Brutally honest yet tender: The writing of Meghan Daum 

Daum shares how she works through tough topics

click to enlarge Meghan Daum
  • Meghan Daum

Writer Meghan Daum is not afraid to tackle taboo topics. Whether it’s coping with the death of a parent or a pet, explaining her decision not to have children, or meeting one of her idols, she is open and honest about her experiences.

Daum will be speaking at the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series at Butler University.

The 2015 PEN Center USA Award recipient for creative nonfiction, Daum is the author of the essay collections The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion and My Misspent Youth, the novel The Quality of Life Report, and the memoir Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House. For more than a decade, she has written an opinion column for The Los Angeles Times and has written for numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and Vogue. She 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.

While other speakers this semester have been novelists or poets, Daum stands out as a nonfiction writer, says Butler English Professor Ania Spyra, a director of the series for prose writing. Spyra says Daum was invited because she is a “master of the essay form.” She describes Daum’s work as “honest yet tender.”

“Those essays [in The Unspeakable] and the ones I’ve been most known for, started with an idea or obsession or thing I couldn’t get out of my mind, a question about the world, and then I’d try to figure it out,” says Daum. “When I notice something in the culture, I’m going to look at this through my personal experiences as a tool to look at these larger issues.”

Daum says, “there is a difference between confessing and confiding. Personal essays and memoirs get a bad wrap. There are lots of confessions, works that get published on the internet and are not edited very well. We’ve become accustomed to the literature of over-sharing. I have a background in journalism so I try to combine more journalistic values and sensitivities with literary sensibilities in literary nonfiction.”

click to enlarge unspeakablecover.jpg

In “Matricide,” Daum writes about her mother’s death from gallbladder cancer. She reports on the facts as she remembers them, much like a journalist might report about the scene as an astute observer. She isn’t cold or cruel in her description of her experience, but rather she is honest about how she handled the loss.

Unlike Daum, most people probably wouldn’t admit to feeling a sense of relief after months of waiting for a parent to pass away. Yet many readers could likely relate to some part of the story, whether it’s how Daum mentally and emotionally processed her mother’s death before and after, or what it was like to interact with her dad at the time.

Another essay in The Unspeakable, “Difference Maker,” is a personal account of why she decided not to have a child and her experience as a court-appointed special advocate. She writes of her sympathy for children in the foster care system and paints all-too-accurate descriptions of a juvenile court and a group home.

“The culture is so sentimental around death and these other topics in the book, so it’s easy to feel like you’re not allowed to feel certain ways,” says Daum. “I’m going to write what seems true to me. If I’m going to be provocative, it’s my job as a writer to articulate things that other people are thinking and don’t know how to say.”

She also edited Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not To Have Kids, which earned praise when it was published in the spring of 2015.

“One thing that’s lucky is I started writing provocative essays before the blogosphere, in the early to mid-1990s,” she says. “So if people were going to be mad about something I wrote, they would have to write a letter to the editor. … I talk about this with students. It’s really hard to get your nerve up. I’m not sure I’d be the same writer if I were starting in the climate where there could be 200 comments after your piece.”

That’s not to say she wants readers to always agree or disagree with her.

“I’m interested in looking at nuance and the gray areas, something that is harder and harder to do in this media climate,” she says. “I think that’s a writer’s job to say these things. I think that’s crucial to remember that to get published and have a platform is a great privilege.”

Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series
Nov. 29, 7:30 p.m.
Butler University, Atherton Union, Reilly Room


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