In the introduction to her essay collection My Misspent Youth, Meghan Daum writes that as frank as her essays are, they ‘are not confessions’. The personal essay may have long defined Daum, but she is far from a ‘confessional writer’, a title she has long resisted.
Daum first rose to fame in the mid-nineties with her New Yorker essay ‘My Misspent Youth’, a piece cataloguing her mounting debt as a young writer in New York. At the time, Daum was struggling to reconcile the demands of expensive dental care bills with the need to maintain an enviable middle-class front, like buying expensive lamps and leasing her own apartment, and had found herself with five-figures worth of debts.
While Daum’s My Misspent Youth is often singled out as one of the antecedent works of the personal essay – long before the boom of the online op-ed – her essays differ markedly to what we know of the form today.
Daum’s stories are more bound by ideas – about class, money, and work – than than they are about their author’s personal life. Her essays centre around the under-classes of America, including college graduates with low-paying career prospects, flight attendants who struggle to form meaningful bonds and stability beyond their lives in the sky, and Daum’s own struggles – similar to those of many freelancers – living as a writer in New York. Daum’s investigations are less about her own identity and more about her own negotiation with the large American cultural preoccupation of money, career, and instant material gratification.
So pervasive is the personal essay today that online publications dedicate entire sections of their sites to these pieces. This include websites like Gawker, best known their scandalous exposés; BuzzFeed and their ‘Ideas’ platform, which publishes an eclectic array of personal essays, often from under-represented voices; and the Guardian’s incredibly popular ‘Comment is Free’ op-ed page.
Daum’s writing is self-effacing, intimate and wholly self-critical – so much so that much of the value of reading this collection is in realising that Daum’s writing is a relic of sorts, indicative of a time before the deluge of the personal essay stormed the internet. In a world defined by the op-ed and the ‘hot take’, there is a real slow-burn pleasure to be gained reading Daum’s work. It might be due to the fact that these pieces are proto-personal essays of sorts, pre-Internet antecedents to the form that we now see published and circulated daily. In My Misspent Youth, Daum shows how contemporary culture can be mediated through the likes of airplanes, marvellously unpacked in the piece ‘Inside the Tube’. She also grimly explores how the longstanding ambitions of so many BA graduates to pursue a career in publishing leaves many slumping out early, after their low-paying, administrative and banal work proves too demoralising to endure.
Recently many of Daum’s original essays have been republished online in places like Longform, BuzzFeed, and the New Republic and have garnered a wealth of renewed interest. While there is an irony in these publications – who profit so much from the personal-essay form – re-circulating Daum’s original work, it is gratifying to see her reach a new audience.
While many personal essays today are often preoccupied with unpacking painful personal experience – a death, a bad break-up, a fight with a friend – Daum’s book resists engaging solely with this. Instead we find that – as per her original idea for the title of the book – Daum lets ‘the trinkets do the talking’. She mixes arbitrary objects with heavy emotions – her intense hatred of carpets, her difficult online romance with an email address (more than with the person writing the emails), and her fear of her American Express credit card bills – to show how these small ‘trinkets’ define our identities. Given that our age is far more technology-dependent than Daum’s, her essays are harbingers, signs of how increasingly obsessed we will become about ourselves and the ‘trinkets’ that define us.
Although the personal essay has certainly shifted focus since Daum’s pieces first appeared in the likes of New Yorker and Harper’s almost two decades ago, their currency – as cultural arbitrators of the our lives and material worlds – has only grown, moving from the preserve solely of print magazines to dominate online publishing. There is some irony in the fact that that as the personal essay garnered more currency in the online world, Daum moved away from concentrating solely on this form. She now works as a weekly newspaper columnist for the L.A. Times (a position she has held longer than her essay writing gigs) where she wrestles with broader social issues, including America’s presidential race and the same-sex marriage movement.
The operative word in both the title essay and the collection is ‘misspent’ – the emphasis being on ‘spent’. The pun was chosen by one of her editors, highlighting not only the number of demoralising experiences Daum ‘spent’ in New York, but also the material goods she spent her money on, in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
My Misspent Youth demonstrates how the ‘trinkets’ she bought – like the expensive lamp she actually couldn’t afford – conferred on her a kind of self-awareness, one that ultimately demonstrates the necessity of Daum buying them in the first place.