interview: Meg Fee

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Meg Fee first shared her writing when she started a blog, which quickly garnered a loyal following. Writing about her time in New York City led to her book Places I Stopped on The Way Home (released by Icon Books in May 2018), an exploration of the formative years she spent in the city as a 20-something. Her work navigates relationships and loneliness through a modern lens. Originally from Texas, Meg now lives in Durham, North Carolina, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at Duke University. In our discussion, we talked about New York City as a cultural construct, finding home, and turning 30.

How did you get started writing this book? I know you originally wrote this as a shorter e-book and then expanded it right after you found an agent. What was the initial spark?

MF: I was staring down 30 and was like, What if I just put 10 blog posts together into an e-book and called it a day? I printed them off, stapled them, looked at them, and was like, This is never going to work. Then I moved on to a totally different project. At that time it was March of 2015, maybe, and I was dating the world’s most boring man. He is safe and comfortable, and there is value in that. He was kind and that was really lovely. Then he dumped me, and it was my first classic dumping. It sort of dislodged me as a writer. I wrote just a small something that made me feel that I could go back to those blog posts and actually turn them into something. I thought I had an idea of what this could be about.

I feel like you touch on this idea that even people who have never been to New York have this idea of what New York is. How do you view this now that you don’t live there anymore? Were you self-aware of this when you lived in New York?

MF: I think in many ways yes. I was still editing the book as I was finally leaving New York. There was stuff being put in about that time period, and that was a really interesting time in my life because there was so much to look forward to. I was aware of the discomfort of leaving, that leaving New York felt like closing a chapter definitively. Even though it was all exciting and good and I had wanted to leave badly for a very long time, change is still hard. Full stop. That’s just the nature of life.

But when you leave New York that’s one of those things that everyone has a response to. The people that live there, the people that don’t. It really felt like there was this alienating thing in leaving. My leaving became everyone else’s property. Everyone felt like they had a claim to that experience. And so they were like, I’m so sad that you’re leaving New York because that’s this for me. A lot of people don’t actually like it but it’s uncomfortable to sort of face that reality. Or there are people that do really like it and don’t understand why other people don’t, and they don’t want to face that reality.

Leaving New York is one of those moments where the mirror sort of turns around and people get this reflection back quickly. Their response has very little to do with you and everything to do with them, which is then this weird refraction experience. It was this really big, important moment in my life and it was about everyone else but me, if that makes sense.

You were writing about writing this book, being self-aware of the act of writing. Was that strange to put into your book or did that feel natural as you were writing?

MF: It was the only way I knew how to do it because those last few months were like, I’m writing this book about this period in my life. This period of life is ending as I’m finishing writing this book. As happy as I was, I was also incredibly lonely. I didn’t know why I was. I was like, everything is so good and I have so much to look forward to, but I feel so alone. So was it weird? Maybe. But I didn’t know how to do it any other way.

This lends your book a level of immediacy. Toward the end of the book, you write, “There will come a day, in the not so distant future, when I will forget what it felt like to have people ask what I am doing with my life and not have an answer.” How did that translate for you? What was that like moving into a new decade and realizing that for yourself?

MF: This moment in my life is interesting because so much has changed and so much happened even though I’m the same person. Now I have to remember who I was before this change happened. But I also think—this is going to sound cavalier, and I don’t mean it to—but I should have dated more! I should have had more fun and not cared if the guys called me back. I should have been fine with the fact that my job wasn’t perfect because everything changes—it’s bound to! I wish that I had enjoyed that process more. But I also knew when I was in the drudge of it that I would get to this place and have that feeling only because I knew that it worked out. It’s really hard when you’re in the moment and think, I may not get a job I like. I may not meet someone. It’s only now that I feel I’m on a path that’s good. Man, I should have enjoyed that all more. But I don’t know that I could have in that moment without future hindsight.

There was this moment over the summer before I got to school—I have a really good friend who is married. I have become good friends with his wife. I love them both dearly. They’ve been so kind to me and so wonderful, and they would do so much for me. My parents live now in the mountains, and they came out over the summer to visit. But at the end of four days we were tired. I was there with my parents and these friends, and they’ve got each other. I remember sitting at the head of the dinner table trying not to cry into my food. This happened over the span of an hour, but none of us fully acknowledged it or have acknowledged it since. One day it will make for a very good scene in a film. But in the moment it was like, Fuck, these people have partners. I tried to write about this in the book.

The weird thing about loneliness when you’re not with someone is that whether loneliness is visible or not, everyone feels that they have the right to comment. This thing that’s singular makes people feel that they can comment on the experience you’re having. Yet, when you’re in a relationship, there’s a curtain in front of it. It becomes not my place to comment on their life. When you’re alone that doesn’t exist. There is a weird exposure in the loneliness that can be incredibly vulnerable. But there is this weird tension in that the loneliness is yours but it’s public domain.

Related to that is the theme of home in Places I Stopped on the Way Home, and the idea is something you pursue in the book. How did you come about that in writing? Did you know you were writing toward that or did that just happen?

MF: I did not. The original title of the e-book was Letters to Men I’m No Longer in Love With. But then I thought, These aren’t letters and they don’t read like letters. So if that’s not the title, what is the title? What is this book about?

The title came about from the first collection of essays in the e-book. What is home and what is larger than a single definition?

You’re studying public policy at Duke. How does this inform your writing, or do you see it as separate? Do they have a relationship to each other?

MF: What I’m trying to write about is that there is no roadmap. There is no clear answer for most questions. But just because that doesn’t exist, we aren’t absolved from our obligation to have difficult conversations, to engage with difficult questions. At the end of the day, the best thing that any person can do is tend to their own garden, to speak that metaphor, that you have to face your biases and your prejudices and your shortcomings, and you have to be willing to say, I don’t like this thing about myself. I don’t just accept it as a stationary stagnant characteristic. If I don’t like it, I can change that thing. That willingness to identify that thing is uncomfortable.

Figuring out how to sit with discomfort and welcome discomfort is probably the best thing that any of us can do. As part of that larger search for purpose and meaning, what is the value of that in our lives, those things are much bigger questions than what it means to pursue happiness. I think public policy is really about how we address the inefficiencies and inequalities in the world in which we live.

I think where public policy falls short—and I am certainly not the first person to say this—is that it’s too reliant on black-and-white number data. Life is just a bit messier than that. In thinking about policies and how we deal with poverty, sometimes the answer and explanation is messier. Sometimes also the solution is 20 steps behind us. It’s easy to put a Band-Aid on something, but wouldn’t it be greater to get to the root cause of the issue? It’s really getting down to the problem. In our own lives we have the power to answer that question for ourselves. Then when we are in a position to act in service for other people.

What are some writers who influence you?

MF: Brian Doyle (Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies), Cheryl Strayed ([the podcast] Dear Sugar), Jeffrey McDaniel, Rebecca Horsfall (Dancing on Thorns), Pat Conroy, Brian Andreas.

You also have an interest in photography. How did you get started with that? Did that intersect with your writing?

MF: I think so. It all kind of came about at the same time. I took a photography class in high school and I was like, I want to be really good at this. I was really not. That was probably one of my only B’s in high school, actually.

My experience with photography has been much like my experience with writing—you get better the more you do it. I’m sort of aware that I have an eye for it that perhaps not everyone has. There is this great quote by Ira Glass, he says that there is always going to be a space between what you recognize as really good art and what you produce. The trick of it is to keep producing. To try to close that gap.

I started to write to document my life for myself and didn’t know that it would turn into anything, and I think that’s true of photography, too. That is deeply satisfying to me even if no one ever sees them.

You can find more of Meg’s work here.

Interview by Kayla Dean.
Photography by Lydia Bittner-Baird.