What The Essayist Spills: The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum
by Meghan Daum
Farrar Straus Giroux
Published November, 2014
Why doesn’t Meghan Daum name author Lori Gottlieb in her essay ‘The Best Possible Experience’, even though she says it will take two seconds on Google to work out LG’s identity? And so it does – with the clues Daum provides, you get yourself Ms Gottlieb and her bestselling book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough (2011) in close to no time. Daum’s essay tells of a time she sat next to the unnamed Gottlieb on a panel organised by something called the National Marriage Project. The panel was meant to debate delayed marriage patterns. Daum and Gottlieb were already acquaintances; sometime before the panel Daum had smacked Gottlieb down in her LA Times column (‘smack her down’ is Daum’s description) over a Gottlieb article in the Atlantic on marriage and procreation. In the by now standard (at least in the US) essay-to-book manoeuvre, Gottlieb’s essay became a book, bearing a by now standard (at least in the US) thesis-type title.
So they are on this panel together. Daum finishes her dissecting-delayed-marriage talk with her pièce de résistance – ‘The fact is that the human heart is pretty pie-chart resistant’ – but the tiny Los Angeles audience is moved not a bit; not only that, Daum is also, for the first time ever, called ‘a romantic’. Gottlieb, coming after Daum, has them slurping out of her hand. She is a hilarious yet polished tell-it-like-it-is type. One suspects the contrast between the audience’s reactions to the two writers is exaggerated quite a bit for comic effect (achieved), but why not give us the woman’s name? Is not naming Gottlieb just a bit of harmless trickery and fun (an Easter egg hunt with all eggs on the top shelf in the fridge) or a way of generating energy – comic and intellectual – by the writer distancing herself from the story she tells? Or is it perhaps a way of giving readers little jobs to do, lest they become cow-like chewers and swallowers of texts?
The other person not named in The Unspeakable, Daum’s second collection of essays, is an out-of-town lesbian writer, a ‘stone butch’ Daum invites out for dinner in an essay with yet another (Americans, stop premature over-explication!) one of those titles, ‘Honorary Dyke’. In this case, the writer is not named, one imagines, for more clear-cut reasons: privacy, good taste. The story is not about the unnamed writer, but about a period in Daum’s life: a time in her thirties when she looked like a dyke – short spiky hair, no make-up, cargo pants, tank top, silver jewellery, a station wagon with manual transmission, a dog in the backseat behind the metal gate – and wished for gay women to think of her as one of them, or as close as any straight woman has ever gotten in the history of straight women getting close. The story is, in other words, about why Daum wasted the out-of-town writer’s time: dinner initiated by Daum, a bottle of wine, no follow-through. Daum does, though, name the singer Jewel, whose ‘gynocentric’ CD she bought at the height of her ‘honorary dyke’ period, listened to intently, and managed to hate within two weeks of its release.
In another essay, ‘Difference Maker’, Daum has to make up the names of the kids she is paired with through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and the ones she meets after completing her training as a court-appointed advocate for children in the foster care system. She calls the kids Maricela, Nikki and Matthew. About ‘Matthew’ she is not allowed to tell us anything, not even how he looks. ‘For the sake of giving you something to hold on to,’ she writes, ‘I’m going to say he’s African American, knobby-kneed, and slightly nearsighted. He’s not necessarily any or all of those things but I’m going to plant that image in your mind and move on.’ Daum can tell us that horrible things have happened to Matthew, that he lives in a group home, that behind the scenes she made his life a bit easier, and also that she drove him around a lot, which, as she says, is not nothing but not really that much of a something.
Naming and not naming are interesting because at least a portion of the excitement around Daum – I have read reviewers talk about her practically inventing a new genre – centres on how her essays are personal yet anti-confessional. ‘While some of the details I include may be shocking enough to suggest that I’m spilling my guts,’ she writes in the introduction, ‘I can assure you that for every one of those details there are hundreds I’ve chosen to leave out.’ What becomes clear, reading Daum, is that concealment and withholding are not defensive strategies to protect parts of herself or others. Neither are they novelistic tricks (oops, tools) of the sort that get upsold these days in creative non-fiction modules. They are essayistic imperatives. The confessor spills everything. Spills. Everything. Not the essayist.
The Unspeakable – a catchy, sexy, if slightly banal title and not to be confused (not that you would) with Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution (2014) – refers not only to thoughts that are a bit out there, meaning subversive, or pushing against the cultural grain, and not only to experiences rendered almost unsayable by any number of forces, external and internal, but to the importance, as a practice, of un-speaking. Unspeaking as in walking ideas and experiences back from the ready-made language and the ready-made audience for their telling. Unspeaking as in creating a space and a distance between the lived reality and the work of writing, enabling the writer, as Deborah Levy memorably put it, ‘to chase your characters, chase your ideas’ across the page.
Daum said in an interview after The Unspeakable’s release that there are too many personal essays (yep) out in the world and too many first drafts floating around pretending to be finished pieces (!!!) and also that much as she longed to leave herself behind as a subject, what people reacted to most was her using lived, felt experience as a starting point for her about-me-but-much-much-bigger-than-me sort of stuff. A Daumian essay goes about smashing the bottom from underneath the author’s experiences, thinking them out into the world, finding the language to hold them, and, crucially, steering them away from Bays of Redemption and Isles of Lessons Learned. Daum is not alone. This kind of thing – the personal essay that exceeds the contours of a singular life or mind – is its own sub-genre right now.
‘I’m interested in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience,’ says Leslie Jamison, whose debut essay collection The Empathy Exams (2014) did exactly that kind of following and chasing. It also earned her a reputation as an iconoclastic figure, especially among Anglophone readers and writers in their twenties and early thirties (whoever has my copy, please return it; I am not young anymore and can’t remember who borrowed what). A New York-dwelling acquaintance – a writer in her early thirties – said to me several years ago, ‘Oh, Leslie Jamison, she is everywhere.’ And, yes, Leslie Jamison was everywhere. And then Roxane Gay was everywhere. Even in Australia. Though she writes novels as well as essays, it is Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist (2014) that became a cultural ‘event’, if I can put it for the moment in these gaudy, slippery terms. It changed the way people thought and spoke about things.
In a Salon interview last year, Gay said this about the personal essay’s rise: ‘We want to see people open themselves up and we want to see where they’ll take that openness.’ Basically, we are talking about ‘a kind of annotated self-exposure’, Jamison added. The interview was a four-hander. Gay and Jamison said they like essays that are more than exercises in revealing or ‘unburdening’, but instead go inwards and outwards at the same time, poking the world beyond the author’s skull or skin. They also asked for some surprises at the level of thought and / or sentence.
So: Jamison, Daum, Gay, Zadie Smith, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Charles D’Ambrosio, Eula Biss, Geoff Dyer. Rebecca Solnit. And of course the late David Foster Wallace. Who am I forgetting? Lots, no doubt. Eliot Weinberger? No. His stuff is never more than circumstantially personal. The late Christopher Hitchens’s essays on mortality, definitely. Jacqueline Rose and Adam Phillips. And then – Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, John McPhee, Jenny Diski, Phillip Lopate, Margaret Drabble, Renata Adler, Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard and Marilynne Robinson: the royalty.
The list is woefully incomplete and subjective. It is also American and British. Of note: these writers have published books of essays that are widely read, culturally significant and, in parts at least, as pleasurable and eye-opening as any hard-thinking literary work. Another way of putting it is that I, in faraway Australia, had to do zero googling to write the preceding paragraph. I knew and had read these books. They were at the front of my head, virtually falling out of it at the barest of promptings.
Which reminds me – how are we travelling, Australia?
I am not about to veer into a survey essay. Survey essays bore me, and you hurt people, and because it is an essay on essays you would have to talk about Montaigne, just like with essays on memoirs you have to talk about St Augustine. The question I am asking is turned outwards, to fellow writers and readers, to publishers, agents, critics, literary festival organisers, academics, booksellers – how are we travelling? I have borrowed this mode of address-to-nation from Zadie Smith’s essay ‘Joy’. If you haven’t read it, or her, could I hope to compel you?
To be clear, what is at issue here are not themed or best-of collections by multiple authors but books of essays by just one girl or guy, books which are held together not by a narrative but by a sensibility, or a consciousness, or a voice, or way of moving through the world. Some Australian publishers will put out a single essay as a standalone booklet. There are Black Inc.’s Quarterly Essays and its new Short Blacks (though they’re old pieces); Penguin has Penguin Specials; MUP had that ‘On’ series of essays; Giramondo has Giramondo Shorts (chiefly fiction, but not only). But I know for a fact that good publishers in this country will start wrapping up the meeting the minute someone pitches a single-authored, adult-length essay collection – they reckon it’ll tank.
A few writers have gotten away with it. Murnane, Garner, Dessaix, Gaita, Malouf, Modjeska, the late Pierre Ryckmans – I’m not including Coetzee’s literary essays, which are not personal in any pertinent way. Except these people are all kind of giants. It is as if they have earned their right to speak to their readers through essays and to be supported in doing so by our literary culture. What about writers starting out who might conceive of their first book, or their breakthrough book, as a book of essays? What about writers emerging into the sunlight who decide to be essayists first and foremost? Other countries are doing it. Birds and bees are doing it. So…?
Of the recent books of personal essays to have made a dent, we have Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance (2015). I am yet to read it as a book, but having read the excerpt that appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, and having come across another essay of hers in Seizure, I know she could have done it as one of those value-add memoirs and the book, culturally speaking, would have been much easier to digest. She chose essays! May this be a beginning.
While we are in pre-landslide days, let’s remember there are perks to starting a bit late in claiming the essay as a potent and primary cultural form. We can learn, observe, draw our own conclusions. In ‘Difference Maker’, Daum writes about her ‘kid-related do-gooderism’ at a time when she was working out if she was deluding herself about not wanting to have her own kids: her mid-to-late thirties. She frisks herself up and down for denial and unreckoned-with childhood traumas. What about the ‘ear-splitting peals’ of the biological clock? Nah.
I would still look at a woman pushing a baby stroller and feel more pity than envy. In fact I felt no envy at all, only relief that I wasn’t her. It was like looking at someone with an amputated limb or terrible scar. I almost had to look away.
Things get a little less certain after she marries her boyfriend. Spoilers, beware! It so happens he is ‘outstanding dad material’ – kind and tall and handsome and intelligent and patient and funny. Daum is wavering a bit. (Such genetic material going to waste! On top of that, by a stroke of luck, they are now the owners of a house with plenty of space for an extra being.) They stop being contraceptionally concerned. She falls pregnant, miscarries, and the miscarriage leaves the two of them with what Daum comes to call the Central Sadness. ‘It collected around our marriage like soft, stinky moss.’ What a sentence. Daum is in her early forties by then and tells her husband she is done.
I first read ‘Difference Maker’ in the New Yorker. It was published there at the time of The Unspeakable’s release. Daum’s essays were all written for the book, none are reprints. I had not heard of Meghan Daum and was not hanging out to read her. The essay ends with seasons passing and Daum and her husband not knowing whether having their lives to themselves in the house a bit too big for just the two ‘was fundamentally sad or fundamentally exquisite’. How to describe the effect of this ending, in an essay, an American essay, about the non-attainment of motherhood of all things? Did I see myself, on finishing the essay, float off the chair in the middle of our kitchen and remain in the garlicky kitchen air for some time? I am pretty sure I did.
An ending like this could not help its readers consolidate their identity as mothers or non-mothers, or feel validated in their choices. It is hard to imagine someone saying, eyes red or wet or enlarged by emotion or looking contemplatively to mid-distance, ‘Oh my god, that is precisely how I feel’. The ending, the whole essay, is too melancholy and ungraspable for that. The problems it is interested in are essentially unovercomeable. No arc, no resolution. No coming, by way of a rocky road, to accept things or to rage spectacularly against them. Daum is neither resolved nor resolute; she is not endearingly, relatably conflicted. The essay’s charge comes not from identity politics, not from some stigma-busting super-moves, but from the gradually swelling recognition in a reader’s gut (if I may be so bold to speak of a reader’s gut) that we, humans, do not know what we are choosing when we end up choosing something.
Geoff Dyer: ‘All the best essays are epistemological journeys from ignorance or curiosity to knowledge.’
Phillip Lopate: ‘The essay’s job is to track consciousness.’
In trying to account for my own levitational euphoria, the obvious point to observe is we are met with revelation, not confessions, in Daum’s best essays: a moment or an experience revealing something about the very matter of our thoughts, or about the way the ‘inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed’ (Wittgenstein via Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts). We see time move through our lives searing tufts of ‘stinky moss’ at their edges.
As I was writing this essay, or not writing it, the non-writing taking me many arduous months, what I thought I wanted to say – stuff about confession vs revelation, solipsism vs rigours of engagement – was said, by Leslie Jamison among other people. (Chances are a similar thing may be happening with a book I have been writing these past five years. What is the lesson in it all? To delay so as to fall out of step with the zeitgeist? To rush headlong in the hope of getting there first-ish? To grow extra folds of fatalistic, que-sera-sera skin? As anyone who has worked with me knows, I choose the first option, with a sprinkling of the third.) What if the point is not so much about what the essayist does, but about what happens in the meeting place between the essayist and her reader, out on the Glienicke Bridge, where dangerous exchanges take place unseen in the dead of night?
I have always struggled with Nabokov’s assertion that the worst thing a reader can do is identify with a novel’s protagonist. Nabokov, like Coetzee these days, always seemed too unforgiving in his views on writing and reading. But it has been coming into my head a bit lately. The kind of personal essay written in English that bugs me most seems built to elicit a triumphant ‘me too!’ out of the reader – if not identification, then the cathartic recognition of an experience or a thought or a territory or of one’s unspoken or barely speakable desires and contradictory urges.
Like Roxane Gay – I am beginning to lose friends here – when she argues for the recognition, and self-recognition, of women’s messy, complex, changing, ambivalent, spilling-over identities in Bad Feminist. ‘I want to be independent,’ she writes in the collection’s title essay, ‘but I want to be taken care of and have someone to come home to.’ Me too! ‘When I drive to work I listen to thuggish rap at a very loud volume even though the lyrics are degrading to women and offend me to my core.’ Me too! I also watch The Bachelor compulsively even though I despise everything about it. I often wonder what it makes me, but you’ve just explained it and named it, Roxane. (I don’t really watch The Bachelor but I do watch, and love, plenty of other demerit-point-deducting material, like the very sexist Boston Legal.) From Gay’s essay ‘What We Hunger For’:
Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.
Me too, Roxane! Me too!
It is a bit unfair to go to Roxane Gay when discussing, as essentially a prophylactic measure, the courting and coaxing of identification in certain kinds of personal essays, because most of what she has to say is so damn trite. Why it is not commonly recognised as such is worth thinking about, but I have no good answers. When Gay was in Australia not that long ago – Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, Sydney Opera House; packed of course – oh my god, the adulation! I watched, twice, the video of her Wheeler Centre event, clearly experienced as an occasion to remember by many of those in attendance, and could not find a single original or controversial or unusually recalibrated or remotely ‘subversive’ idea. Gay is charming and likeable and well spoken and emits authenticity and is probably a wonderfully encouraging teacher to those in her care. She is a woman of colour, a physically big woman – I too love seeing her command a stage. Plus she moves between the brows (high, middle, low, lower) ever so effortlessly and convincingly, and has, you know, a presence; but, like her essays, Gay rarely has anything surprising to say (friends definitely lost by this point …).
I understand how certain kinds of people may utter what are essentially banalities in a way so utterly disarming or credible, or carried with such a perfect mix of conviction and irony, that those banalities could be experienced by large groups of people as joyful truths. I understand that individuals possessed of such gifts are interesting precisely – if not only – because of this ability, and that they are originals in their own right. It may be that the personal essay is a special form that elevates these kinds of voices and creates these reading highs. Which is fine, and could be great, especially if this coming together through mutual recognition, the ecstatic and the communal, happens for people who usually feel on the outer of public life. I am not the essay police. Just as long as other kinds of essays also get written and read.
Daum is instructive in this regard. In ‘Honorary Dyke’ – where she invites the out-of-town writer, remember, for a meal – Daum writes about femininity becoming a caricature ‘in the era of bosomy, spray-tanned, baby-crazed bling … exaggerated in its presentation and reductive in its implications’. And this is the same Daum who made me levitate. I haven’t even told you about the best essay in the book (and I won’t: its title is ‘Matricide’). The less there is at stake, the less good Daum gets. Popular culture, consumerism, femininity, Americana, social mores – all of a sudden, I don’t care. Perhaps I sense her talking to a readership primed to receive her words. I can feel the soft landing. Or maybe it’s this: that the fashioning and refashioning of a certain kind of self, a white, comfortable-in-the-world, woman self, has in the last few years been done to death as an essay subject – done to death, I mean, when this is the starting point and the destination – and we should just leave it alone. For five years. Five years, people! And then it’s going to be as good as new.
In the US, there was talk not long ago about the present being ‘the golden age for women essayists’. (And then, of course, people were saying things like would we ever be talking about a golden age for male essayists? – which was probably a radical thing to say once upon a time, but isn’t any more, having been thought and said way too many times; it’s like saying, would anyone be talking about Julia Gillard’s / Hillary Clinton’s outfits / fruitbowls if they weren’t women?). Anyway, I would like to see some talk of a golden age in Australia as well. All genders. We have the annual Calibre Prize, which Australian Book Review has been running for a decade. Still, essays don’t do the work in our culture that they could. They remain non-essential reading.
What are essays for? They are for thinking about things that need to be thought about yet don’t get thought about much, or at all, or interestingly, or for long enough. They are for picking up ideas, feelings, forces in the air, still unnamed and amorphous, and giving them a foothold in language. Whatever is in the air and whatever is disappearing – unnoticed, unmourned. They are for resisting choices offered to us that are not true, yet made to seem inescapable. Are you for this or for that? Do you treasure this or that? Identify with this or that? Will be undone by that or this? And they are for picking sides of barricades when it is morally imperative to do so. In an essay, you can take something that happened to you, or to the girl / cat / tree over there, and make a larger space for this experience, so that it may connect up with the experiences of others, but also with the flows of history, politics, culture, science. Essays of this kind are usually not written backwards from a generally agreed-on conclusion (poverty is debilitating, refugees are 100% human), or from some unassailable personal truth (my head hurts from smashing it on an invisible glass ceiling). They are written forwards, into the dusky, marshy lands, into outer space.
What would it take for Australian publishers and agents to not feel like they would be committing professional harakiri by signing a non-huge name to produce a book of essays? What would it take for the tenor and direction of public conversations to be transformed by essays (surely, Melissa Lucashenko on poverty and Helen Garner on ageing have changed us), or for gifted writers from outside the literary establishment not to feel like the only way they will be let in is by writing a novel or a memoir about their bi-tri-sub-cultural selves?
If you are reading Daum, start with ‘Matricide’. Or end there. I am not the reading police. Just read it and tell me – are we not ready for books like this? Will we not buy them, not read them, not want to talk about them, not give them to our friends as gifts, not want to write them? Bullshit.
Meghan Daum, ‘All About My Mother,’ Guardian (18 November 2014).
Michele Filgate, ‘Leslie Jamison and Roxane Gay: “Men are crowned as the gold standard of the genre. It’s gonna change,”’ Salon (25 April 2014).
Helen Garner, ‘The Insults of Age,’ Monthly (May 2015).
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (Little, Brown, 2014).
Roxane Gay, ‘The F Word,’ Wheeler Centre (5 March 2015).
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams: Essays (Granta, 2014).
Leslie Jamison, ‘Enough About Me,’ Atlantic (April 2015).
Melissa Lucashenko, ‘Sinking Below Sight,’ Griffith Review 41: Now We Are Ten (July 2013).
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, ‘Why We Confess: From Augustine to Oprah,’ Hedgehog Review (Spring 2015).
Cheryl Strayed, ‘Is This a Golden Age for Women Essayists?’ New York Times (7 October 2014).
Fiona Wright, ‘For Love and Hunger,’ Sydney Review of Books (14 June 2013).
Fiona Wright, ‘What She Could Not Tell Him,’ Seizure Online.