Meghan Daum.

“What you see here is an example of very good intentions. My husband and I recently bought this house in northeast Los Angeles, a Spanish revival built in 1932, and for the first time in my life I have a whole room that’s a dedicated office space. It’s beautiful and light-filled and the windows swing open and look down on to the yard where there are palm trees and all kinds of flowering bushes and a pool. But of course I can’t be distracted by all that when I’m working so my desk faces a blank wall.
The good intentions part is my vow to keep the surface of the desk almost as blank as that wall. In the past, my desk has held not only my laptop but mountainous stacks of mail, books, magazines, office supplies, several meals worth of dirty dishes and, worst of all, those little, unclassifiable things you can never find a place for: hair clips, chapstick, business cards of people you met at parties, Ipod cable, camera cable, printer cable, start-up disks for said camera and printer and whatever else (what the hell are you supposed to do with those, really? You can’t throw them away because you always end up needing them; always.) My desk even had dirty socks on it a lot of the time. I cannot begin to tell you why this was so. The desk itself is an old schoolteacher’s table I picked up in an antique store in Nebraska. 
No matter how hard you try to pare down your workspace and try to emulate the aesthetic of, say, the Bloomsburys (I always picture their writing desks to be set up in elegant, dusky parlors in which it is perpetually late afternoon and cocktails hour is perpetually on the horizon) you’ll never make it because of this problem of having to plug stuff in. It’s sad, isn’t it? Virginia Woolf didn’t need a surge protector. Though perhaps she could have used one.”
Meghan Daum is the author of Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, a personal chronicle of real estate addiction and obsessive fascination with houses, as well as the novel The Quality of Life Report and the essay collection My Misspent Youth. Since 2005 she has written a weekly column for The Los Angeles Times, which appears on the op-ed page every Thursday. She has contributed to public radio’s Morning Edition, Marketplace and This American Life and has written for numerous publications, including The New YorkerHarper’s,GQVogueSelfNew YorkTravel & LeisureBlackBookHarper’s BazaarThe Village Voice, and The New York Times Book Review.
FROM YOUR DESKS: What is it like being in a house; do you feel more adult?  
MEGHAN DAUM: It depends on where you are. If you’re in a city like New York or Hong Kong, a vertical city, of course it’s all about the apartment building. But in a place like Los Angeles — and this is true of many cities in the midwest and west — even the apartments are in houses to some extent. You’ve got the duplex, the bungalow courtyards, the Victorian house that’s been divided into units. So the goal ends up being to have a house all to yourself. I remember the first time I rented a bonafide house, a place with no shared walls and its own driveway and mailbox and all that. It felt kind of remarkable. This was in Nebraska, where I’d moved after nearly a decade in New York City, and I suspect I was the only person there who was having revelatory feelings about renting a house. In terms of feeling more adult, I THINK that automatically happens when you’re in a house simply because you have to deal with “adult” things like yard maintenance and taking out the trash and dealing with the furnace or the plumbing when it breaks. 
Los Angeles is much more “like America” than New York is.  New York is like nothing other than itself.
FYD: I was sad to read after twenty years, Open City, was closing. Your thoughts?
MD: Open City was a wonderful presence in New York for so long and a terrific forum for new writers. Open City Books, published my essay collection My Misspent Youth. Part of the reason it remained so alluring for so long is that it represented the last gasps of the pre-digital literary age. It was a magazine that was about the print medium versus the online medium. It was about the 1990s and the early aughts. It had the flavor of Manhattan rather than Brooklyn (it represented a time when people under the age of 45 — working artists, even —  still lived in Manhattan.) I mean this mostly figuratively, of course. But it did seem to evoke a time that is now quickly passing, a time when people were still optimistic about the future of printed material.
FYD: After you left New York, you went to Nebraska, and now you live in Los Angeles. How have your sojourns helped your writing?
MD: They’ve made me less of a provincial person. The move from New York to Nebraska was the big one in that sense. When I lived in New York, my world was tiny. I thought that the trends and neuroses and preoccupations of a certain segment of middle class (upper middle class?) white, quasi-bohemenian Manhattanites were indicative of the preoccupations of the entire country. There is no provincial like a New York provincial and I was exhibit A. I was a moron. The four years I spent in Nebraska helped a lot in that regard. And Los Angeles can offer a pretty eclectic experience if you let it. Los Angeles is much more “like America” than New York is. New York is like nothing other than itself.
At the core, I’m an essayist.
FYD: I fondly recall reading your collection, My Misspent Youth, on lunch breaks in Central Park. Would you give the advice of writing what you see and experience? 
MD: Of course people should write about what they see and experience. They should also write with total honesty and not be afraid to make readers unsettled or even pissed off.  If someone’s really talented as a science fiction writer, for example, he or she should probably go beyond personal experience. Unless we’re talking about a really interesting childhood, perhaps on another planet.
FYD: I’m dreadfully sentimental to the fault I sometimes live in the past. Do you miss the old New York?
MD: Yes, I miss the old New York. But much of that is probably a function of missing my younger self. My years there were characterized by a round-the-clock sense that my options were limitless and that anything could happen and any time and, even if it didn’t, I had all the time in the world. Needless to say that is not a state of mind that lasts forever.
FYD: In your Music is My Bag essay, you collect accessories along the way. What’s in that bag now? 
MD: Music Is My Bag was a critique of the “bagness” of subcultures. I talked about how the trappings of a certain kind of musical experience ultimately marred my appreciation of music. I’m not a collector of memorabilia by any means. I’m unsentimental almost to a fault. I try to keep an empty bag. In fact I’m constantly throwing things out. It drives my husband crazy.
FYD: What writers are of constant inspiration?
MD: Philip Roth, Joan Didion (of course), Richard Ford and, I don’t know . . . how about Nancy Franklin’s television criticism in The New Yorker? She’s my favorite New Yorker writer. I am currently reading and re-reading Terry Castle’s essay collection The Professor. She’s so funny and such a maximalist. And so much smarter than me.

FYD: You write the LA Times column, books and screenplays.  Do you find each to require different skill sets?

MD: The LA Times column is a job. I’ve been writing a column every week for five and a half years and sometimes the column will be great and sometimes it’s okay and occasionally it’s obvious and boring. But that’s what great about this kind of gig. You have to work quickly and you can’t afford to be precious. You learn to accept that you can’t hit it out of the park every week. Books, of course, are another thing entirely. It’s easy to become precious about them, but they’re of course satisfying in a whole different way because you can go on and on for pages (in a column you’re always fighting to stay within your small allotted space) and ideally your reader has a different relationship to the material and to you, as an author, than a newspaper reader might.

Someone reading a book has made at least some small commitment to hearing the author out. A newspaper reader is often just annoyed that you’ve interrupted his breakfast with your tiresome opinion. I have a particular style that I think lends itself to some people really loving it and some people deeply hating it. And that both of these types (and the myriad in between) will cast their eyes on my column because it happens to arrive at their doorstep (at least among those good people who still subscribe to the print edition!) means that the reader/writer relationship is quite different. If they don’t like something, they’ll let me know (often bluntly.) With books, if people don’t like something they tend to just put it down and forget about it.

You learn to accept that you can’t hit it out of the park every week.
As for screenwriting, I’ve only done it once. I adapted my novel The Quality of Life Report for film. We thought we might get it off the ground for a while but things petered out. Since then another production company optioned the book and hired another writer to do a version. I absolutely love his script. It’s hilarious and brilliant and extraordinarily verbal and wry and would make a fantastic film. Hollywood is not something I think about on a regular basis. In fact, my quality of life (so to speak) is dependent upon not working in the film or TV industry. At the core, I’m an essayist. The fact that I’ve been able to build a satisfying, comfortable life around that makes me feel monumentally lucky.
FYD: What’s next?
MD: I was writing a novel but I started cheating on it with another bunch of essays. So I’m going to write those essays hopefully for a new collection and then get back to the novel.
Follow Meghan’s blogFacebook, or Twitter @meghan_daum

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