My Misspent Youth

I’ve read Meghan Daum’s essay collection My Misspent Youth at least three times since purchasing it in 2001. I like to give it to other people, too, and have them read it, so then they can talk to me about it as they read it, which gives me the experience of reading it for the first time all over again.

Today Daum’s title essay, My Misspent Youth, popped up on longform.org (A site which curates a feed of long-form journalism/essays, providing four or five stories a day — stories from any point in time covering a wide range of topics. I usually end up reading about 50% of the stories they post every day, which is a lot, and I love it.), and I thought — Oh! Fantastic! I love that essay by Meghan Daum! — and I figured someone had like, re-published it in The New Yorker for some reason (in my imagination, The New Yorker is a big fan of the repub).

But I clicked and it turns out that it’s right there on the Meghan Daum website and maybe it always has been! What a day!

Longform.org describes “My Misspent Youth” as “life and debt, in New York” which I think means it’s timely now (again). Now everybody is talking about money and debt, openly, but when I read this essay for the second time (in 2004, I believe) it resonated anew and seemed a big deal to me because I had a lot of debt and so did most of the creative-minded women I knew but it was more embarrassing than it is now. Women didn’t really write about it and so I rarely read about it, unless it was in retrospect — written by someone on a high horse who’d gotten that high by climbing themselves out of said debt. I think I still have trouble, now, talking about debt.

Anyhow, this is from My Misspent Youth:

“I’ve always been somebody who exerts a great deal of energy trying to get my realities to match my fantasies, even if the fantasies are made from materials that are no longer manufactured, even if some governmental agency has assessed my aspirations and pronounced them a health hazard… it wasn’t until recently that I began to realize that I wasn’t having quite as good a time here as I once did. I say this as someone who has had a very, very, very good time in New York. I say this as someone  who has enjoyed a good deal of professional success here, particularly considering that I am so young and committed to a field that is notoriously low paying and unsteady. But low pay and unsteadiness never really bothered me all that much. I’ve historically been pretty good at getting by on what I have, especially if you apply the increasingly common definition of “getting by,” which has more to do with keeping up appearances than keeping things under control.

Like a social smoker whose supposedly endearing desire to emulate Marlene Dietrich has landed her in a cancer ward, I have recently woken up to the frightening fallout of my own romantic notions of life in the big city: I am completely over my head in debt. I have not made a life for myself in New York City. I have purchased a life for myself.

Also on Meghan Daum’s website, I see, is an interview with Meghan Daum about her book My Misspent Youth. This is the part about the essay My Misspent Youth:

Let’s talk about some of the individual essays. The title piece, My Misspent Youth, caused quite a stir when it was first published in The New Yorker. You were very explicit about the debt you accrued while living in New York City. But you’ve said the piece ultimately isn’t about money. What is it about then?

MD: The chronicle of my debt was really a means of getting into a larger, more universal subject—not that debt isn’t fairly universal these days. The piece is really about my experience trying to live out a particular fantasy I had about being a New Yorker and being a writer in New York and how I was almost financially ruined by simply trying to live what used to be considered a modest lifestyle. Over the last twenty years, the economic situation in New York City, particularly as it’s reflected in the cost of real estate, created a situation where the very people who gave the city is creative and cultural cachet—the artists, the intellectuals, the bohemians—simply cannot afford to live there anymore. I find that immensely sad. The essay, to me, is really a valentine to New York. A sad valentine. Maybe even a “Dr. John” letter.

thought about this essay a lot a little over a year ago when I left New York for California. I thought about this essay and about Joan Didion’s Goodbye to All That, which famously declared that New York City is a place for “the very rich” and “the very young.” In the interview I pulled from above, the questioner asks Daum about Didion (see, she thought of it too) —

You dumped New York for Nebraska. To that end, your essay is often compared to Joan Didion’s famous homage to New York “Goodbye to All That,” which she wrote right before she left the city and returned to California. Was her essay a starting point for you?

MDI am flattered at the comparison. But most of my inspiration for my essay came from Edith Wharton’s novel “The House of Mirth,” which is about a young woman trying in vain to survive in turn-of-the-century New York in extremely class conscious circles. She dies at the end—guess she should have moved to Nebraska!

I still associate this essay with Goodbye to All That, no matter what she says. Here’s something from that:

“[W]hen you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”

-Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That

joan didion

I got into Meghan Daum in the first place because one of her essays appeared in a book called Personals: Dreams and Nightmares From the Lives of 20 Young Writers, which I bought when I was first getting into writing non-fiction and had already read all the Harpers feature stories available in our school library.

I used her essay to teach creative non-fiction writing to, I believe, high school freshmen in Grayling, Michigan. (In my copy of the book, a post-it note reading “20 copies” remains on the page where her essay begins.)

That essay was called “On the Fringes of The Physical World” and it was about an internet romance but you have to keep in mind that she wrote this in 1997, before everyone had internet romances, and what she was describing was so unique and specific and secret and like it wasn’t necessarily about me but it would be soon. (“I would stay up until 3:00 AM typing with him, smiling at the screen, getting so giddy that I couldn’t fall asleep. I was having difficulty recalling what I used to do at night. My phone was tied up for hours at a time. No one in the real world could reach me, and I didn’t really care.”) It still makes sense today, even though they chatted on America Online and she had no idea what he looked like until she met him.

“All the tangible stuff — the trees outside, my friends, the weather — fell away. I could physically feel my brain. My body did not exist. I had no skin, no hair, no bones; all desire had converted itself into a cerebral current that reached nothing but my frontal lobe. Lust was something not felt but thought. My brain was devouring all of my other organs and gaining speed with each swallow. There was no outdoors, the sky and wind were irrelevant. There was only the computer screen and the phone, my chair, and maybe a glass of water.”

Right? And look, it turns out that this essay, too, exists on the internet, in a place where you can read it, and maybe should.

They interviewed her about this one, too:

The first essay, On the Fringes of the Physical World is about an email relationship. In the wake of internet dating, this is something that’s become very common today. Has your perspective changed since you wrote the essay?

MD   On the Fringes was first published in The New Yorker in 1997 under the title “Virtual Love.” Now that internet dating seems to be the default mode of dating in general—no one looks up from their newspapers in the coffee shop anymore, they just run home to their computers—the essay seems quaint in a way. But it was never really a piece about dating. To me, the point of interest was how email communication, particularly when it involves romance or flirtation, is more akin to 18th century courtship than it is a form of post-modern malaise. The epistolary nature of it reveals our need to go back to a more traditional form of communication. The irony is that modern technology is fostering an old-fashioned tradition.

So there you have it: feelings about money and feelings about the internet, from over ten years ago, that will remind you of how you felt yesterday.

Emily Gould and Meghan Daum, just for funsies

And while we’re talking about class, anyhow, if you haven’t read Sady’s thing on class, you should do that immediately.

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Riese

Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3198 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. I read My Misspent Youth when it popped up a few months ago on Lady Journos and it immediately made me think of the things you’d written here and on autowin about New York, Riese. It feels like an irony typical of internet circularity that it was this essay that probably influenced some of what you wrote, or how you got into the circumstances of writing about it.

    I have a great many feelings/thoughts about the much publicised debt issues, especially with regards to creativity and class guilt, but I can’t seem to assemble them, so I’m just going to say thanks for the links, and idly wonder aloud if you’ll be doing any personal opinion pieces on 99%/OWS stuff.

    Also, entirely off-topic, did you ever write up your trip to Manchester pride?

    Finally, I think it’s your moral duty to setup a Longform addiction support group and/or I invoice you for 15% of my waking hours.

    • Yes, my Manchester Pride thing is like 90% done, which means it’s the hardest part where I have to figure out how to make the best 10% ever or accept that there is no best 10%

      anyhow i love that you read that and that it reminded you of autowin and that it influenced me and all of that. no really i love this comment it makes me love the internet.

      i feel like longform has made me like 15% smarter than I was before longform. or i hope so

  2. I love that there’s so much good writing about New York that I can feel like I have feelings about it and what it represents without ever having lived there. I mean, maybe that’s annoying to people who actually have. But I’m just really into all the great essays by women on the city and life there. Thanks Riese!

  3. love the sady essay.

    there was a time around 03 when debt was something we didn’t discuss and thinking about it made me want to erase myself, and then my friend — a 23 y/o recent homeowner who worked at a bank and drove a huge SUV — told me about the amount of debt she witnessed everyday. she said almost everyone had no money in their accounts and when some people cashed checks, it would just barely cover their overdrafts and charges and that was it. and she actually said the amount of debt she was in (minus the house payment) — like, she said the number — and i realized a) i was in less debt than i thought i was in, comparably b) i was not alone and c) we were all apparently fucked. i think we thought we were doing the right thing, like it was normal to own half of Target?

    anyway thank you for these links! so many retrospective lessons.

    • It’s sort of frightening to realise how much debt people are in. I would guess that the majority of people I know are in debt of some sort – some vastly more than others. I have been in a significant amount of debt myself in the past, and had a lot of stress and pain getting out of it.

      I just don’t know if it’s normal or not, did the previous generation have less debt? Are we doing something fundamentally wrong, in comparison to our parents generation? I know that I’m very careful now, having pulled myself out of debt, not to go back into it – lesson learnt, and all that – but it’s almost abnormal amongst my social group to be sensible about money!

      • “did the previous generation have less debt?”

        There are no doubt actual statistics to answer this question because the anecdotal evidence I am about to give you shouldn’t determine the overall truth of the situation.

        I’m a member of a generation older than you, and the answer to your question is, “probably yes”. For one thing, we had no credit, that is, no way to create debt for ourselves. I got my first credit card at 31 and I had to lie to get it. Prior to that, I had no way of borrowing money. It was normal amongst my peers to pay cash for everything. Also, poverty: my cohort simply lived in it when the cash ran out. What this meant for me was that, for a stretch of three years, my menstrual periods ceased due to malnourishment. Almost no one I knew had access to health care back then, either.

        So maybe the difference between our generations is that you didn’t have to literally starve and you got to go to college, but at the price of being in debt. We weren’t given credit and so couldn’t accumulate debt, which worked like a charm since it turns out that eating is optional!

  4. I only know Meghan Daum because of The Quality of Life report, which I read whenever I start to question certain things about life/existence/etc. Now you make me want to search out My Misspent Youth and her other stuff.

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