You Can’t Play It Safe: An Interview with Meghan Daum

In this interview, MFA nonfiction candidate Veronika Kelemen speaks with writer and Columbia professor Meghan Daum. Daum is the author of two collections of essays, My Misspent Youth and The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion; a memoir, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House; and the novel The Quality of Life Report, and also edited the anthology Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids. She is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and the recipient of the 2016 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in creative writing.

Daum has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, Vogue, and The Atlantic, among others. She is known for her ability to depict any subject with incisive depth, honesty, and humor, values that she instills in every student who enters her classroom. Her two essay collections appeared on my bedside table several years ago and have remained there since, carefully, fluorescently highlighted. I read and reread “My Misspent Youth,” her funny and poignant version of Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” seemingly hundreds of times between receiving my own MFA acceptance letter and arriving on campus for new student orientation. Here, she discusses her writing journey and habits, her teaching philosophy, and her views on the NYC vs. LA debate, all soundtracked by the heavy breathing of her lovably enormous dog, Phoebe.

 

Let’s start with the basics. I’d love if you could explain your journey as a writer throughout your life, starting as early as you can remember.

So, I just have no other skills. [laughs] I have no other ability. I literally could not master any foreign languages, I could not do math or science; all I ever did was write. I never kept a journal, but when I was really little, even before I could write, I would draw storybooks and make pictures and my mother helped me to write words in over the pictures. Funnily enough, they were almost always based on Little House on the Prairie. So I just always, always wrote, and so after college I went to work at Allure magazine as an editorial assistant. It was only the second year of the magazine’s existence and it was a very cool time to be there. In the 80s and 90s the magazine world was a big thing. That’s where all the interesting writing was, especially if you wanted to do narrative journalism. But a few years into that, I decided to get my MFA at Columbia. I went as a fiction student, actually.

Really? Not nonfiction?

It had never occurred to me. I did fiction because I thought that if you were going to be a writer, you were either a newspaper reporter or a novelist. I hadn’t yet connected that there’s this in-between literary nonfiction world. But then the second semester at Columbia, I took a nonfiction workshop as well as a fiction workshop, and it just totally came together. I have such a poor story sense anyway. I can’t think in stories, so that form wouldn’t have worked for me, I think. So I started writing essays and I was able to start publishing them. The impetus was really the same thing as I do now; I would just notice things going on in culture that purported to be one way, but were being talked about in a completely different way. I was really interested in those hypocrisies and that cognitive dissonance.

So what were those first pieces like? I’d love to hear the stories behind the first few.  

One of the first pieces I wrote in that vein was about the AIDS crisis and how HIV prevention had been absorbed into this realm of style, with Madonna pushing condoms on every bus ad and the like. The public health system was using this scare tactic wherein utter terror of HIV/AIDS was almost cool. It was definitely in your face, and I found that to be so weird. There was a particular window of time in the culture, in the early to mid-90s, where there was intense sloganeering around this idea that “sex equals death.” That was a phrase that you saw everywhere. The message was “use condoms every single time no matter what and regardless of your risk factors; otherwise you’re going to die!” And people internalized this without necessarily changing their behavior. It created this weird cultural condition where I felt like people were lying to themselves and others about their own behavior while also being very strident and self-righteous about safe sex. So I wrote a piece about that contradiction and workshopped it in my class with Richard Locke.

It’s a bit of a long story but it ended up getting in the hands of a New York Times Magazine editor and the piece was published but cut down to 1500 words from around 4000, which made the tone sound very harsh and abrupt. Suffice it to say that all my subtlety and nuance were pretty much out the window. The piece did not achieve what I’d set out to achieve and many readers were quite appalled, understandably so. It was an unpleasant experience but also a great learning experience. It taught me to be very protective of my work, and that’s served me well. I’ve been very careful not just about refusing to publish pieces if editors are insisting on cutting them to the point that they no longer say what I meant to say but also about headlines and artwork and things like that that can really torpedo. A bad title or illustration can take a nuanced piece somewhere completely different.

So what was your own MFA experience like? I’m just thinking of how great it is that you workshopped that piece with Richard Locke, who we’re lucky enough to still have on the faculty now.

We had Richard, and Le Anne Schreiber, who helped me with that first New York Times piece. Jane Howard taught my first nonfiction workshop that was so life-changing. She was a real working journalist who had written nonfiction books and being in her classroom was huge for me. And I just loved being at Columbia. I loved my friends and I loved my community and I had not felt like that before. One of my themes in my life and in my work is that if I feel like I’m in the wrong place, I’m sort of beside myself. I kind of grew up in the wrong kind of town, went to a college that was excellent but perhaps not an ideal fit. When I got to Columbia, I thought, “this is where I’m supposed to be.”

I felt that way too. And being a writer is so emotion-based that when you end up in a place like that where you feel like you’re finally with your people, it’s intoxicating.

 Even now when I teach, there’s just something about it. When I’m in the classrooms, I feel like this is where I’m meant to be.

So what came after?

Well, when I figured out that I didn’t have to be a fiction writer — that I could combine reporting with thinking and narrative techniques — I was off to the races. But don’t get me wrong. I was writing these pieces, these big essays that we’re talking about, but I was also writing service articles for women’s magazines and ad copy. I just wanted to be able to be a working writer, and so I took any job that would get me there. It’s easy to get lost in this idea that “true artists” are always doing their most precious work, that no great creative person ever did hack work. But generally what we remember about people’s oeuvres are only the tiniest fraction of their total output. I did all kinds of writing work, every possible kind. In my twenties there was probably no assignment I turned down, ever. And I was still broke and in debt. So, finally, when I was almost thirty, I moved to Nebraska. I didn’t know anyone there but it was cheap and I loved the landscape and I needed badly to shake up my surroundings. I continued to do all sorts of freelancing but I also wrote a novel and got very lucky there and eventually sold it. This was the luckiest break of my life. The week before I sold that novel I had applied for a job at an ad agency in Lincoln and gotten rejected because they said I didn’t have enough experience.

Do you see this today also? This idea of having a “big break” that changes your career?

Yes. That’s why you have to take risks. You have to take intellectual risks and you have to say the truth, especially the kinds of truths that other people are perhaps afraid to wrestle with. You can’t just be provocative for the sake of it, but you need to decide that you’re going to say something that might make some people mad, especially if you believe it to be something that a lot of people are thinking but won’t say out loud.

But can that be contrived? I just wonder sometimes, with the current news cycle, about writers who are intentionally trying to be provocative for the sake of page views.

Well, it only feels contrived if you don’t actually believe it. If there’s something that you know, deep down, to be true, you will feel it in your gut, and that’s what you should write. You can’t play it safe. But that’s not the same thing as just being a jerk and saying outrageous things for the sake of it.

So I have a few questions about craft and your routine as a writer…

You mean do I do morning pages? [laughs] No, I never kept a journal or anything. I’m a working journalist, so I write on a deadline basis. But there is something to be said about not wanting to get out of shape, as they say. If you stay away from writing for too long, it becomes scary. If you go too long without writing anything substantive you make a huge deal in your head about the fact that you haven’t written in so long and then it becomes this insurmountable thing. One thing I do recommend is that, when you’re in the middle of a project, to only stop for the day once you know what’s coming next. When you’re stuck for the next idea is not when you knock off for the day. You stop when you know how you’re going to pick up when you come back. But, no I don’t keep journals. I make a lot of lists of ideas. My computer is a mess of those sticky notes on my desktop.

How about when you’re starting? How do you go about starting a piece?

 I think that there are three things that make a good piece, and I try to think through those. My first piece in The New Yorker, which was called “On the Fringes of a Difficult World,” was about online dating and a courtship I had through emails, which seems very dated now [laughs], but in that piece I had these 3 steps, and I didn’t sit down and write it until I knew what those 3 things were. The first thing is that I need it to be interesting and worth thinking about, so in that case, I had this relationship with this guy over email that was becoming all-encompassing. Secondly, it has to be a shared experience, one others can relate to; it’s a trend. And thirdly, which I have in the past called the “intellectual hook,” is what you frame the piece around. So in that case, though what was going on with the guy felt very postmodern and symptomatic of our pixelated digital culture, in fact, it was very old-fashioned. It was about letter-writing, which made it timeless. So I sat down to write it knowing that I was working towards that idea, that hook, and when I’m writing essays that makes it possible to keep moving.

One thing I admire you for is your versatility. You cover politics, you write celebrity profiles, you, obviously, write personal essays. But which of these feel most authentic to you?

I am an essayist, and that is what I do. I like to write essays that are about the state of things and I like to approach things I’m interested in a sort of maximalist way. Nowadays, I’ve been writing a lot about politics, but within that sphere, what I’m most interested in is class. My work has always been driven by issues of social class, the trappings of economic striving and anxiety. As a subject, class may be the last taboo. But despite my fascination with this kind of thing, I think I have been able to succeed insofar as I have because I haven’t been snobby in terms of what I’m writing. My father was a composer and arranger who scored commercials and animations, and he would always bring his sensibility in to these projects, but sometimes only the tiniest bit. So I really grew up with the idea that you could be an artist but that you still had to do a job, that you could not be precious — and I think that a true artist will understand that, the idea that you owe it to your real art to do something else in order to be able to do it. When I was writing the Los Angeles Times column, it was a great lesson because I had to write something every week, and I accepted that I wouldn’t hit the mark each time. Most of the columns were fine, some were great, and some sucked, and that is perfectly okay. In any gig like that, you won’t have a brilliant piece every week, and that’s a great lesson.

How do you think your writing has changed since you started out? I think a lot about this especially in light of our current news cycle, where the same events will be covered by college-age writers or 35-year-olds.

 The great thing about writing is it’s the only profession where you get better as you get older. In something like music, you can be very innately gifted and learn to play the an instrument with amazing technical proficiency without necessarily listening to 1000 hours of concertos. But writing has to do with thinking, so I think generally you get better as you get older, because you read more and you learn more and you are more exposed to the world. But you can still see innate gifts in young writers, and that really excites me. I love seeing a student who maybe hasn’t read that much yet or hasn’t experienced that much in life but really knows how to nail something down, knows to include that particular detail that someone else might have found to be irrelevant. That’s a raw gift.

I’d love to know more about your philosophy on teaching. I think there is a difference between being a good writer and being a good teacher and you are so masterful at both. 

I think I observed the teachers that I loved and that’s what’s informed the way I teach now. I liked teachers that treated me like a real writer. I wanted to be a professional; I wanted to be taught how to do the job. I remember workshopping a piece of mine with Jane Howard and her pointing out a particular passage and saying, “Meghan, you’re better than this sentence. I don’t even need to explain why. Let’s move on.” I remember exactly what the sentence was, and I remember that she was totally right. So I try to do that for my students when I teach. That said, in workshop, I grant the piece its domain. If someone wants to write a lyric essay, it’s a lyric essay; if it’s reportage, it’s reportage. I don’t try to turn people’s pages into something they’re not. I also try to remind people that subject matter and structure is easy, or at least can be found externally if you look hard enough or work hard enough.

The stuff that’s harder to come by is sound and voice. If you have that, the piece will eventually work. I also try to teach writers to be conversational, to imagine that they are talking with the reader and establish a rapport that feels intimate. We talk about throwing the “I” in, but there are also benefits to throwing in the “you,” which is something that Joan Didion does all the time. I am a big fan of “telling” rather than “showing,” which is opposite to what is taught in fiction workshops, but in narrative nonfiction, to me, you’re telling a story, and that means you’re talking to your reader. You want to be accessible so your reader comes along with you while you sort through ideas, and you do that in a lyric essay, you do that in reporting. It’s universal.

You’ve written a lot about places; New York, LA, Nebraska. What do you think is unique about being in New York and how has that journey played into your own writing?

Well, really, there’s nothing unique about being a writer in New York. [laughs] Creatively, it helped me massively to get away from New York because I had space to think. There is something freeing about LA, where the main social activity—at least for me— is going on a hike with your dog. I love LA except for in the fall, which out there is hotter than the summer. I never want to be anywhere but New York in the fall. Also people here are intense and smart in a way that’s very exciting, and there is an ease of conversation among New Yorkers. You can exchange a look and a knowing glance and everyone knows what you mean, and that sort of interaction is amazing and not something you can find anywhere else.

Thank you so much for the interview. You have been so great and funny, as in class, as in your writing. To end, I was thinking on the subway about what matters to me outside of my writing, and how that informs how I write. Do you have something in your life that drives you in that way, that structures how you are creatively?

Where I live is important to me. My physical space is important to me. I always have a nice house or apartment. Even when I’ve been broke, I’ve managed to make my living spaces  beautiful spaces. I care deeply about my space and if I don’t live in the right kind of space, it’s like my skin is being peeled off. At my funeral, people will joke about all the redecorating and obsessing about interior design I did over the course of my life. Admittedly it’s a little ridiculous. But that’s who I am.

Photo Credit: David Zaugh

About the author

Veronika Kelemen is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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