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Meghan Daum: ‘Why does tragedy have to be cathartic or redemptive?’

April 11, 2016

Published in Daily Life, November 2015. 

“I’ve always been somebody who exerts a great deal of energy trying to get my realities to match my fantasies,” writes Meghan Daum in her 1999 New Yorker essay ‘My Misspent Youth‘. “Even if the fantasies are made from materials that are no longer manufactured.” The piece, which traces Daum’s attempts to make it as a writer in New York by buying into the overpriced trappings of lifestyle (pricey martinis, hardwood floors) summed up the directly proportional relationship between twenty-something ambition and financial ruin more than a decade before Girls‘ Hannah Horvath. It also proved that some writers have a knack for both predicting the zeitgeist and ushering it in.

“It’s so funny that people now think of that as a classic essay because at the time I was called out for being self-indulgent and whiny,” laughs Daum, whose work appears everywhere from Vogue to GQ and who’s speaking to me from New York, where she’s recently relocated after 13 years in LA.  “I grew up mostly in New Jersey – so if you grow up in the suburbs of a city, you’re sort of drawn to that city in that mythological way. When I was in high school, I watched a lot of Woody Allen movies and realised that there was a culture and an intellectual community there and I became totally fascinated by that. Because of this, I thought that you could work at a tiny, non-profit art magazine and still live in a huge apartment on the Upper West Side. I didn’t think the story was going to be timeless but I did feel very strongly about publishing it and wanted to tell it in a particular way. At one point, I was dealing with an editor who didn’t like it but I felt so strongly about it that I told myself that if it didn’t run I would write it on a billboard. Because I couldn’t afford to rent a billboard, that could never have happened.”

Although ‘My Misspent Youth’, which gave rise to a 2001 collection of the same name and prompted Daum’s move to Nebraska, is considered a touchstone for a generation of writers (swap New York for London or Melbourne and fresh-cut flowers for cold-drip coffee and see what I mean) it also signposted Daum’s own terrain as an essayist – a commitment to exposing the gulf between the stories we tell ourselves and the substance of our actual lives. From “I Nearly Died, So What?”, a New York Times piece about how a brush with a fatal disease taught her less about how near-death experiences transform us than it did about our culture’s insistence that the sick teach us something to “Difference Maker“, which appears in her new collection The Unspeakable and reconciles her own ambivalence towards motherhood and her volunteer work with troubled children, she uses her own experiences to peel away our collective delusions. And, in spite of the growing belief that first-person writing (particularly first-person writing by women) has all the artistic integrity of a Livejournal, her work is warm yet sharply observed, empathetic but brutally honest. It’s a sensibility that also underpins the approach she took as editor ofSelfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, a 2015 anthology that sees 16 writers explore their decision to remain childless by choice.

“It was a project that I wanted to do for a very long time and I could never get anyone interested until now,” says Daum, who’s also a longtime columnist for the LA Times and won the PEN Centre USA Creative Nonfiction Award for The Unspeakable in September 2015. “I think the decision to avoid having kids is as interesting to parents as it is to non-parents. Selfishness is such a funny word – it often gets bandied about and a lot of us tend to call parents selfish. The title is tongue in cheek because it requires a certain selfishness to get out of bed in the morning! I feel like thinking long and hard about whether you want a child is respecting parenthood. On both sides, there’s been a thoughtlessness in terms of how we talk about it. It’s really hard to raise kids in this world, in this particular moment and being a parent is an important job. It should be done by people who want to do it.”

“I almost didn’t publish that essay – it took me almost a year, I started and then I stopped and when I finished it and showed it to some friends and they said I had to go ahead with it,” recalls Daum, who also wrote Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, a memoir about her real estate addiction and tells me that she has ideas for a new novel and a non-fiction book in the works. “I feel like with so much of what we experience in life, there’s this mandate to have a cathartic experience or a redemptive experience through crisis and tragedy. But if you don’t have that experience you’ve failed. For me, it’s like ‘what better way of weathering a situation than staying the same person?’ but it’s something our culture just doesn’t like. I hate the word confessional, because I feel like your job as a writer is to confide in order to achieve a certain intimacy with the reader. You don’t do that by trying to make yourself look better than you are. You do that by being honest.”


Posted on April 11, 2016