Unlike so many books and articles about combating your terrible 20s, Megan Daum's is not of the self-help variety.
The essayist now known for her thoughtful meditations on emotions and how we convey them does not urge her reader to work less or date more or rearrange her values lest she miss out on the fleeting magic of youth. She does not wag her finger at those accruing debt, but she doesn't exactly endorse grad school, either. She simply relates her own experience, thoughtfully and bemusedly, and mostly without judgment.
Throughout her newly republished essay collection, My Misspent Youth, we learn that Daum was raised in New Jersey, with her eyes cast towards Manhattan’s Upper West Side. We learn that, for better or for worse, she made most of her early life decisions in pursuit of the goal of living like Hannah, and her sisters. We learn of her attempts to sculpt a personality, uncovering virtues and ugly faults along the way. In short, we learn about her specific experience of growing up, and we can pluck what we’d like from her retelling of it.
Daum, who recently edited a collection of essays illustrating the myriad cases for and against having children, showed an early penchant for telling a compelling story without an embedded moral takeaway. In her leaving New York essay (every writer must have one, apparently!), she surveys the debts she’s racked up -- some worthwhile, some careless -- and concludes, “I’m someone who has had a very, very good time here. I’m just leaving the party before the cops break it up.”
This isn’t to say that Daum doesn’t write clearly and deliberately. She lays out her habits, inclinations and experiences plainly, offing a platter of anecdotes for the reader to relate. She disparages herself for allowing her class anxieties to get in the way of would-be relationships, but shows no desire to change. She wryly observes her own tendency to fall for the same kind of man again and again, and in spite of her lack of romantic success, doesn’t imply that she’ll be doing things differently going forward.
Daum writes cynically about people who “listen to NPR, tell other people what they heard on it, and are amazed when the other people say they heard it, too.” After making this clinical observation, she turns inward: “I am one of those people.” She owns her flaws, and tries to live in line with her shifting principles in spite of them, which might be the most important coming-of-age lesson of all. For more blunt, atypical advice on surviving the tumultuous period that is young adulthood, here are other tidbits from Daum’s My Misspent Youth:
Sometimes your dream job isn't all it was cracked up to be.
In “Publishing and Other Near-Death Experiences,” Daum writes about the years she spent working as an editorial assistant in a handful of publishing houses, from bigwig imprints to earnest, fledgling houses. She laments that although her career was inspired by editor-writers like Mary McCarthy, she learned quickly that her ascent to success wasn’t imminent -- it was, more likely, forever on hold. Instead of slurping oysters and having thoughtful conversations about books in bars, she found herself living paycheck to paycheck, working mostly as a glorified receptionist. All of this is just to say: If you’ve spent your college years dreaming of a specific career track, your 20s are the period when you learn whether reality can align with your expectations.
Having good or interesting taste might seem like the most important thing in the world. It isn't.
A few of Daum’s essays center on her youthful fixation with identity markers, an affliction many of us can relate to. She writes about her aversion to things like gold jewelry, carpeted apartments and a sincere enjoyment of Billy Joel, noting, “The kind of class that I associate with good floors is the kind of class that emerges out of an anxiety about being classy.” These mostly shallow values lead her to end an otherwise good relationship and to reject an otherwise amazing (and inexpensive!) apartment. They also contributed to her living beyond her means, a pitfall 20-somethings could be more wary of.
Coping mechanisms may vary.
In her most self-disparaging essay, “Variations on Grief,” Daum writes about how the death of a close friend leads her to focus all of her energies on living productively, often to her own detriment. She writes of the critical thoughts she once had about her friend, who never worked or finished college because his parents provided a comfortable life for him. She writes, also, about how her interpretation of his death made her double down on her own neuroses, which, after all, is how grief operates for many of us. She critiques her friend’s parents’ coping mechanisms, only to find that her own are just as wayward.
Online dating can be both alluring and disheartening.
Before there was Tinder, there was “You Got Mail”-style e-flirting, a spontaneous email exchange flourishing into a full-blown romance. Unlike the shallow perusing most online dating lends itself to today, Daum notes through a story about her own cyber-romance that sometimes, meeting online frees you up to display a kind of vulnerability that’s hard to find in “real life,” where the stakes are higher. On the flip side, getting swept up in a full-blown romance, cheesy compliments and all, can make you lose sight of your own day-to-day life, and your own identity that you’ve worked so hard to construct.
There's nothing wrong with reevaluating your ambitions.
Throughout Daum’s childhood, the Upper West Side as depicted in Woody Allen films was her North Star. It guided her college application decisions, her decision to work long hours to fund an expensive lifestyle, and her decision to apply to an even more expensive MFA program. As she got older, though, she realized that some aspects of the life she aspired to were still important to her, while others were just ancillary to her actual desires.
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