discuss.

This really does feel like an essay collection as opposed to memoir. The pieces talk to each other, but they also stand alone.
I love the essay. It’s my favorite genre to work in. None of the pieces appeared in any magazines or anything like that. They were all written for this collection to be presented with each other. A lot of them have to do with aging, or, what is this period of the 40s? Is that middle age? It doesn’t sound right to say it’s middle age. Is it the twilight of youth or something like that?

It seems to me that if there’s one lesson from the 40s you’ve gleaned, it’s to be comfortable with who you are — “You do you,” as millennials would say. It kind of sounds like a message of self-love —
Oh God …

— which I’m sure you would hate.
Self-love or … there’s a fine line between self-love and self-loathe, I guess. That’s funny. I don’t think anyone has ever … it’s kind of like the moment in the book where someone accused me of being a romantic. I don’t think anyone’s ever accused me of too much self-love.

You know, one of the unspeakable things that I touch on a lot and that I think might even be the most unspeakable way of carrying on is this idea of not improving from an experience, not becoming a better person, not having a redemption. Our culture is so obsessed with the idea that you’re going to go through a crisis or some difficult event and come out the other side a changed or improved person and I just think that if you’re honest, that often does not happen, and in fact, it shouldn’t happen. Shouldn’t recovering from a crisis be measured in whether you stayed the same? I mean, I went through a horrible illness, and thank God, I came out the same person. I see that as a triumph. But we’re so unwilling to admit that, and there’s such a stigma in the culture about sort of not growing or not being interested in growing or not going beyond your comfort zone, all these aphorisms that come from self-help culture and 12-step culture. So, to me, I guess being in my 40s has been a process of accepting not self-love, but self-tolerance. Maybe that’s what it is. I’m working on self-tolerance.

You even write that you’d rather dig deeper into your comfort zone than do the things that you know you’re not good at or don’t particularly like. On the one hand, I totally agree — we all enjoy doing things we’re good at — but shouldn’t we at least try to improve? Shouldn’t we try to be better people than we are?
If you’re a really horrible person, yes, you should try to be a better person. But what does “better person” mean? If trying to be a better person means you’re going to try to, for instance, do volunteer work that you don’t really want to do or that doesn’t interest you, and that you can’t really put your heart and soul behind, I don’t think that’s becoming a better person. If you do the things you enjoy and are good at, I really have a feeling that that will lead to having a fulfilling life and people with fulfilling lives are able to be “good people.” Whatever that means; I mean, that’s a very loose definition. Take whether or not you want children. If you don’t really want children and you think that somehow you’re going to be a better person if you force yourself to become a parent that seems to me totally backward. The way to become a good person and to become a productive, interesting member of society is to do, I guess like you say, “You do you.” Figure out who you are, and do the best job of it as you can.

Yeah, but even just figuring out who you are can take your whole life. Let me put it another way: Do you make New Year’s resolutions?
No, never.

That’s really interesting to me. I think resolutions bridge the gap between who you actually are and who you think you’re supposed to be, so even if you know whether you want to have kids, there’s still this distance between your ideal self in your own mind and how you’re acting.
I guess I felt this way more when I was younger. Obviously, it’s not like I don’t try to live the best life I can — I hate that saying — don’t even quote me on that.

In your book you called it living your right life. You know you’re content when you’re living your right life.
Yes, that’s perfect. You should coin this. It’s not living your best life; it’s living your right life. I guess your right life is your best life, though, so I don’t know if that really squares. But I mean, the career advice that I usually give, and the career advice that I’ve taken is usually this — and this goes back to the essay — I am an essayist because that, to me, is the genre that works best for me. It just feels very natural to me. I love it. I wrote this book of essays early in my career that I was advised across the board not to write because it would ruin my career: “Nobody likes essays.” Fifteen years later, this is the book that people talk about the most, and so doing this book I thought, “What am I? What has been the most satisfying genre for me?” And it’s essays, and it’s this particular kind of essay, so with this I wanted to stay narrow, and go deep, and that’s what it is. And I think that’s a good way to just sort of live. Figure out what you like, and what you’re good at, and do it to death.

You make this distinction between what you do in your essays and confessional writing, between, as you write,“letting it all hang out” and “putting it out there.”
Obviously, everyone defines confessional in their own way. For me, being confessional would be just kind of revealing your secrets and not processing them in any way, just kind of presenting your diary, for instance. I really am not interested in sitting down to write something personal unless it’s going to transcend my own experience and talk about something larger. That, to me, is the difference between putting yourself out there and letting it all hang out. “Putting yourself out there,” to me, has to do with using my experiences as a lens through which to look at larger phenomena.

Speaking of larger phenomena, it feels like we’re in a weird feminist moment right now.
With an emphasis on weird, yeah.

To me, most of the conversation about feminism now has this early ‘90s, p.c. quality, and it’s also mediated by the internet, so it’s really hard to tell what’s real, and I’m curious what your take is on it.
I would love to have some kind of summit meeting where the second-wave feminists, like the baby boomers, and the Gen-X feminists, like my cohort, and the millennial feminists all got together and tried to explain to each other what the contours of their sensibilities really are, because I think that the Gen-X feminists have a really hard time understanding where the millennial feminists are coming from, and that’s too bad. And we don’t understand this, even though the millennial feminists are constantly expressing themselves on Twitter, and in the Jezebel comments, and everywhere else, and it seems like there’s an inability to understand that women, as a group, feminists, can agree on the big ideas, while also disagreeing on lots of smaller ideas. In terms of the p.c. stuff, yeah, it reminds me very much of the ‘90s, but in the ‘90s we didn’t have the internet. This stuff was not being expressed at the speed of light.

Of the people you read, who do you think is getting it right?
I think Rebecca Traister is great. I think what she writes is really interesting. And Bethany Saltman, who wrote about affirmative consent at Antioch for your magazine, I thought she did a really good job with that piece. I read some that’s really interesting that contributes to the discussion in a powerful way, and other stuff that seems off the cuff and not thought out. Not everybody has the luxury of writing what they think and then having the opportunity to revise it and then publish it. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel that I came of age as a writer before the blogosphere. I mean I had editors whom I worked with. There was a long time to go back and forth on it — I mean, I wrote a whole piece about this in The Believer, about audience reaction and commenting. I started off before all that was really going on. You weren’t writing something and then having readers instantly respond. You heard about it in a few weeks when they started getting letters to the editor, so it’s a very, very different experience.

Do you think writing with that instantaneous reaction would have inhibited your writing?
Definitely. I notice this in students, and I notice this in younger writers. There is a sense of looking over your shoulder as you’re writing and expressing an opinion, because you have this anticipatory anxiety about what the comments are going to say or who’s going to tweet something or call you out on Twitter, or what the reaction is going to be, and I think that’s too bad, because writing is about putting an idea into the world, and letting it kind of sit there for a while and giving people a chance to absorb it. If the blogosphere had been around when I was starting off as a professional writer in the early ‘90s, I don’t know if I would’ve taken some of the risks that I did. I definitely wrote pieces that were very much the work of a young person and were just deliberately polarizing and certainly, I never wrote anything that I didn’t believe, but I was a very aggressive kind of writer.

And you also had the luxury of once it was off the newsstand —
— it went away forever.

Yeah, exactly. You didn’t have it following you around every time you wrote something new. 
Exactly, exactly. Now, it’s sort of at once disposable and nonbiodegradable, you know? It’s like everything that is written is kind of the equivalent of Styrofoam. 

I was going to say a plastic bag, yeah.
Yes, right. I’m including myself in this. I’m saying, all of us when we write on the web, it’s Styrofoam. It’s disposable; you don’t need it after five minutes, and yet it’s never going to go away. It will never break down and be reabsorbed. And that’s a very different kind of experience as a writer.

Is there anything else people should know about this collection?
I guess I would say that to me, I think so much of it is really funny. I mean, the first piece is called “Matricide,” it’s about my mother dying, and about me getting sick. But it’s not a downer. I noticed that Amazon put it in the death and bereavement subcategory. But it’s not something that you want to give away at funeral homes or anything, despite the categorization.

Meghan Daum on Writing What Nobody Will Say