I’d like to believe every committed bookworm has at least one eccentric reading habit. Maybe you can only read lying down, or in soft lighting. Maybe you can only read books with titles starting with the letter B. I don’t know, people have all kinds of weird things.
I noticed my book quirk recently. It’s this compulsive tick that only ever comes up when I’m reading nonfiction—that is, essay collections and memoirs. See, every 5 pages or so, without the willful decision to do so, I find myself flipping to the back of the book jacket to steal a look at the writer’s author photo. The narrator will say something particularly meaningful or revealing, and there I go, mindlessly capsizing the whole book to get another peek at his or her tasteful, monochromatic grin.
I’ve reasoned that I do this in an unconscious attempt to recreate the experience of the author telling me her story in person. Like if I match her prose to her face at consistent enough intervals, eventually she’ll be here, right in front of me, talking and gesticulating, her face lighting up at just the moments I want it to.
In real life though, authors usually aren’t quite how I picture them during my private imaginings. I’ll catch them in a YouTube video or at an author event, and they’ll be shorter than I thought, or their voice will be squeakier, or their personality jarringly shy. I admit, it’s disappointing when this happens. It’s my own fault, but I end up feeling a little duped. As if they painted themselves to be someone else on purpose. A case of the misleading online dating profile.
Meghan Daum, however, is exactly how I hoped and imagined she’d be. After reading Daum’s bestselling 2014 essay collection The Unspeakable, I attended a talk of hers in Santa Monica, CA; and somehow, from her all-black ensemble to the cadence of her voice as she read her melodically crafted, winding prose, Daum was just the woman who sat in front of me in my living room as I tore through The Unspeakable, glancing back at her author photo every 5 pages or so.
Now that may be a coincidence—perhaps I just happened to predict right with Meghan Daum—but with this book, I feel like it’s something more. Because throughout her collection of essays, Daum manages to craft a portrait of herself that feels both truthful and impressively full. The operative word there, of course, is “craft”—Daum will contend to the death that every detail she chooses to include of her life is a delicately chosen one. I don’t deny this in the least. In fact, I think it’s the very mark of a skilled memoirist: the ability to curate one’s self just so, revealing enough (but not a word more) to make readers feel as if there isn’t a detail we’ve missed—even though there really are thousands.
In order to get just a few more of those thousands, I had the recent pleasure of chatting with Meghan Daum. Read on to discover more about the author’s thoughts on creative “bravery,” Los Angeles, and finding time to write. For your reference, here’s that author photo again.
FORTH Sits Down with Meghan Daum
I wanted to write the essays specifically for the book for a couple of different reasons. First of all, I wanted to be able to write them on their own terms. If I’d published the pieces elsewhere ahead of time, they would bear the marks of the places in which they’d appeared. No matter how much autonomy an editor gives you, the writer still has an obligation to conform to the style and tone of the publication. My first essay collection, My Misspent Youth, was comprised largely of essays that had first been published elsewhere, places like The New Yorker, Harper’s, GQ. And even though I think the book is fairly cohesive, it does in some ways feel more like a greatest hits album than a totally unified entity. With The Unspeakable, I wanted to do a book that was a literary version of what back in the 1970s they used to call a “concept album.” I wanted it to be something you could either read straight through or in pieces. Also, I didn’t want readers to have that experience where they buy a collection of short stories or essays and suddenly it’s like “oh, I’ve already read all of these in magazines.” I wanted to make a meal with fresh ingredients.
In the essay “The Joni Mitchell Problem” you explain that Joni’s songs are not confessional like so many people think they are, but instead look generously outward. You’ve said that your essays aren’t confessional either—that the personal details you include are more carefully chosen than some epic spill. It seems though that the information you do divulge about your life and choices (your decision not to have children, your rocky relationship with your mother) required some amount of conscious bravery. Were you hesitant to tell any of these stories? If so, how did you push past that?
First of all, let me say that I hate being called “brave.” Most writers do. Because “brave” implies a certain recklessness or exhibitionism. “Brave” is doing something you’re afraid to do. “Brave” often involves relinquishing control. And I’m not afraid to take on the subjects I do because I have complete control over how I’m presenting them. It would terrify me to dump the contents of my brain onto a page and immediately publish it, but that’s never going to happen. Every detail or opinion I offer to the reader is carefully considered and put forth as a finished product. That said, I do not have control over how people are going to respond to the work. So it can be scary to publish something that I know isn’t going to float everyone’s boat. The essay you mention, Matricide, is probably the scariest thing I’ve published in my whole career. It’s a brutal, uncompromising piece that took me a very long time to write. The material is so sensitive that for every sentence I wrote, I took two away. But even when I got it where I wanted it, I seriously considered not publishing it. But ultimately I’m glad I did because I can’t tell you how many people have written to me and told me it resonated with them in what felt like really important ways. And while I know that the piece is inevitably going to be very upsetting to people who knew my mother personally—and, of course, knew her in a very different way that I did—I have to try to let go of that guilt as much as possible. But it’s not easy. I feel lots of guilt! But that’s not the same thing as fear.
“It can be scary to publish something that I know isn’t going to float everyone’s boat.”
What surprises me most about life in L.A. is now “un-L.A.” it is. Obviously, the entertainment industry dominates the culture to some degree, but there’s so much about the place that has nothing to do with Hollywood. For every person I know who works in the “industry,” I surely know several more who live the kinds of lives you could live anywhere. I know teachers and lawyers and architects and social workers. On my street, there’s a retired cop, a retired owner of an auto-body shop, a garden designer, a guy who repairs and sells motorcycles, a newspaper reporter (there’s also one of those in my house—my husband) and plenty of other people who are living pretty “normal” lives. And this is true for most of the city. In fact, there’s something almost generic about Los Angeles that is strangely liberating. It’s like a blank canvas onto which you can paint any kind of life you want. So as a writer, that’s freeing. I’m writing but I’m not living some kind of “writer’s life.”
“There’s something almost generic about Los Angeles that… as a writer… is strangely liberating.”
As a columnist for the LA Times, how/when do you find time to write other things? Is it difficult to write your own personal essays after a long day of writing for the paper?
That’s a good question! I do a lot outside of the column, so I’m basically always drowning in deadlines and always stressed out. The column runs on Thursdays, so I usually write on Mondays and sometimes partly into Tuesday. I’m a freelancer so it’s not like I go into the office or anything, but much of my focus does tend to revolve around the column. To write The Unspeakable, I went on a reduced schedule a couple of times, which was helpful. And I tried to be better about saying no to freelance assignments. But lately I’ve fallen off the wagon and am overloaded again. It’s hard, because often it’s less about the money (no surprise, since the money is often nil!) than the fact that the assignment is really interesting and I’m curious where it will take me. But sometimes the price you pay for that is that you live in your work and forget to live your life. Right now I’m teaching a class at Columbia (living in New York for awhile, in fact) so I’m totally overextended, which is both exhilarating and idiotic.
I actually don’t think my writing style has changed all that much over the years. When I was getting my MFA (at Columbia, actually, in the very program where I am now teaching) I kind of stumbled on this voice for writing essays and things began to click and I was able to build upon it and refine it. My style today may be a little less in-your-face than it was back then. I may have mellowed with age. But I think it’s a natural inclination for young writers to try to establish themselves by writing in a flashier, more aggressive way than a more seasoned writer might. I certainly bit off subject matter that was sometimes more than I could chew, so there are some pieces floating around out there that are a little bit over the top and perhaps more provocative than coherent (mercifully, they were largely pre-blogosphere and as a result pretty hard to track down.) But on the whole I don’t think my voice has changed radically.
The writers who’ve particularly influenced me include Joan Didion, who’s an obvious answer because I think she influences every young narrative nonfiction writer coming up, especially the women. I loved Woody Allen’s early short stories and humor pieces, like the stuff in his books Without Feathers and Side Effects. He had this whole high/low thing he did where he’d be juxtaposing really lofty and erudite references with really sophomoric humor. He asserted his intellect by making fun of intellectuals. I started ripping off that technique in high school and kind of just ran with it from there on out. I also read a lot of criticism when I was younger, particularly film criticism. I read Pauline Kael. I think I probably internalized her voice to some degree.
In March, Picador is publishing an anthology I edited about choosing not to have children. It’s called Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. It’s a project I’d wanted to do for a long time and I’m so excited that it’s finally coming to fruition. Too often this subject is discussed in really glib terms, like “I’d rather take expensive vacations than have kids.” But it’s a much more complicated decision that that and one that should be much more valued in the culture. So I’m eager to see this book out in the world.
After this, believe it or not, I have to answer another set of questions. Then I need to prepare to teach my class. Then I need to do some reporting for an assignment that’s due in few weeks and also start thinking about next week’s column. And I have about 30 emails to reply to. At some point maybe I’ll get dressed. Or maybe not.
Photo by David Zaugh
Meghan Daum is the author of a new collection of original essays The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion. She is also the author of the essay collection My Misspent Youth, the novel The Quality of Life Report, and Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, a memoir. Since 2005, she has been an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Times, covering cultural and political topics. Meghan has written for numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Vogue.