How did you become a writer?
I became a writer by default. I had very few other skills. My only other skill, really, was playing the oboe and I wasn’t willing to put in the work it would have taken to go pro. My parents would have loved that, but it wasn’t in the cards (I probably had the only parents on earth who were disappointed when I didn’t become a professional oboist.) As for other pursuits, I now think I would have liked to join the FBI, but at the time I never would have considered it, partly because it might have required doing math in some way. I was terrible at anything with numbers and today probably do math on about a fourth grade level. The only time this is a problem is when I have to figure out how much to tip cabdrivers or nail salon technicians. Otherwise, I have found that as long as you have a good agent and a good accountant being a writer precludes doing any math. So this profession has worked out well for me.
But to answer your question precisely, I became a writer by writing anything and everything for any outlet that would publish me. After college I moved to New York and worked as an editorial assistant at Condé Nast – the whole Devil Wears Prada scene. I had no income other than the $18,000 a year they were paying me (the human resources person at the company informed me that most editorial assistants have their income supplemented by their parents) and I dressed horribly, like this kind of ragamuffin with shoulder pads. I was clueless about fashion – I literally pronounced Versace like “Versase.” But part of the job of being an assistant was writing up the minutes from the editorial meetings and eventually I got the editor-in-chief’s attention by writing the minutes in a funny, clever way. And one day a senior editor came to me and asked if I wanted to try my hand at writing a photo caption describing a bottle of shampoo. It was like the best day of my life.
And the next thing I knew I was writing for The New Yorker.
Oh, wait, that’s not how it went. The next thing I knew I was writing captions about shampoo. And then I worked my way up to 75-word “articles” about moisturizers and how many calories are in a giant muffin (this was the early 90s, when giant muffins were all the rage.) And after a year or so I quit that job and went to an MFA program and tried to write short stories until I figured out that I was an essayist. I got really lucky and sold an essay to The New York Times Book Review. That led to some other high-end publications but I was always still hustling by writing for women’s magazines and anyone else who would pay me. I wrote ad copy, random website copy, Publisher’s Weekly reviews for $30 a pop. Literally anything. I’ve always been a freelancer, and that requires finding a certain balance between being an egotistical snob and a shameless mercenary.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Many of my writing influences are the usual suspects, at least for women of my generation, demographic and sensibility: Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Lorrie Moore. I also loved Norman Mailer, Tom Wolf and Hunter S. Thompson, all those gonzo (or semi-gonzo) maximalists. I was hugely influenced by Woody Allen’s early writings, like the essays and stories in books like Without Feathers and Side Effects. The high/low technique that he employed, where you shift back and forth between very erudite references and really base, sophomoric concepts and rhetoric (The Whore of Mensa demonstrates this in the title alone) was something I internalized and still use to this day.
When and where do you write?
I write in my office at home. I’m not a big coffee shop person. I know a lot of writers love to sit there all day with their lattés, but I find it distracting. Also, I always drink too much coffee and then have to use the restroom a million times and then what are you supposed to do, just leave your computer and all your stuff sitting there unattended? At home this is not a problem. As for when I write, the answer is whenever I have a deadline, which is all the time. Mondays and at least part of Tuesday are totally taken up by writing my L.A. Times column, which runs on Thursdays. The other days of the week I’m usually juggling a number of projects, trying to prioritize things and making sure my dogs have been walked and are tired enough that they don’t bother me for most of the day.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m still doing a lot of promotional work for my book of essays, The Unspeakable, which came out last November. I’m also gearing up for an anthology I edited called Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not To Have Kids. I don’t need to describe it because the title pretty much does the job, but I will say that I have some amazing writers and I’m very proud of the project and I’m excited to talk about this subject in the thoughtful, nuanced way in deserves. Unfortunately, these days promoting a book means writing a lot of stuff that masquerades as journalism (blog posts and so on) but is really just a form of hawking your book. So I’ve been doing a lot of that. I’m also teaching in the MFA program at Columbia this semester, so that takes up some time. My next book will be heavily reported, so right now I’m trying to do research and background interviews in order to build a foundation. I’m not ready to talk about it yet, but let’s just say it’s not going to be personal essays.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
There was a period of a couple of years, from maybe 2003 to early 2006, when I was rather horrifyingly unproductive. I’m not sure if it was writer’s block or just some kind of protracted laziness, but it was awful. But then I started writing a weekly newspaper column and it was like shock therapy or something. Busyness begat busyness and I was back in action. But those were some tough years for some reason.
What’s your advice to new writers?
My advice largely falls into the “do as I say, not as I did” category. For starters, this: develop an expertise in some area other than yourself. Know something (know a lot, actually) about science or sports or medicine or fashion or human rights abuses or climate change or craft beers or anything other than your own neurotic navel. Become the person an editor thinks of when she needs someone to write about something in particular. I’m not saying you can’t also write about yourself, but if you have another area in which you’re really well-versed you’re going to be much better positioned for actually having a sustainable career.
My other advice, especially if you want to write essays, is to write pieces on spec. Write them on your own time, own your own terms, and then try to place them in a publication. Just about all of the big hits I had in my 20s, the pieces that wound up in The New Yorker or Harper’s and later in my first book, were things I’d written on my own and sold after the fact. And even now I do this. Because pitching can be deadly. The creative ventures that are the most interesting, be they in literature, film, visual arts, whatever, are the ones that are the hardest to pitch. So try to avoid pitching. Write first, sell later.
Oh, and if and when you publish a book, don’t read your Amazon or Goodreads review. Just don’t go near them. I’ve never looked at a Goodreads review in my life, but with this last book I added Amazon reviews to the no-fly list and it’s been great. If you’re desperate to read an Amazon review, go look at the nonsense some people are spewing about works of great literature. Is James Joyce sitting around stewing about someone calling him “drivel”? No, and neither should you.
Meghan Daum is an opinion columnist for The Los Angeles Times and the author of four books, most recently The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion. She is also the editor of Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids, which will be published in March. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Vogue. She lives in Los Angeles but is currently in New York teaching in the MFA writing program at Columbia University.