The Last Think Piece

After 25 years, I’m retiring from ‘takes’

Illustration: Mark Pernice

For roughly the last 25 years, I have lived in a constant state of trying to have an opinion. I’m not talking about opinions of the “I’m not much for art deco” or “I like this lasagna more than that lasagna” variety. I’m talking about opinions about politics and culture and, most of all, other opinions. I’m talking about opinions that need to be as original as possible and also adhere to any number of prescribed requirements when it comes to word length, tone, and timeliness. Since my mid-twenties and in publications from Self to the Los Angeles Times to the one you’re reading right now, I have been consigned to produce such pieces on a particular schedule — weekly, biweekly, monthly — regardless of whether I have anything to say at all.

Do you know what it’s like to be forced to say something when you don’t have anything to say? It’s like having the dry heaves. You sit at your computer, desperately typing out words and phrases that, in opinion pieces, commonly precede actual points.

In the age of Trump, this means ___

More and more, we’re seeing an American consciousness that ___

While this may have nothing to do with TK, the fact is that TK is the driving force behind TK.

You feel queasy, but no relief comes. Your body convulses. Your throat clenches. Still, nothing comes out. Meanwhile, the continuum of stress-inducing professional accountability looms over you like an overcrowded shelf poised to topple its contents on your head. If you don’t think of something to say, you won’t finish the piece. If you don’t finish the piece, the piece won’t be published. If the piece isn’t published you don’t get paid. If you don’t get paid, you go broke and your life falls apart.

In other words, if you can’t adhere to a fixed schedule of saying something original in anywhere between 700 and 2,000 words your life will fall apart.

To live this way is to essentially walk around with a maple tap that you’re ready to jab into any person, place, or thing that might provide fodder for material. That acquaintance who happens to be some kind of expert on brain science? You can’t stand him, but when he suggests having lunch you agree in the hopes that he might say something you could parlay into a piece about how the amygdala and anterior context (or something something blah blah blah) play a role in (wait for it…) political tribalism. A new public art installation in your local park? Don’t even think about simply enjoying it (or quietly making fun of it with your friend as you walk by). Instead, you are under orders to use it as an occasion for 1,000-plus words of verbal gymnastics about how the entire concept of public art is inherently paradoxical because it caters to private sensibilities by posing a fundamentally personal question “what is art?” Or whatever.

If none of that works, you have to admit defeat by writing your 40th column on “the culture of narcissism.”

Think all of that sounds tedious? Imagine being the close friend or partner of someone who lives on this treadmill. When your companion isn’t desperately clicking through Twitter and Google News in search of a topic (while also skidding over into Sundance Catalog clearance items or Pinterest boards about wide-plank flooring) she’s refusing to go anywhere or do anything because I told you! I’m on deadline!

Since she is never not on deadline, the only way to get her to leave her desk is to present every activity as a potential topic. Lessons from the My Ex-Husband School of Getting Me to Do Things entail the following role-playing exercises:

Exercise one

Him: You want to go to a movie this weekend?

Me: No! My column is due! I can’t do anything!

Him: You could write about how [insert any movie here] underscores our national mood and is a metaphor for the [insert any psychological phenomenon here] that seems to be dominating the current zeitgeist.

Me: Okay, I’ll go.

Exercise two

Him: We should really try to take a vacation sometime.

Me: No! I’d have to write a bunch of columns ahead of time, and then they’d be out of date and stale by the time they ran.

Him: But all the historical sites, museums, and visits to remote villages in developing countries would give you tons of material. The columns would write themselves.

Me: Okay, I’ll go.

Exercise three

Him: You are incapable of relaxing. We can’t even go on vacation without you working all the time. I want a divorce.

Me: Interesting take. Let me write that down.

The time has come for this to end. It may be far too late for my marriage, but it’s not too late for my life, at least what’s left of it. Starting now — and until further notice — I will no longer be contributing to that amorphous, ubiquitous, and increasingly ridiculous genre of journalism known as the “think piece.”

I’m not saying I won’t write anymore. Having failed to develop any other marketable skills, I have no choice but to stay in this line of work. All I’m saying is that the piece you are reading now is officially my last think piece. After this, I’m going cold turkey. If you catch me doing another one, please stage an intervention. Even better, if you catch me typing the phrase “in this age of ___,” please feel free to walk over to my shelf and loosen it just enough that it falls on my head in time to keep me from writing “uncertainty.”

The time has come for this to end. It may be far too late for my marriage, but it’s not too late for my life, at least what’s left of it.

Not that I would have been writing a false statement. This is an age of uncertainty. By “age” I’m referring to my personal, chronological age (I’m not revealing it, but it rhymes with “nifty”) as well as the bewildering epoch in which we find ourselves. Given the double whammy of those factors, I’m a goner. At least it feels that way a lot of the time.

That’s because after a quarter century of thinking on the page, I often literally don’t know what to think anymore. Facts, even when laid out in plain view, are likely to be overruled by emotion-driven perceptions. Information sources I grew up trusting unquestionably (I’m looking at you, New York Times and NPR) now sometimes sound more like activist groups than news organizations. Meanwhile, algorithms make sure my digital feeds keep me satiated with exactly the news I want, slanted to my liking. If there’s anything I trust less than much of the media, it’s my own goddamned brain. I’ve skipped the midlife crisis and gone straight to an epistemological crisis.

I know I’m not the only one. This crisis of knowledge — of not being sure what’s true, of seeing the world through the lens of cognitive bias rather than verifiable reality — is all anyone ever seems to talk about anymore. You’ve certainly heard me go on about it ad nauseam for the last several years now. But lest I spend the rest of my days siphoning the sap out of everything and everyone in my midst in search of “interesting takes,” I’m putting down my maple tap for now. I’m going to attempt to watch movies — maybe even go to them again some day — without simultaneously making mental notes about their relationship to the “zeitgeist.” I’m going to take a vacation without holing up in my hotel room attempting to churn out columns that leave me mentally dry heaving so violently that I wish I had travel dysentery instead. I might even read a book for pure pleasure sometime. Most of all, I’m ready to think about something beyond just thought itself.

So, goodbye to writing think pieces. (At least for now, by which I mean a really, really long time.) And, I mean it. If you catch me in the act, you’re obliged to mete out the harshest possible punishment: assigning me another one.

This is Meghan Daum’s last essay for GEN, but she’ll still be writing weekly for Medium. Follow her here.

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything. www.theunspeakablepodcast.com www.meghandaum.com