Writers Talk About Writing
Art of the Essay
"I really love essays," says Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum. Celebrated for her incisive and humorous views on culture, she's the author of a highly-regarded novel called "The Quality of Life Report" and has written for numerous magazines, including the New Yorker, Vogue, GQ, Harpers and Travel & Leisure. She's also published a collection of personal essays in a book called "My Misspe nt Youth." We talked to Meghan about why she holds this literary form so dear.
VT: What kind of column do you write for the Los Angeles Times?
Meghan: The weekly columns are short essays at the crossroads of cultural observation and social criticism. These essays don't have the kind of scary formalities that put people off to the form. They're pieces that try to combine humor and serious inquiry -- and they generally spin off the news.
VT: What's the difference between a personal essay and a memoir?
Meghan: : I make a big distinction with this. A personal essay takes something that happened in your life and pretty quickly -- and overtly -- transcends the merely personal to talk about something larger in the world. But you're not making pronouncements -- you're inviting your reader to look at things in a new way. Suggestion, not dogma. You have to be sure to get out of the personal and into the universal. This is critical. I think a lot of times readers -- and publishers -- are not terribly aware or interested in this distinction.
VT: Your pieces are keen looks at culture, but they're also, well, funny. How do you accomplish that?
Meghan: : The key to satire is that you have to implicate the narrator much more harshly than anyone else. If you make fun of yourself in an honest way and you don't shy away from the most embarrassing aspect of an experience, that gives you license to just skewer everyone else. It's a huge payoff. If you want to make fun of people you have to make fun of yourself even more. That's how you're create something funny but incisive.
VT: When you teach writing essays, what's the major point you make to your students?
Meghan: : I tell my students that you can't be afraid of making people angry. It's something I have to remind myself all the time, too. You have to take risks. To me the entire point of being a writer is to express what your reader is feeling but may not even realize they're thinking or feeling. The job of a writer is to help people make sense of the world. You're taking on the experience of our culture, analyzing it and looking at it in a variety of different ways. It's essential to not be afraid to go out on a limb. I remind my students that nothing that is truly good is liked by everyone. Some people will love a piece, others will hate it. You can't have it both ways. I think it's hard. It's hard to be criticized. It's hard to stick your neck out. But it's really necessary.