I'VE BEEN SCROLLING through some of the praise for Meghan Daum’s new collection of essays, one of those arrivals that warranted two reviews in The New York Times — as well as glowing notices in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, Mother Jones, The Boston Globe, Slate, Salon, Flavorwire, The Millions, Brainpickings, People — it’s among the best of 2014 in Slate, Entertainment Weekly, and the Huffington Post; it’s Cheryl Strayed’s pick of the year; it’s been called “fiercely intelligent,” “penetrating,” “beautiful and sublime,” “brilliant and incisive,” “radiantly intelligent,” and Daum herself has been characterized as “a master.” Last month, in her review here at LARB, Emily Fox Gordon wrote, “Essayists don’t seem to want to bear down, or perhaps they don’t know how. [...] Meghan Daum does.” And she does.
The Unspeakable collects 10 long-form essays — each one deeply considered and meticulously crafted — no gimmicks, no tricks; no white space, no leaning on manipulations of tense or form or genre (no question as to whether or not Daum is writing nonfiction) — it’s not that she couldn’t experiment if she wanted to: of course she could. However, Daum is rightfully sure of herself and her abilities — no need to be clever for clever’s sake, not in this collection anyway: there’s too much at stake — too much to bear down on.
Her intelligence is lock and key in her work, and it’s her voice, her sensibility, her persona on the page, that links one essay to the next. Among her great gifts — ever rueful, and self-mocking, and aware of all the angles as she is — Daum somehow manages to make the reader also feel smart, at no expense to the rigor of her thinking or her prose. The thing about artists — they actually are what they do: Meghan Daum is a writer. Also a daughter, a wife, a friend, a fan, a teacher, a lover of dogs, and a citizen with a conscience. Make no mistake, though: whatever else she’s doing, her work is never far from her mind.
Take the night she met Joni Mitchell: “This was an incredible evening,” she tells us. “[...] I couldn’t wait for it to end so I could go home and talk about it for the rest of my life.”
Come to think of it, “The Joni Mitchell Problem,” unobtrusively tucked in the middle of this collection (the sixth essay of the 10), might be my favorite. I mean — I love them all, and I love them collected. But though not one bit “unspeakable,” this endearingly revealing piece is as hilarious as it is moving, and as effective an artist’s manifesto as any I’ve read. The problem in question, Daum explains, is “the problem of either being not liked or being liked for the wrong reasons.”
She goes on:
I used to think Joni Mitchell was a big influence on my writing [...]
Now, however, I realized that Joni didn’t shape my approach to language as much as my approach to my own emotions. She taught me the power of not taking things personally. She taught me that feelings can be separated from the self, that they can undock from our psyches and hurtle their way to the outer reaches of the atmosphere, where they can transmit not just our own aches and agonies but also the collective invisible passions of, if not all of humanity, at least a whole bunch of people besides ourselves. She conditioned me to appreciate the concept of amor fati, another Neitzschean preoccupation that has to do with taking a positive view of all of life’s circumstances, including those shot through with suffering and loss. (Though possibly the real take away is that even if everything in life does not in fact “happen for a reason,” it always has the potential to be mined for the sake of art.)
To wit, The Unspeakable. But the title notwithstanding, Daum isn’t out to shock us. Not even to bare her soul. She has a much more generous agenda, in fact, as she revealed in our exchange last month.
DINAH LENNEY: Have I said (I have) — this cover is so great, so smart; it goes from a whisper to a shout, doesn’t it? It’s the perfect depiction of the perfect title — speaking of which, tell me how you came up with it?
MEGHAN DAUM: Well, I can’t take full credit. My editor, Alex Star at FSG, is partly responsible. I’m not sure exactly how it went, but I think my idea was to call the book “Unspeakable” and he thought of adding “The.” He also added “and other subjects of discussion,” which I love. And the title works on at least two levels. There are the “unspeakable” things in life that we all think and feel, but are bound by social convention or even a sense of personal decorum not to say out loud — for instance, not grieving for a parent’s death enough or in the “right” ways; not finding enjoyment in activities that have been culturally sanctioned as fun; not “valuing family,” whatever that means. But I also use “unspeakable” on a literal level. I had a freak illness in 2010 and in one of the essays I describe how, as I became sicker, I developed aphasia, which is to say I lost my ability to access language. I couldn’t match a word with a thought. A similar thing had happened to my mother as she was dying, which is something else I write about in the book.
But in this culture — is there any such thing as unspeakable? What’s a story you’d never tell — something you’d never say?
If I told you I’d have to kill you!
Seriously, though, as surprising as it may seem to some readers, who are under the impression that I’m “bold” or will “say anything,” there’s actually quite a lot I’d never write about or discuss publicly. I am mindful of privacy, my own and other people’s, and respectful of their right to their own stories. The things I choose to reveal have been distilled: I may talk about an embarrassing situation years ago in a relationship, or certain struggles in my marriage, but it’s in the service of a larger idea, something that speaks to questions of contemporary life itself rather than my quotidian concerns, which in and of themselves aren’t that interesting.
That said, I think what tends to be truly unspeakable in our current culture is not when someone is honest about her mistakes or struggles, but rather when she fails to learn from them, fails to transform on some level. We’re fundamentally attached to the redemption narrative: I was lost but now I’m found, I sinned but now I’m saved, I made lemonade from lemons, and so on. But the question I ask in different ways throughout the book is what happens when or if you don’t come out of a tough situation a better or changed person? What if you’re just the same person? And why is that not actually the best outcome?
Although, there’s redemption in that sort of insight, too, isn’t there? For a certain kind of reader. Who are you writing for?
That depends. The audience for my newspaper column isn’t necessarily the same as the audience for, say, a magazine article and, for that matter, a book like this one. There’s crossover, of course (I hope!) but you have to respect the boundaries and sensibility of the publication you’re working for. I’m given a lot of freedom in my L.A. Times column, but at the end of the day I still only have 730 words and there’s a degree of complication I just don’t have room to pursue. Part of the reason I wanted to write the essays in The Unspeakable was that I wanted to be able to work without restrictions of length and tone. I wanted to stretch out and give myself the space and intellectual leeway to write essays that reflected my style and areas of concern in as pure a way as possible. That’s not necessarily something that’s going to please every reader of my column or even people who might enjoy something I wrote for a place like Vogue. But I think a lot of those readers are coming along with me and, moreover, I’m finding new readers who might be less likely to read a newspaper column, but love this kind of essay.
Were you thinking of anyone special as you wrote this book? An ideal reader?
My ideal audience would be every literate person on earth, minus anyone I’m related to or grew up with.
I don’t mean to sound glib. I sincerely mean that. The first piece, “Matricide,” takes on my mother’s death and a legacy of mother-daughter antipathy in our family that continued even as I tried to help take care of her in her final months. The essay undoubtedly makes for painful reading on the part of many people who knew her, and I have to live with that everyday. The decision to publish it at all, in any form, was something I agonized about. Ultimately, I think I made the right decision, since the essay seems to be resonating with readers in a positive and meaningful way. (I’m getting multiple emails every day telling me as much.) Which doesn’t mean there aren’t dozens of people I wish I could call up and effectively say, “Don’t read this book, at least not this particular section. There’s no reason; no good will come of it.” Of course that would be presumptuous and insulting, as well as impossible. It’s not the writer’s job to control how people respond to the material after the fact; in fact, it’s none of our business. But as rewarding as it is to hear from readers who say, “Thank you; you’ve articulated something I wouldn’t or couldn’t put into words,” it doesn’t make me feel any better about the handful whose personal involvement in the subject matter makes for a very different reading experience.
That’s why, when people ask me if it’s “cathartic” to write this sort of material, I don’t know whether to laugh or to throw something at them. It’s not cathartic in the least. In many ways, I feel worse than I did before. Catharsis is for journal writing. Professional, published writing shouldn’t function as an outlet for the author’s emotional release. The work should have been gone over and revised and edited so many times that it’s become a separate entity from the events it’s describing, something that has its own contours and exists on its own terms. If it gives readers some feeling of catharsis, that’s great. But the author should have gotten that out of the way after the first draft or two. By the end, the only relief she should feel is that she doesn’t have to work on it anymore!
Does that mean you won’t revisit any of these subjects? Have you ever gone back to old material? From a different angle? Can you imagine that happening with one of the essays in this book?
I’ll almost certainly return to some of the same themes — authenticity, identity, and so on — which are ones I’ve been circling around for most of my writing life. The actual subjects, I don’t know. I remain interested in what it means to be childless, particularly by choice, in today’s world. I’ve edited an anthology of essays by 16 different writers looking at that topic, which will be out in the spring. So I’m excited to be a part of getting other voices out there talking about that subject, but the extent to which I’ll personally write more about it remains to be seen. My next big project may have something to do with end-of-life issues, though I’d like it to be less personal and more reported — which, unless I’m planning on dying myself, I guess goes without saying!
In the meantime, you’re a columnist — so you’re on the hunt for new topics all the time, right? Do you take suggestions from readers and editors? And would you be able to do that with your more personal work? That is, do you have friends or editors who know you well enough to be able to say to you: Meghan, you have to write about this...
The more personal, longer work tends to take on fairly abstract ideas, and that wouldn’t necessarily be the kind of thing someone would just think of and suggest that I write. The essays in this book, lord knows, aren’t anything I could have easily pitched to a magazine editor – “How about a piece on The Big Chill and thirtysomething and aging and nostalgia? How about a totally over-the-top riff about a certain aspect of lesbian culture and how a certain type of straight woman is viscerally drawn to it? And how about I give it a title that’s going to offend, like, half the people who might read it?” So I can say with relative certainty that none of the ideas in this book came from anyone other than myself. If anything, I’m the one who’s always telling people what to write. It’s probably a bad habit. Friends will tell me about something that happened to them and I’ll be like, “Hey, you should write about that!”, when, for them, maybe the experience itself was enough — or maybe they don’t want to dilute the memory by trying to pound it into something else.
As for column ideas, I welcome any and all suggestions. My husband keeps his eyes open for potential topics for me and has very good instincts by now. Even so, at least half the time, I get right up against deadline and have no idea what I’m going to write about. It’s terrifying, but I suppose there’s also an adrenaline rush to it.
But when you have to work that fast, you always end up thinking you could have done better, that you left something out, that you didn’t quite make your point. As much as I cringe at people blurting out stuff on social media, or writing personal essays and then throwing them up on the web the next day (so their Facebook friends can tell them how brave and brilliant they are regardless of whether they’ve read the piece), a newspaper column is similarly fraught with the hazards of hastiness. I never say things I don’t mean, of course. But sometimes I don’t do a 100 percent effective job of conveying my meaning.
That’s why this book, I promise, might be categorized as exactly what I wanted to say in exactly the way I wanted to say it. Whatever offenses one may take or qualms one may have, all I can say is there’s nothing in it that I didn’t go over again and again. Every risk I took was something I thought about really hard and discussed with my editor and some early, trusted readers in great detail. I guess what I’m saying is that I take full responsibility. No wonder I feel no relief.