Meghan Daum has written two popular essay collections, My Misspent Youth (Open City Books, 2001) and The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (FSG, 2014), which won the 2015 PEN Center USA Award for creative nonfiction. Daum has also written a novel, The Quality of Life Report (Viking, 2003) and a memoir, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House (Knopf, 2010). She is the editor of the New York Times bestselling essay anthology Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not To Have Kids (Picador, 2015).
In addition to her books, Daum has been an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Times for over a decade, covering cultural and political topics. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and Vogue, among others. Daum is the recipient of a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and is an adjunct associate professor in the MFA Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
EB: First things first: how did you begin writing nonfiction?
MD: I entered the Columbia MFA Writing program in 1993 as a fiction student. At that time, “creative nonfiction” was more oxymoron than legitimate genre, and I had this idea that if you were a writer you were either a journalist or a fiction writer. I was interested in both, but I didn’t see myself as a newspaper reporter or anything like that so I figured I’d write short stories and eventually maybe a novel. But I ended up taking a nonfiction workshop during my second semester at Columbia and I stumbled into the personal essay form and everything started clicking.
EB: The personal essay also made me fall in love with creative nonfiction. What attracted you to personal essays? What do you find most satisfying about them?
MD: I love the personal essay because it can incorporate so many different genres in a single piece of writing. There can be elements of reporting, criticism, memoir, poetry, comedy, and on and on. Certain stand-up comics are essentially essayists in that they’re up on stage reflecting on a set of ideas or observations. George Carlin was this kind of comedian. Today I’d put Louis CK in that category, too.
EB: What do you think you personally bring to your nonfiction? What makes something Meghan Daum nonfiction, as opposed to Margo Jefferson nonfiction or Lia Purpura nonfiction?
MD: I think it can be difficult for creative people to talk about what makes their work “their work” as opposed to someone else’s work. It’s an easier analysis for an outside person.
EB: That’s fair. Lia Purpura said the same thing.
MD: What I can say is that I think I have a particular way of approaching the sound and rhythm of my sentences and, in turn, the rhythm of the sentences within paragraphs. I come from a family of musicians and studied music for many years so I think my writing, aesthetically, is affected by a certain awareness of the way things sound. In terms of content and subject matter, I’m interested in looking at the world in counterintuitive and fresh ways. I’m interested in challenging conventional thinking and predictable ideology. I tend to be very interested in issues around social class and the way class signifiers often aren’t directly tied to money but, rather, to much subtler expressions of how people operate in the world.
EB: Speaking of how people operate in the world, how has being a woman affected your experience as a writer?
MD: It’s kind of hard to answer that question because I’ve only ever been a woman so I’m not sure what would have been different if I were a man.
EB: Ha, true!
MD: I definitely put in many years in the trenches of women’s magazines, writing some really inane articles and basically just feeding the machine that runs on the edict of “your life is a problem; we’ll sell you the solutions.” It can be gross to read and even grosser to write. But it’s not like anyone forced me into that realm. My participation reflected my own choices as much as anything else. It also reflected the fact that I was always trying to make a buck, always scrambling to pay my rent, so I couldn’t always afford to do the kind of high-end, intellectual or artsy assignments that would have been cool but did not pay anything. I think I could have become a foreign correspondent or an expert of legal affairs or something and avoided the women’s magazine ghetto. But instead I got an editorial assistant job at Condé Nast right out of college and that kind of set me on a particular path. Honestly, I think my career has been much less affected by “being a woman” than by being a person who didn’t come from a lot of money or have an independent revenue stream.
This will probably engender some pushback but I’ve thought about this a lot and I’ve never felt overtly discriminated against as a woman writer or even, really, a woman, at least not in a big way. But I also recognize that I’ve had the privilege of a particular kind of female experience. I went to a traditionally all-women’s college and then I worked in publishing and New York media, which is dominated by women. Almost all of my bosses and editors have been women. As a newspaper opinion columnist, I do sometimes get male readers who use a notably condescending tone when they write to tell me they disagreed with what I said. In the beginning, especially, there was a “who do you think you are, writing for this page?” kind of thing, and maybe it came disproportionately from men. But all writers or public people who put themselves and their opinions out there are going to get kneecapped in some way. It comes with the territory. To me, the key is to not waste your time getting in email fights or Twitter wars with those people.
EB: Ugh, Twitter wars. Thank you. That’s good advice. In general, though, how has writing nonfiction affected your life, regardless of your gender?
MD: “Writing nonfiction” encompasses a broad range of pursuits. It can mean writing a newspaper opinion column, as I have for more than a decade. It can mean writing cultural criticism or celebrity profiles or serious reported articles or the labels of vitamin bottles, all of which I’ve also done.
EB: What about writing personal essays? How has writing those affected your life?
MD: It’s a tricky thing to be engaged in. On one hand, the job of the personal essayist is to be honest, to be vulnerable to some degree, to speak “difficult truths.” But the job of a self-respecting adult with healthy boundaries is to not reveal every single thing about yourself, not upset people just for the sake of upsetting them. So you want to maintain some kind of a balance between your writing persona and your actual, real life personality.
EB: Would you say that’s your biggest challenge when writing nonfiction?
MD: The challenges of writing nonfiction vary depending on the kind of nonfiction it is. Obviously a personal essay is going to present some different problems than a piece of reporting or a piece of criticism. But across the board I think one of the main challenges is figuring how to be accurate while also being engaging, even entertaining (i.e. not boring). Nonfiction comes with a certain set of limitations because, even in the more creative realms, you’re still dealing with facts, with actual events. If you’re talking about someone else or recounting something they did or said, you can’t just make it up. You’re stuck with what really happened. So they key is to figure out how to tell a true story that in some ways reads like a fictional story. I don’t mean a fictional story that is sensationalistic but one that has a beginning, middle and end and hews to certain conventions of traditional storytelling.
EB: In addition to two collections of essays and a memoir, you’ve written a novel, The Quality of Life Report. How is writing fiction similar to or different from writing nonfiction?
MD: Writing a novel was great fun because of the very reason I just mentioned. I had the luxury of making things up! Though I consider The Quality of Life Report to be an “essayistic” kind of novel in that it plunges into long ruminations here and there, I was still dealing with “characters” rather than real people, and I could invent totally absurd situations for the sake of humor. I had great fun writing that book in a way I’ve never really had fun writing nonfiction. That’s not to say writing nonfiction can’t be fun or even exhilarating at times. But writing Quality of Life I was literally sitting at my desk laughing out loud a lot of the time. And I can’t say that about any other project I’ve done.
EB: You’ve also edited the collection Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. When you’re reading nonfiction, what do you look for? What catches your attention and holds your interest? Is it different from the kind of nonfiction that you write?
MD: The essays in Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed—all but two, anyway—were written specifically for the book. I commissioned the writers based on conversations we had about what kind of piece they might write, what they might have to say that was different from what other people in the book were saying, what they might have to say that hadn’t been said a lot in general. As an editor, I was looking for many of the same qualities I strive for in my own writing: emotional and intellectual honesty, clarity, humor, the courage to say something that won’t necessarily make the reader “like” you. These were all gifted, professional writers and I didn’t want to be too prescriptive. That said, the one thing I was very clear about was that the essays needed to go beyond the kinds of sarcastic, dismissive rhetoric we hear too often when it comes to talking about the decision not to have kids. I didn’t want any “I’d rather take expensive vacations!” or “I forgot to have kids!” I didn’t want words like “breeders” or “brats.” I wanted thoughtful, respectful pieces that delved into the subject in a way that went beyond punch lines or cheap shots.
EB: I really appreciated that when reading the collection. It felt like the first book I had ever read that really took the question of having kids so seriously and thoughtfully, and as a woman in her late twenties, surrounded by people getting married and starting to have kids, this is a subject that has been on my mind a lot lately. Thank you for putting together that book. Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
MD: This isn’t really a passage from literature but I like Fran Lebowitz’s line “Stand firm in your refusal to remain conscious during algebra. In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra.”
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.