"Maybe it was when 'journaling' became a verb..." Veteran writer Meghan Daum is speculating on how the first-person literary essay lost its New Journalism luster and became the default mode of feelings-based expression for internet self-publishers. "I wonder if it comes out of self-help culture, in a way," she says. "The '80s was the birth of confessing on TV and Phil Donahue and Oprah, and the sort of 'soul journey.' I think maybe a lot of that sensibility got folded into the first-person narrative tradition and we ended up with the diary entry as literary genre, or passing something off as a personal essay when it maybe should have just been your journal."
Not that she doesn't have her own misgivings about the form.
"I have to say," she has to say, "I always feel a little bit—not apologetic, but... I'm aware of my own sort of biases against this genre. Obviously, it's what I do. I guess it's what I do best, but I find it a dubious enterprise. There's a big part of me that wishes I were really good at being a war correspondent or something. Something more useful."
She's quick to point out, and not at all defensively, that in her 20-plus years as a professional writer, she has had "every possible kind of gig: I've written celebrity profiles and ad copy and all sorts of reported stories and different kinds of books, too. But the things I end up talking about are these personal essays. In terms of output, it's just a fraction of what I end up doing, so I have mixed feelings about it."
Daum has been a Los Angeles Times columnist for the last nine years. Her books include a journalism compilation, My Misspent Youth (2001); a novel, The Quality of Life Report (2004); and a memoir about her real-estate obsession, Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House (2010). Her most recent book, published last month, is The Unspeakable and Other Topics of Discussion, a collection of the kind of writing about which her feelings are so mixed. When you consider the subjects it addresses, you can see why Daum might feel the impulse to qualify the work she does. The book is dominated by morally and intellectually rigorous first-person essays about subjects that are about as personal and serious as they come—the death of her mother, her decision not to have children, and the incomprehensibility of middle age. These are interspersed with pieces about refusing to learn to cook, about the phenomenon of straight girls yearning to identify with lesbians, about how the love of a dog can supersede even the sternest objection to the culture of sentimentality, and about the maddening degree to which most people fail to adequately or correctly appreciate Joni Mitchell. Though this second group of essays tends to be lighter and funnier than the first, its topics are no less personal. Her writing is sharp and limpid in the service of ideas that become increasingly complex and troubling the harder she presses down on them. The result is less a disgorgement of autobiographical revelation and more a sort of emotional procedural. The best of Daum's work surveys the gulf between what we're expected to feel about our inner lives and what we actually feel—or don't feel. "As frank as they are," she writes of her essays in the book's introduction, "they're not confessions. Not even close."
Confessions are, of course, not especially hard to find nowadays. The culture of social media has made the act of self-chronicling and commentary into a daily, even hourly, compulsion for a shocking number of people. This phenomenon has obviously transformed the industries of journalism, photography, and entertainment, but it also seems to have fundamentally altered the nature of writing (and reading) the more involuted investigations of the personal sphere in which Daum, mixed feelings noted, specializes. I ask how the proliferation of internet-based sharing has affected her connection to her work.
"It's almost like we're on two parallel tracks," she says. "There's the extreme vitriol on one side—I mean if we're talking about discourse in terms of what we see on comment threads and people's blogs or tweets or whatever—extreme hate, mean, snarky stuff. And on the other side there's real kind of extreme sentimental gushing of encouragement when someone expresses an opinion. There's no nuance. Nobody's interested in really sort of looking at something rationally or asking questions or examining a situation in its many facets... Everyone has this compulsion to belong, or to have this shared experience. Like that construction in tweets that goes 'That thing when...' It's supposed to connote shared experience, but it just sounds jargony and twee to me. My husband says, 'There's nothing anyone can say on Facebook that will make you think better of them.' It drives me up the wall."
Has the confession culture also reduced people's capacity to appreciate the difference between the personal essay and the personal disclosure?
"There's nothing I hate more than when my work is described as 'brave,'" says Daum. "I just cringe. I understand what they mean, but it doesn't imply that there's any craft or artistic approach or thought going on. It just suggests that you've exposed yourself in a scary way. What's brave to one person is completely quotidian to another. It's not enough."
Though she has an excellent point, it's worth noting that The Unspeakable is full of a kind of self-exposure that even the least guarded social media diarist might find scary. Consider these lines from "Difference Maker," an especially questing essay in which Daum's efforts to provide meaningful mentorship to needy children force her to reckon with the decision not to have kids of her own:
But you're never the real you in the beginning of a relationship. Eventually things get serious and you return to yourself. And from there the relationship either ends or makes a commitment to its imperfections. Either way there is loss. That's not the same as saying either way you lose. It's more like either way you have to accept that you didn't go the other way. But that acceptance is itself a loss, the kind that if you think about it too much might cause you to go a little crazy.
It's unavoidably trite to invoke the sainted archetype of Joan Didion in discussing nonfiction written by a woman, but a beau ideal is a beau ideal. There's no mistaking the Didionic DNA in this passage, the incrementum of its pessimism, the relentlessness of its scrutiny into hard-to-parse emotions. But Daum isn't enigmatic in the same way as Didion—who would be unlikely to allow herself the psychic shorthand of "a little crazy" unless she were quoting someone else. There's no code to unravel here, no cool human puzzle buried in the subtext of immaculate sentences. Instead, she offers a blunt confrontation with certain cold truths about love that run counter to what we're conditioned to expect, and in some cases what we're able to perceive. Daum may not be confessing in the common sense, but her candor is nonetheless devastating and—with apologies—brave.