I’m absolutely thrilled to share my interview with New York Times bestselling author, Meghan Daum. Meghan was so generous with her answers to my questions about her writing process, what drew her to the personal essay, her new presence on Medium and the responsibilities we face as writers.
What drew you to the personal essay? What do you think about those who criticize the genre for being too “I” focused, or perhaps even egotistical?
I first sunk my teeth into the personal essay back in the mid-1990s when I began seriously read Joan Didion. I was in graduate school in an MFA writing program. I had originally gone there as a fiction writer, but I decided to take a nonfiction workshop one semester and between that and reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album I suddenly realized that I was meant to be an essayist. What I liked about it was that I could combine my journalistic instincts with my literary instincts. I was always driven more by ideas than by plotline (otherwise, I’d be working a lot more in Hollywood). So the essay—and Didion exemplified this so perfectly in pieces like On Self-Respect and Goodbye To All That—becomes a genre where the idea is what’s telling the story. That was something I could do. The genre just felt like a good fit for me.
As for the criticism that personal essays are too “I” focused; it’s a valid one! There are far too many poorly written, insufficiently considered, barely edited, and often gratuitously provocative personal essays floating around out there. This is in large part a casualty of digital media. Publishing outlets are desperate for content, and personal essays are readily and cheaply available. Publications don’t have to pay people the same kind of money to write a personal essay—or a hot take opinion kind of piece—as they have to pay for people to go out and do actual reporting. So you end up with an economic reward system for some of the worst kinds of writing, which is first person stuff where the author is using the reader more as a sounding board than an audience.
That said, there are tons of magnificent personal essays out there that have had the benefit of editing and rewriting and really speak well for the genre. Like I tell students, if you use your personal experience as a lens through which to look at larger cultural and social phenomena, you can dodge the solipsism bullet. Put another way, your story is only part of the story. As personal essayists, we need to be anthropologists, too. We need to recognize that delving into our own thoughts is really a way of participating in the larger world, of being an animal among animals.
Why do you think a lot of women are writing personal essays right now? Do you think our social climate has anything to do with it?
I think women write personal essays because women read personal essays—and that’s largely because women, in the aggregate, read far more than men. As someone whose been working in this genre for 25 years, I’m not sure the current social climate has as much of an impact as you might assume. Like I said earlier, there’s the business climate in terms of the media and publishing world and the endless need for cheap content. But other than the emergence of this sort of hot take feminist oped/personal essay genre—the sort of pieces you see in places like Bustle or Dame or Jezebel—I don’t think that that the substance of the genre has changed all that much, at least at the high end of the literary spectrum.
Can you talk about your presence on Medium? How has this platform helped you in your career?
My presence on Medium is very new. I published a big piece there last summer and I’m now writing a biweekly column for them, but the column just started in January. It’s definitely a new frontier for me because I’ve historically been a kind of old-school, “legacy media” kind of writer. I was an opinion columnist for The Los Angeles Times for more than a decade. I cut my teeth as a magazine writer in the 1990s. Believe it or not, my first column ever was a monthly column for Self Magazine when I was in my 20s. It was a kind of humorous personal essay column that appeared in the magazine every month; they wanted something with a Seinfeld-like sensibility, so it was a lot of me pondering my life as a single girl in the big city—this was before Sex and the City! The column never appeared online; this was before all of that. So now, after all these years of writing mainly for print (in other words, having stuff appear online only after it’s been cut and tailored for the printed page) I have the chance to really sprawl out and write in a different kind of way.
The Medium column will often be political, especially because I’m particularly interested in current manifestations of what is commonly referred to as “identity politics” (though that’s become an overused and increasingly meaningless term) and the degree to which they are and aren’t useful in navigating our current situation and thinking about the world in general. I’m interested in generational divides when it comes to issues around feminism. So I’ll be writing a lot about that sort of thing. But I’ll also be doing major departures from that stuff, writing humor pieces or personal pieces or interviewing people. The last piece I did was about my fascination with natural burial and the environmental impact of body disposal. So it’ll run the gamut!
What does your process look like? How do you know when you have material for an essay? Do you start with a theme? Or do they evolve on their own?
Usually I start from the place of something that’s obsessing me, something I can’t stop chewing on or thinking about. Like I said, it’s usually an idea, since I’m an idea person more than a story person. I’ll think this is something that might be interesting to write about and then I’ll just keep it rolling around in my mind for a few weeks or months (or sometimes years!) until I figure out how I might work with it in an essay. Unless I’m on a tight deadline or doing something very assignment-based, I generally don’t sit down to write something until I have at least a vague sense of how I can express a certain idea or set of ideas in a way that hasn’t been done before. I want to offer the reader something new. Even if I don’t necessarily know where I’m going to land, I want to be able to invite the reader to think alongside me as I ruminate about the topic at hand. The important thing, though (and this goes back to the question of how to avoid solipsism) is have those ideas pretty well baked before you declare yourself finished. You want to present the reader with something that’s been carefully considered, that shows craftsmanship, that’s polished, that offers a coherent assemblage of thoughts. This is especially true when you’re writing personal essays. You want your reader to trust that you know what you’re doing, that you’re under control and not just spewing all over the page. Otherwise, you’re just confessing to the reader and leaving the reader holding the bag of all your messy emotions and half-formed theories of life. To me, that’s simply not fair to the reader. That’s an imposition. In some cases it feels almost like what you might call a literary emotional hijacking. Don’t do it!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers or essayist?
My advice to writers, especially in this moment, is to write from a place of intellectual honesty. Dig deep into your mind for what you think and feel and offer that up in as precise and rich a way as possible. If what you think and feel is slightly controversial, all the better! We’re in a bizarre and often really depressing moment right now where social media is largely dictating a certain set of narratives and, in extreme cases, ganging up on people who diverge from them. I’ve written about the demise of nuance in the public discourse, about this strange resistance to gray areas or granting people and issues their complications. That to me is deadly. Denying people their complications is denying them their humanity. Denying yourself the right to explore complicated and controversial issues on the page is, frankly, shirking your responsibility as a writer. So my advice is this: take responsibility. Notice I did not say, “be brave.” Yes, we should be brave as writers and be fearless in sharing our stories and ideas. But the “brave” trope strikes me as a little redundant. If you’re a writer, it’s your job to take on this responsibility. So, don’t be brave. Do your job!
Who should we be reading right now?
I try not to be prescriptive when it comes to telling people what to read. I say read actual books. Try to read the print version of newspapers and magazines. Don’t read off your phone. If you stick to that, you’re much more likely to be reading good stuff.
Are you currently working on a new project or collection?
I have a new project on the horizon that I’m not quite ready to talk about yet, but will soon. For now, I’m doing the Medium column, which is pretty much my main gig. But you can find me all over the place. I have an essay in a brand new anthology called On Being 40(ish) and I wrote the cover story about Reese Witherspoon in the current issue of Vogue. I teach in the MFA program at Columbia and I also run private workshops in personal essay and memoir. I do these out of my apartment in New York City, where I currently live, and also in Los Angeles, where I still spend a lot of time and will probably eventually live again. I have a very stubborn Saint Bernard who likes to lie down in the middle of street and refuse to get up so that I have to direct traffic around her. Maybe this is some kind of metaphor for the writing life.
Meghan Daum recently became a columnist for Medium and is the author of four books, most recently the collection of original essays The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, which won the PEN Center USA Award for creative nonfiction. She is also the editor of the New York Times bestseller Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not To Have Kids. Her other books include 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. For more than a decade Meghan was an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Times, covering cultural and political topics. From 2016 to 2017 she wrote the Egos column in The New York Times Book Review, reviewing new memoirs. Meghan has written for numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and Vogue. She is the recipient of a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and is on the adjunct faculty in the MFA Writing Program at Columbia University's School of the Arts. She also teaches private writing workshops in New York City and Los Angeles.