Grey Areas: Speaking The Unspeakable With Meghan Daum
Do you ever find yourself making a face, or uttering a noise, that’s the exact opposite of the face or noise you should be making? Recently I’ve realized that I have a much more expressive face than I previously thought and I find myself flinching, or twitching, or scrunching my nose at completely inappropriate times; like when a friend says something nice, for example. A few years of working alone in my apartment means I’ve developed a habit of making some kind of noise when something catches my attention, like a “huh” or a “wut” that’s really just an overemphasized exhale, but now I’m preparing to work at an office for the first time in a long time and I’m pretty sure audible exclamations are frowned upon in a co-working space. I’m just very aware, recently, that I might not be as good as keeping things to myself as I once thought I was. The unpleasant, unexpected, uncalled for, unreasonable feelings have a way of rising to the surface.
I’m not asking as a rhetorical device. I’m asking because I really want to know. Like Meghan Daum writes in her latest essay collection, The Unspeakable: and Other Objects of Discussion, when she began compiling the stories that would become the book she was trying to start “a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses. I wanted to look at why we so often feel guilty or even ashamed when we don’t feel that way we’re ‘supposed to feel’ about the big (and sometimes even small) events of our lives.” Each essay in the book looks at an event we’ve all probably experienced, or at least something close enough: the death of a parent, trying to make a difference in a child’s life, a near-death experience of your own. And we—brace yourself because I’m generalizing about the entire human race here—don’t really yet have the kind of vocabulary that can honestly and openly describe the full range of emotions, not because we don’t feel them but because we’re not supposed to feel them. The platitudes: “I’m sorry for your loss” or “She’s in a better place” are not consolations. They’re stage directions. “Here is the situation we’ve found ourselves in, here are the roles we’ve been assigned to play.” And then, instead of a word, a slight twitch.
So I’m asking you, and asking myself, and asking the writers I read, whether our actual experiences are aligning with the experiences we thought we’d have and if those experiences are in turn aligning with the feelings we thought we’d feel, because somewhere in that overlapping middle between how we feel and how we want to feel is something that can and should be spoken. For those of us still trying to figure out what exactly it is we’re trying to say, The Unspeakable is an inspiration.
I won’t say that it’s a honest book, because honesty is something that requires a bit of vulnerability on both sides, but it’s a huge gift that Meghan has given us so much of her life and thoughts and feelings. Instead I’ll agree when Meghan says that it’s a very generous book. Meghan is unfailingly fair when she writes about her experiences, both here and in her previous works, and it’s the kind of personal essay writing that I hope inspires readers to think about how generous it is to just admit that you did not feel the way you thought you would feel. Sometimes these really profound experiences, at the time, feel a little…boring, maybe! Or frustrating! Or stressful! And the experience of just speaking on your own behalf, to say what something was like for you and only you instead of these sweeping statements on behalf of an entire prescribed emotion, are contributions to a hopefully better kind of language for grief, or joy, or any of the other intangible things words are supposed to bring shape to.
I spoke with Meghan on the phone about the ambiguities of emotion, reading the comments, and, of course, her correct opinions about Joni Mitchell.
What do you consider to be unspeakable?
Well, I guess what I really think is unspeakable is something I wouldn’t say, because by definition I would think it’s something that can’t be said. The title refers to things that are culturally considered unspeakable; I’m speaking them so I don’t personally see it that way. I guess it mostly has to do with not feeling the way we’re supposed to feel about things. The first and last essays touch on that theme more directly, perhaps than the other pieces, because it has to do with going through these events that everyone experiences. Everyone has someone die, everyone dies! I watched somebody die and then I almost died myself, so it has to do with reconciling the fact that I didn’t feel the way I should’ve…the way the culture expects me to feel about this particular event. When it comes to really heavy experiences like that, it’s quite taboo to say that we were anything other than changed by the events, made to be a better person or whatever it is. So what is actually unspeakable, perhaps, is the idea that we are not changed by profound events or that we are not made a better person by tragedy or crisis. Because I think Americans are very, very hung up on that notion. So I guess to me that would be the central unspeakable thing in the book.
Yeah, I did notice that there were two jokes in the book about how it’s un-American to not subscribe to that view; I think I noticed it more because I am Canadian and I think there is a slight cultural difference…
Well, you guys are far more sophisticated than we are.
[laughs] I don’t know if that’s true…
You have Joni Mitchell!
Oh right, we do. I guess that your Joni essay is the Canadian essay in the book. Yeah, maybe we’re a little…quieter. I was just taken with the idea that you’re not supposed to speak anything that challenges the accepted, spoken idea of what an experience should or shouldn’t be.
I think that people are not comfortable talking about ambiguity. And grey areas. I say in the first piece, in the history of the world, a whole story has never been told, and I think that Americans in particular are really invested in stories that have a beginning, middle, and end. And that the character changes and there’s some sort of arc that’s satisfying in a traditional way. And obviously life doesn’t work that way. And so, when it fails to conform to that kind of arc, people get uncomfortable.
In the introduction to the book, you mentioned that you wrote a book of essays and not confessions—what do you consider to be the difference between the two?
I can only speak to my own definition; every writer sees it differently and has their own barometer for that. For me, confessing would be blurting a bunch of stuff out without really going through it and figuring out what needs to be there and what doesn’t need to be there, asking for the audience to forgive. What I object to is when a writer says “look what a jerk I am!” and repeats all these embarrassing or incriminating or unflattering things, and doesn’t take it any further, just asks the reader for forgiveness and asks the reader to do the heavy lifting in terms of what the story is or isn’t about. And that’s not fair to the reader. I think that’s really a boundary violation between the writer and the reader. For me, I want to use my experiences to look at a larger topic; always as an essayist I just use my experiences as a lens or a tool to look at something more universal. It’s almost like you’re confiding, not confessing, inviting the reader to think alongside you as you work out various ideas. I’m interested in developing an intimacy with the reader. But you don’t do that by telling them everything. You’re selective about what you’re putting out there.
Yeah, I noticed when you said that in an interview with The New Yorker because I really liked that, but I did wonder how you know what goes beyond your own experiences. How can we know what’s bigger than ourselves?
I think there’s a couple of different steps. The most basic one is whether it’s something that a lot of people experience. It wouldn’t be enough to say, this is a story about my mother dying and I felt conflicted in these particular ways, but that everyone will go through the experience of having a parent die. How much of what I’m talking about is a human experience than my own experience?
All of the pieces in the book are things I had thought about for a really long time before I actually sat down to write them. Throughout my career I’ve done a lot of different kinds of writing but the ones that people tend to talk about the most are these long personal essays, personal socio-cultural essays or whatever, and I think pretty much without exception they were all ideas I’d chewed on for sometimes years before actually writing them. I think by the time you’ve thought about them for that long you’ve filtered out everything that might not pass a smell test in terms of solipsism.
Right, yes; I was actually just re-reading your piece in The Believer about haterade, which I had never read before! But that seems like a good example of a piece that’s of a very specific time, you talk about reader responses in the 90s and how it’s evolved as we move into this present time. That’s a good example of a piece of writing that needed the extra time.
Yeah, because it’s very easy to complain about comments at any given moment. I could toss out 300 words about what people are saying on the Internet, as could anyone, but again that’s a topic that I think needed to go beyond complaining the noise on social media and in comment threads. Because, really, it’s a much larger cultural phenomenon that affects not just the way writers write but also how readers read, the way make people make consumer decisions…it’s a much larger phenomenon then just a literary one. That was an idea that I had to get to that place, because if I had written that piece five days after having the idea, the scale would be much smaller.
Are you a writer who reads the comments? I feel like recently I’ve seen a lot of people say, I never search my name on Twitter, I never read the comments, and I’m always like…you have incredible willpower, I guess. Do you have a philosophy one way or the other?
Um, I wish I had a philosophy. I mean, it’s one of those things where you try to be healthy. You try to maintain a decent diet and eat sensibly but then once in awhile you eat a bunch of garbage. I think that that’s kind of analogous to looking at comments. It’s hard to avoid them on Twitter because you get those notifications…I do not have a Google alert on my name or anything like that. I do, though, read comments on news stories, and things that I read, because as a columnist it’s a way of getting some sense on what people are thinking. In terms of news stories, the comment threads have replaced the man-on-the-street kind of interview. Journalists will write pieces, “Person X’s reaction was” and then they quote from a comment. I’m not saying it’s the most accurate metric, but it is a way of getting some rough sense of how people are responding to some current event that’s going on. So, yeah, I tend to read other people’s comments more than my own.
That seems like a healthy strategy.
Right, yeah, if you want to feel better about yourself, I always say to writers: don’t read your own Amazon reviews, go to the page of an author you really respect or some great piece of literature and see the asinine reviews on that and realize that you’re in good company.
I went back and re-read My Misspent Youth and I was wondering about your anecdote in the introduction, where you talk about the factchecking process at The New Yorker, how they tried to figure out how much those tulips cost…the idea of trying to verify a fact in a personal essay, proving that everything really is true, do you consider that when you’re writing? Or is it just your experiences as you want to tell them?
It depends on the contract you make with the reader. It depends on the tone and the style of the piece. These essays are not newspaper articles, I’m not saying to the reader: “this is exactly how things went.” I’m pretty explicit when I say, I’m changing names, but nothing is invented and I don’t think I really took that many liberties. It’s a creative act. I’m more interested in conveying ideas and offering a perspective about certain events in the world…the thing is, the word essay means “to try.” So I see it as a suggestion. I’m suggesting to the reader, hey, let’s think of it this way. I don’t think literal hard and fast adherence to all details is implicit in that contract with the reader. It’s different when I’m writing the column for the newspaper, but yeah, I don’t remember how much the tulips cost. I might try to think hard about how much they cost. But I wouldn’t lose sleep over it.
That’s a topic I think comes up again and again—what sort of responsibilities a writer has to a reader, the people that they write about, the facts of their own lives. But I don’t hear as much about the actual hard details.
I think it very much has to do with tone. I’m sure David Sedaris is not absolutely faithful to every single fact. I would imagine he takes creative liberties. But it’s so explicit in his tone, there’s humor, there’s this high-wire act element in the style. So I think we understand that. There’s a difference between a David Sedaris piece and a piece by a foreign correspondent in The New York Times. Readers do need to understand that; when people start complaining about humorists playing fast and loose with facts, that just suggests that there is a certain tone-deafness in the culture.
Well, I find more and more that I no longer even care if a personal essay is true. I just care if I enjoyed reading it. Maybe that’s too easy. Like, when I read The Unspeakable, I never once considered if it was accurate, I just wanted to hear what your thoughts were. It’s not that it doesn’t matter, but with something like a collection of personal essays…I just don’t know if it matters. I guess you could’ve fabricated that story about putting Joni Mitchell on at a party, and I would’ve been like well, fine, because it’s a perfect device to get to the heart of the story.
That happened! It happened very much in that way! And it did very much inspire the entire essay. Because I, you know, it was one of those things where I had been thinking about that abstractly for years and years, since high school: what it is about this particular way of appreciating an artist? And it was only a few years ago that it did happen and I realized that it was the perfect framework for those ideas.
I did want to ask one question that’s purely selfish.
As I was reading the book I was thinking about a lot of the things I’m about to do that are part of these larger cultural traditions—like, lol, I’m getting married soon, and it’s purely practical, we’ve been together forever, but this has been an experience of not having the emotional experience I think I’m supposed to. And I think it has a lot to do with the fact that when I was growing up and I told people I didn’t want to get married or have children they told me I’d grow out of it. Like something will click one day. And now that it’s actually happening I’m realizing that, no, that’s not true at all, when you don’t want something you really don’t want it.
Right! And when you do want something you know it. I’m sure there are plenty of things in your life that you have wanted and you knew it and you went for it. But that’s interesting. How old are you?
Oh, you’re 28. Did you get married already?
No, I’m getting married…..uh. Sometime in December. I don’t have my Google Calendar in front of me. Like middle of the month.
Wow. So are you actually going to have a wedding?
Yeah. My best friend’s mom is a judge and she’s just doing the paperwork for us, we’re doing it at a family home, just a few friends and family…I keep telling my mom that it’s a going away party with more paperwork. No aisles, no vows, not a lot of traditional stuff.
The best thing I ever did was plan a wedding in five days. It was so great. And we feel so great about our wedding because it seemed like it happened very naturally. In fact, I think we expected everything to happen without deliberation. The wedding spoiled us.
Yeah, I’m not planning anything, but it is funny to see other people…it’s not like they don’t respect my wishes, but some friends and family have just gone ahead and done traditional wedding things for us. Like my friends had a surprise engagement party. So I just had to show up.
Yeah. It’s very threatening to people when someone rejects a ritual, or a rite of passage…something that’s been decided to be mandatory, whether it’s having a child or getting married in a particular way. I didn’t have an engagement ring; or, I mean, my husband bought a $2 ring at a fish tackle store. It was made out of aluminum and I loved it.
Because that’s so much better! Like that’s a way better story, about the fish tackle store, than anything else.
Maybe I’ll exchange Ring Pops. ANYWAY. My question was if you’ve ever also faced that reaction, that kind of “one day you’ll be sorry,” and how that affected the way you wrote about these experiences. Even about anything! Like if anyone told you would change your mind about Joni Mitchell.
I mean, I’m never going to change my mind about Joni Mitchell, because I’m correct about that. But with the kid thing…I tried to write about feeling this way in my late 20s and 30s, and I would pitch it to magazines, and they would tell me I would change my mind so they couldn’t take the piece. In retrospect, I understand. A 28-year-old writing about that subject is going to be very different than a 45 year old. Not necessarily more or less interesting, just different. It’s understandable. I’ve always been somebody, for better or for worse, have been very clear about what I want. I’ve had certain tastes and opinions that were set from the beginning. They haven’t really changed. In some ways that’s good and in some ways that’s bad. Even now people tell me I’m missing something, and they’re absolutely right! Everything we decide to do means not doing something else. No one lives a life where they get to experience every single thing there is. Having a child is a huge thing to experience. It would be really reductive and blind to say hey, I’m not missing anything, just because I don’t want to do it. But the fact is I’m ok with missing it.
Do you ever think when you write these sorts of unspeakable thoughts or feelings, you’re trying to prove something to the reader, or is working out how you actually feel?
Oh, I don’t want to prove anything to the reader. I want to connect with them. It’s kind of like when you’re having a conversation with a friend. Unless that friend is going to be vulnerable and honest, it’s not going to be a good conversation. I’m just trying to get to a place where there’s something meaningful and compelling going on, something the reader can connect with. It’s not about proving. It’s certainly not about shocking, or getting in someone’s face, or challenging someone. It’s more about making a gesture. I see it as a way of being generous, emotionally and intellectually generous. For everything that seems very revealing, there are many things I chose not to include. It’s really the kind of illusion that I’ve revealed all…that’s an illusion.
Right, that idea of generosity is so important, because the reader doesn’t have to spend this time with you.
Yeah, you’re asking them to take a lot of time! Valuable time for something that you’ve written! Especially if it requires some thought and some nuance and some reflection. You better make it worth their while.
Meghan Daum and Emily Nussbaum will be at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe tonight to discuss her book and other unspeakable topics. Details here.