I Was A Clue On Jeopardy
A few weeks ago, on March 24 to be precise, my decades-long writing career reached its apex. No, I did not win a major prize, receive a giant royalty check, or see my bestselling novel turned into a blockbuster film (or, better yet, a landmark cable series). I was a clue on Jeopardy.
Specifically, something I wrote was a clue on Jeopardy. It was under category of “essays” in the $1200 box.
“Running up debt in New York City is the subject of Meghan Daum’s fittingly titled essay My ____ Youth.”
“What is Misspent?” the contestant replied.
First of all, thank god he got it right. The last thing you want when you’re a Jeopardy clue is to watch the contestant stare at the screen, utterly perplexed, and say, “Who the hell is that?” Which is of course what I would have anticipated if I’d been forewarned that these eleven seconds of fame were coming my way.
As it was, I only found out when several people, many of them my relatives, began texting and emailing sometime around 7:20pm Eastern time that evening. OMG. Did you know you’re on Jeopardy? Some had managed to snap photos of their television screens, in some cases their entire television sets. In one shot, a local weather chyron reading “Severe Thunderstorm Alert” loomed in the upper left corner.
The weather alert seemed hauntingly appropriate. My Misspent Youth, which I wrote when I was 28 and was first published when I was 29, is an essay about spiraling into debt in New York City as a result of naively romantic ideas about urban, bohemian life. It’s about the changing demands of the creative economy and about growing up in suburbs and not realizing that the apartments you see in arty movies — elegant but slightly shabby pre-wars with frayed Persian rugs, worn oak floors, and chipping paint on endlessly clanking radiators — actually cost millions of dollars.
In movies, struggling artists and schlubby professors live in such apartments. In real life, only the movie stars playing the roles of those artists and professors could afford them. Because I’m a slow learner, it took me until I was 27 and engulfed in debt (mostly incurred from student loans and but also from the money hemorrhage that sets in every time you step outside your door in New York City) to figure that out. By then, I was a goner. It was paint chipped radiators or bust.
I published the essay “My Misspent Youth” in 1999. Two years later, it became the title essay of my first book, a collection that’s become something of a cult classic among a certain ilk of reader despite (or perhaps because of) never selling that many copies. I’ve published five books since then and written more essays and articles than I could possibly remember by now. But, to this day, “My Misspent Youth” is probably the work I’m best known for. If anything of mine was going to be a Jeopardy clue, it was going to be thing the I wrote when I was 28 and in a state of financial and existential panic.
As it happens, when I learned of my momentary Jeopardy fame, I was in a similar state of panic. I was sitting at my desk attempting to organize my tax information to send to my accountant. Even without the pandemic factor, the financial picture was Not Good. The media institutions that had for decades been intermittently throwing me money in various sizes of lump sum were now effectively out of business. My average writing assignment at age 27 probably paid three times more than the same assignment offered to a freelancer today. Over the last few years, I’d more or less stopped extraneous freelancing and focussed on teaching and speaking gigs. I also, like most Americans during the pandemic, started a podcast.
Needless to say, the pandemic wiped out all of the speaking events and most of the teaching gigs. (Yes, I could do Zoom classes, but part of the draw of my weekend-long private workshops are the deluxe meals and the “literary support dog” sitting on people’s feet while their manuscripts get torn apart.) My podcast is thriving, but not in such a way that I can hire someone to handle the promotion and merchandising side of things, which is a full-time job if you do it properly, which I do not. I now spend as much time promoting my work as I do producing it — and I still don’t do nearly enough of either.
The day that my essay was a Jeopardy clue happened also to be the day during which I spent a stunning amount of time researching different printing methods for the custom T-shirts I sell to promote my podcast. I watched not one but three YouTube videos explaining the benefits of direct to garment printing versus sublimation printing. By the time I got around to facing my finances that evening, adding up my sad little stack of 1099s and praying I’d paid enough estimated quarterlies so as not to owe even more, I might as well have been the 28-year-old who, confronted with her own 1099s, sat down and wrote the first draft of “My Misspent Youth.”
Some may consider that essay to be my finest work. That’s not necessarily what you want to hear about something you wrote nearly a quarter of a century go, but I’ll take it. The essay was the beneficiary of rewrite upon rewrite, not to mention some brilliant, tireless editing of the sort you rarely get anymore. Many months elapsed between the first draft and the final version for publication. And even though I’ve mostly forgotten the pain of those endless revisions, I have permanent sense memory of sitting at my desk in those early stages trying to create something that would make my unmanageable life feel manageable. Or, if not manageable, graspable somehow. If I couldn’t fix my problems, at least I could distill them into something (hopefully) interesting. I’m also pretty sure I sat down and began writing that draft because otherwise I was going to have to breathe into a paper bag.
I feel like breathing into a paper back more often these days than I care to admit. As I’ve alluded to other times in this blog, I’ve never worked harder for less money. I’ve been in geographical limbo for the last several years, paralyzed with indecision about where I should live — not least of all because there’s a good chance I’ll be living there for the rest of my life.
I’ve been talking a lot lately about how if I could do my life over again, I’d make a million different decisions. I wouldn’t try to be a full-time writer. I’d tell my younger self to do anything but try to make a living writing personal essays. (You’d think this would be obvious, but personal essayists are into what’s, like, not obvious, you know?) But I’d also tell her that given the choice between writing about your existential panic and breathing into a paper bag, pick the writing. You’ll never know where it might turn up someday. I’d also tell her that if it’s money you’re after, skip the writing and be a contestant on Jeopardy.