Report by Sara Tobin:
Writer Meghan Daum opened the “Less-Than-Secret Lives” symposium on the personal essay Saturday Oct. 3 with a reading from her most recent work, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. The book is a collection of personal essays that explores the concept of “home” in the many places she has lived, from New York to Omaha to Los Angeles. Daum is also the author of the essay collection My Misspent Youth and the novel The Quality of Life Report, and her articles and essays have appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker. She currently lives in Los Angeles and writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times.
The selections Daum read from Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House focused on her parents’ background, her childhood home in New Jersey, and her life in New York City as a young adult. Both Daum and her parents were obsessed with the myth of New York as a place full of bohemians, intellectuals, and artists, which did not reflect much of the reality of the pre-Giuliani and pre-gentrification city in the 1980s. She manages to get out of suburban New Jersey and become a real New Yorker who loves the city, but the lifestyle leaves her with crushing debt that forces her to eventually leave it.
After the reading, Tulane Creative Writing Professor Paula Morris interviewed Daum about the art of the personal essay and its importance as a branch of literature. Daum said that the personal essay should reveal everything about the narrator and nothing about the author, and that it should tie into something larger culturally. She also considers her status as an outsider in the various places she’s lived as important to her work, and said that writers always have to be outsiders to see with “a fresh pair of eyes.” When asked about the place of the personal essay in the “Age of Over-sharing” with platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Daum said that she found the unfiltered “first thoughts” people express through these mediums are “unproductive and uninteresting.”
My Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House will be released in June 2010, and Daum’s column can be found in the Los Angeles Times every Saturday.