On False Sentimentality, Womanhood, and Getting with the Program

A Conversation with Meghan Daum

Nearly fifteen years after her debut essay collection, My Misspent Youth, unforgettably captured the anxieties, aspirations, and hypocrisies of a generation, Meghan Daum returns to the personal essay with a masterful collection of previously unpublished work, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion. In these insightful and provocative new essays, Daum pushes back against false sentimentality and manufactured emotion in American life. Here, she talks about the new book, womanhood, and being mercilessly honest in her writing.

The Unspeakable
Barnes and Noble

Work in Progress: Your new book is called The Unspeakable and yet you’re “speaking” to us for 200-plus pages. So what, exactly, are you talking about?

Meghan Daum: The essays cover a range of subjects but they all circle around the idea of emotional dissonance—that disconnect between what we think we’re supposed to feel and what we actually feel. Basically, it’s about what it’s like when you just can’t get with the program.

WiP: So for instance, the first essay, “Matricide,” is about your mother’s death and explores the tension between prescribed emotion and the real thing.

MD: Exactly, and the fact that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. In a crisis, there’s so much pressure to learn a lesson from all the hardship, to have an epiphany or an “a-ha” moment that will change you forever. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if a daughter doesn’t grow closer to her dying mother as she helps care for her? What if dying itself offers no answers about life? The last essay in the book is about several days I spent in a coma after contracting a freak illness. I was told again and again that it was a “miracle” that I survived. People asked me how I was going live my life differently now that I’d been given a second chance. The fact that I had no answers made me feel as though I was letting everyone down. As much as I would have loved to have some kind of spiritual or existential breakthrough, I was pretty sure I’d go back to being my usual flawed, myopic self. But given how sick I was, that in and of itself was a kind of miracle. (By the way, not all the essays are so heavy!)

WiP: Not to put too fine a point on it, but there are moments in many of the essays when you do not come off well.

MD: It’s true, visiting a spirit guide counselor who beat drums and chanted while I lay on a massage table wearing flashing glasses was perhaps not my finest hour, though it might have been among the more amusing experiences I had that year. There may also be readers who are not totally endeared to someone who’d enter her dog in an online photo contest. And of course it gets much worse than that. Sometimes I’m downright appalling. I talk about how my brother and I hired a woman, who I call Vera, to help take care of our mother while she was dying. Vera must have been dumbfounded by our family’s apparent lack of emotion. In one scene we actually start packing up my mother’s apartment while she’s lying there unconscious in a hospital bed in the living room. We have our reasons for this, but they’re not what every reader might consider good ones. At one point I actually reach around the hospital bed to unplug some lamps that I’m going to ship to my own house. It’s a really damning image that I almost didn’t include. But it’s an image that rolls through my memory almost daily, which means that leaving it out of the essay would have been fundamentally dishonest.

I think that when you write about yourself (and I consider this a dubious enterprise, despite my heavy trafficking in it), the debt you owe the reader for indulging you is to be mercilessly honest. You have to be willing to present your lowest moments. Otherwise, you’re just promoting yourself. You’re writing a personal ad. What’s more, you have to present those moments in such a way that the reader knows that you know how low they are. You can’t just lay them out there like “Look what a jerk I was!” They have to mean something. There has to be insight born of hindsight. Otherwise, you’re only confessing your sins and asking the reader to forgive you. And that is a complete misuse of the writer’s power and unfair to the reader.

WiP: Does all this unflattering light make you uneasy?

MD: Of course it does, but only up to a point. There are all sorts of things in these essays that readers could potentially be put off by: my conflicted feelings about children and family life, my resistance to learning how to cook, my use of the word “dyke” in a title. There are probably going to be people who lose all respect for me because I dare to say that Bob Dylan is an inferior musician to Joni Mitchell (even though it’s completely true). And I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me feel bad.

But the uneasiness exists mainly on a personal level. I worry about upsetting people I know and care about. I’m sure my in-laws don’t love that I’m writing about struggles in my marriage around my decision not to have children. My parents don’t exactly have a great track record of liking or understanding everything I write—my mother would often tell me, “I just don’t see the point of saying all this!” So that can be an area of anxiety. But when it comes to readers at large, they can think of me what they wish. Because if you want your work to connect with people, you have to accept that it’s going to alienate others. I always tell students, “nobody will love you unless somebody hates you.” Maybe I’ve learned this from being a Los Angeles Times opinion columnist for nine years. If I don’t get nice letters and angry letters in fairly equal measure, I’m not doing my job. That said, readers tend more to write letters when they’re angry.

WiP: What about writing about other people? Where do you draw the line? Do people ever get mad at you?

MD: Many years ago I was on a date with a man who had an unusual, shall we say, “side interest.” I asked him to tell me about it and he said, “Only if you promise not to write about me.” I told him I never make that promise. It would be impossible to promise such a thing, since for me writing and thinking are so closely intertwined. Asking me not to write about something is like asking me not to think about it. In part this was an attempt to appear mysterious and coy on the date—“I don’t make promises, big guy”—but I was also dead serious. For better or worse, I see most of the world as fair game. However, this means you play the game fairly. As I told my date, I’d never use someone’s name without permission and I’d never tell a story that was more someone else’s than mine. In other words, anything I recounted would never be just about them but about how they figured into a particular event or situation I was also part of. If someone has a particular story he carries around with him, a story that’s discernably his own, I wouldn’t touch it. Or, if I really felt I had to for some reason, I would ask permission.

WiP: Fifteen years have passed since the publication of My Misspent Youth which is considered something of a cult classic. Do you see The Unspeakable as the sequel?

MD: It crossed my mind to call this book My Misspent Middle Age, but that didn’t get too far up the flagpole. It’s not a sequel, but it’s certainly a return to the form. I love the essay as a genre since it can incorporate so many other genres—memoir, reportage, scholarship, satire. I feel like really good stand-up comedy can function as an essay. Louis C. K. is a kind of essayist (so is Joni Mitchell, as I talk about in the book—though not that she’s a comedian). I’ve written a lot of essays in the years since My Misspent Youth, but they were mostly magazine pieces that had certain restrictions in terms of length and subject and tone. For this project, I wanted to stretch out and write long pieces about ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

Also, obviously these essays reflect a different stage of life than the pieces in My Misspent Youth. They were all written when I was over forty and they deal mainly with things that happened in my thirties and early forties. They’re a kind of window into a time in life when you’re neither old nor young. I guess you’re supposed to call it middle age, but since people in their sixties identify as middle aged I’m not sure that’s the right term. It’s more like the twilight of youth, the threshold between a world in which you have infinite possibilities and one in which many of your decisions represent a point of no return. In many ways, the essays are about figuring out what it means to be an adult and, from there, deciding what kind of adult you want to be.

WiP: You have an essay called “Honorary Dyke.” Should we be offended?

MD: Offense is in the eye of the offended, so that’s not for me to say. The title aside, the essay is really a valentine to womanhood in general and to a couple of women in particular. The idea of being an “honorary lesbian” was a subject I’d been kicking around for years. I wanted to dissect the nuances of my attraction to an aesthetic that’s often associated with a particular segment of lesbian culture. It’s nothing I could ever really articulate in a casual conversation, but I knew I’d eventually get around to exploring it in a long essay. For some reason, “Honorary Dyke” feels to me like an analog to an essay in My Misspent Youth called “Music Is My Bag,” which is about the subculture of high school band and orchestra nerds, the kids who carry tote bags that say, “Music is my bag.” The subjects are totally different but the tone and energy feel similar. I remember a certain exuberance while writing “Music Is My Bag” that I also felt while writing “Honorary Dyke.” Of course, “Music Is My Bag” has a sort of innocent, childlike quality whereas this one, despite being a very feminist piece of writing, has a blatantly politically incorrect title that might alienate some of the very people it’s meant to embrace. I really hope that doesn’t happen, but if it does it does. Everyone is entitled to his or her own reactions, even if those reactions come from humorlessness, tone deafness, or general cluelessness: the three horsemen of my personal apocalypse!

WiP: What’s next for you?

MD: I’m editing an anthology of essays about making the choice not to have children. It’s called Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed and it includes sixteen amazingly thoughtful and honest pieces by sixteen writers. I’d always wanted to do a project like this because I’ve long been convinced that voluntary childless people have some of the worst PR in the world. The stereotype is that we don’t want kids because we’re fundamentally selfish. But I’d like to see society get to a place where parents and non-parents are no longer pitted as adversaries and those who choose not to have kids aren’t just “accepted” but seen as vital to a well-rounded community. I can’t wait to get the book out into the world next spring.

WiP: But first,The Unspeakable. Any final words you’d like to speak?

I guess I’d say that if the “subject” of The Unspeakable is emotional dissonance, the very prominent subtext is simply this: it can be hard to feel like a real grown-up. Getting older brings on what you might call a chronological dissonance; you know you’re technically an adult, but you don’t really feel like one—or at least you don’t feel the things that, when you were younger, you imagined you’d feel when you grew up. There’s an essay in the book called “Not What It Used to Be,” which starts off with my horrified realization that the characters in the movie “The Big Chill” and the television series “thirtysomething”—characters who I always saw as quintessential adults—are actually younger than I am now. And I’m thinking to myself, I feel like a kid compared to those characters. How did I manage to grow old without actually growing up? I suspect this is a pretty common form of dissonance. I write in that essay that most members of the AARP probably go around feeling just as confused and fraudulent as high school students. You might even be able to make the case that not feeling grown up is a sign that you actually are. It’s kind of like worrying that you’re crazy supposedly means you’re not. I’m banking on that being true.

Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the author of the essay collection My Misspent Youth. She is also the author of Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House and The Quality of Life Report, a novel. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Times Book Review, Vogue, and other publications. She has also contributed to NPR’s Morning Edition, Marketplace, and This American Life. She lives in Los Angeles, California.