Friday, December 11, 2009

The Modern Love AAA Farm Team

How do I get to Modern Love?
Practice, practice, practice.

And guess what readers, I have a bit of concrete advice as to where you might engage in that sort of practice.

Consider writing and submitting to Brevity:

Brevity is an excellent online magazine with an impressive publication record of more than a decade (that’s forever in online years). It publishes some big names (Sherman Alexie, Lia Purpura, Bret Lott) and plenty of newcomers and graduate students pushing up through the ranks. Brevity accepts essays of 750 words or less. And it’s a Modern Love feeder market.

What makes me say that?

I was getting ready to write this week’s Monday Morning Quarterbacking entry on “Even in English, a Language Gap,” by Jennifer Percy. Ms. Percy’s cut line for the ML essay is a teeny tiny bit coy. “Jennifer Percy is a graduate student in Iowa City.”

(Gee, I wonder what school? I can’t imagine which course of study in Iowa City she might be talking about. Law school? Medical school? What -- an MFA program, you say?)

So I Google Ms. Percy and found she’d be published in Brevity. That’s nice. Then I noticed on the same Brevity blog landing page was an item about Brevity contributor Gary Presley being published in Modern Love. A few clicks later, I found two more: Ann Bauer and Lori Jakiela both graced Brevity and then went on to Modern Love.

In my old job as a USA Today reporter, we used to say three is a trend. I’ve got four examples of the Brevity-to-Modern-Love pipeline. And again, Brevity has been around for a decade. I’ll bet those four aren’t the only ones.

Now here’s another reason for all us Modern Love wannabes to click on over to Brevity. In addition to being a market for great creative non-fiction, Brevity offers something Modern Love does not; craft essays Lots of them. For all of us who have read the canned ML rejection email and wondered what we could do to do better next time, Brevity is offering quite the archive of answers. Perhaps, once you've learned the craft at Brevity, you're ready to try your game at The Show.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking XIX -- Complete with secret to Modern Love publication!

Happy Thanksgiving, readers. While my turkey roasts, I will post.

And now, as a reader service, I will unveil the Great Secret to getting your essay published in Modern Love:

Question: What are the Modern Love editors looking for in an essay?

Answer: Facebook.

Facebook is sexy. Facebook is the element that takes a regular juicy emotional story and elevates it to Modern Love material. It is the hot topic that gives a good essay the necessary boost into publication status. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Newspaper editors are always looking for the thing that is trendy, hot, talked about, to get into their pages. These days, that’s Facebook

This is not lost on the writers, trust me. Back when I interviewed my friend and classmate Kerry Herlihy about her Modern Love essay, she shared with me her a-ha moment about the Facebook element. Because Kerry is a talented writer of many, many great essays. So what made this one Modern Love material? Facebook. And she knew it even as she conceived the essay topic in her head. She’s a smart writer, and she leveraged the sexy, hot element of the moment to get her essay into Modern Love.

So too, did our essayist of the week, Charles H. Antin, author of The Boundaries of a Breakup. In Antin’s essay, Facebook is a main character. It is the way by which he somewhat creepily spies on his ex-girlfriend. And it is the way by which he has an unnecessary conflict with his grandfather. These are two love stories and their common bond is the Facebook connection.

Does this work? Mostly. Here’s the problem: there are two stories here and in my opinion, they don’t pack equal emotional punch. The story of the author with his grandfather is wonderfully nuanced. There are several great details that enhance this tale – the way his grandfather clearly does not “get” the way language is used online (he writes his emails in traditional letter format) he misses the social etiquette of the virtual world and when it creates tension in the family, he simply puts it down. This action horrifies the author, but you can sort of see it from Grandpa’s perspective: Whatever. It’s just a toy, right? No great loss if I never touch it again. Grandpa, obviously, is not all that concerned with creating a virtual brand for himself. I found the sections involving the author and his grandfather funny and touching and illuminating of the way technology has insinuated itself into our lives and relationships.

Therefore, I am disappointed with the other relationship in the story – that of the ex girlfriend. I get nothing of the detail in the grandfather section – no dialogue, no detail, no sense of why our author liked her at all, much less still carries a torch for her after the break up. There may be reasons the author has failed to flesh out this relationship for us. Maybe they are legal reasons? Perhaps Grandpa is not going to complain that his relationship with the author is appearing in the New York Times, but the ex-girlfriend (not to mention Charlie 2.0 with the unusual, Google-able name) might not be so generous. By making them unidentifiable, the author (and the Times) avoid any lawyer calls. But they also avoid the emotion needed to make this section as strong as the other.

Still, if you’ve got Facebook, even a vague breakup story can feel fresh and modern. So anyone with an essay out there with a Facebook theme polish it up and hit send. That window won’t stay open forever. Any minute now, the Times will discover Twitter.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking XVIII

Happy Friday, readers.

"That Delicate Membrane, the Heart"
By Kim Barnes

How convenient -- a father/daughter essay in Modern Love, appearing just as my own father/daughter essay is rejected by same. Really, very thoughtful of ML to not only tell me no, but publish an example by which I might see clearly my own shortcomings.


Well, there’s no way around this.

As I read the two side-by-side, I can see the differences. Here are the biggies:

Dramatic setting: Hospital room versus family vacation. Which one has the more intense natural tension?

What’s at stake? Routine family dynamics versus life or death.

Dramatic characters. Pentecostal mountain man versus professorial poet. Okay fine, I’m seeing the pattern. I’m picking softer subjects.

Moment of realization: Actually, this one is interesting. I think I do have a moment of realization in my own piece, but Kim Barnes is explicit about hers. “I came to understand that my father was my antagonist.” That’s an interesting choice as a writer, to tell rather than rely on showing. (Which is not say she doesn’t show. She does. But she also tells.) That might make sense for me to try.

And onward.

Friday, November 13, 2009

More for The Rejection Collection.

Dear Readers,
Below, please find my latest Modern Love reject. Thanks for reading.

The Jordan Runs Through It
By Ellen Neuborne

Standing in the extra-strength Israeli sunlight, I had a flash of understanding as to why this was called the Wailing Wall. Beside me, my teen-aged son argued with his father. My parents stood a foot or so apart from us, debating solutions to the family meltdown in progress. And my 9-year-old daughter was, well, wailing. She had marched herself up to the very edge of the plaza called the Kotel, found a sliver of shade, and sat down in it to cry out her late afternoon vacation frustrations.

I wanted to join her in the shade and in the cry. But I knew I couldn’t. I was making my own last stand that afternoon – indeed, that whole trip. I was doing my best to be an adult.

When I told people I would be traveling to Israel with my husband, my children and my parents, I got two reactions. The optimists said it was wonderful. The cynics remarked that it was the ultimate Sandwich Generation experience – eight days in the Holy Land with parents and children in tow. Both were right on the money.

Throughout the trip, I engaged in a constant tap dance to maintain my double role. I was still mother to my children – and that meant I was always carrying sunscreen, a water bottle, a snack and a Band Aid. I was always worrying, were they hungry? Tired? Bored? At the same time, I was there with my parents, and I was their child. In my child role, I shopped with my mother, listened to my father’s history lectures, and worried whether any given activity was too hot or had too many steps or was too religious for their tastes. It was not so much a vacation as a high wire act. One evening when we returned to our hotel, my husband began to voice some complaint to me and I cut him off and snapped, “Look, I have a lot of people to take care of on this trip and you’re not at the top of the list.”

Nasty, rotten thing for me to say, especially since my husband was on his vacation with his wife, his children and his in-laws. That had my Sandwich Generation complaint beat by a mile, but he didn’t press the point.

For eight days, we were together 24/7 and my parents were, well, my parents. They planned the day’s activities. They picked up the check. They told the tour guide what we all wanted. And I had to self-talk through a whole slew of complaints I knew were ridiculous. I mean, who complains when someone else picks up the check? Really. I was chafing and fretting and fully aware of just how much of a child I really was being. Grow up, Neuborne was my muttered motto. My parents were just being parental. The fact that this made me crazy was obviously my hang up.

I say my parents, but I really mean my father. My mother has adjusted relatively well to my adult status. My father would have pickled me at age 10, if given the option. To this day, at any given moment he can be counted on to call me by my baby nickname (It’s Tootsie. Don’t even try it.) or kiss me on the top of my head in greeting. My father was a helicopter parent before the term was trendy. I don’t mean he hovered over me at playgrounds. But he was always super involved in whatever I was doing – most especially whatever I was thinking. When I was a freshman at Brown, my dad got hold of my syllabi and read along with me through World History, Greek Drama and English Comp. Growing up around him was a constant Socratic dialogue from which he never tired. My advancing years altered nothing in that regard.

The day of the Jordan River raft trip we visited Safed, an ancient city of winding streets, beautiful art galleries, and not a whole lot to engage the passion of your average 9 and 13-year-old. To keep the kids from mutinying, our wise tour guide, a beanpole of a man named Yoel, told them we would cap off the day with a rafting trip. It was late afternoon and the sunlight was already turning pre-dusk golden when we pulled up to the raft location.

After a brief safety lecture, we were given life jackets, and helped into our boat – a 6-person dinghy. My father got into the back and my husband into the front. The rest of the family piled into the middle, Yoel (remaining on shore) took a picture, and we were pushed off into the green-brown, lightly moving water.

This was a disaster I should have seen coming. Because my husband doesn’t like boats. He doesn’t like boats or water or any of the activities therein. He was born and raised in El Paso, Texas and thinks desert is an ideal climate. In fact, David probably thought a raft trip was a terrible idea when Yoel first mentioned it. But as I mentioned, David was pretty much lowest on this family vacation totem pole, and not once during this very long day had anyone asked him what he thought of going rafting. He’d been a good sport and gotten into the boat as asked. But that was about as far as he could go masking this bad idea. The reality of it soon became evident.

First off, both my father and David are lefties. They both immediately began to try and manage the motion of the wide rubber craft by paddling on their strongest side. We got picked up by the current and began to slide downstream, paddling in a circle. My mother and I yelled helpful suggestions. (We thought they were helpful.) The kids just yelled. The tourists in the boats nearby laughed in several languages.

We crashed into the bushes and reeds on one bank. We pushed off, slid in circles banged into other boats on the water, and crashed into the bushes and reeds on the opposite bank. We didn’t move forward so much as we got dragged downstream. Slowly. So that all the picnickers on the banks could get a good look at us – the loud American family paddling in a circle. We were an international relations metaphor.

We were headed for our fourth bank crash when I decided to step back in time.

“Switch with me,” I said to David.

He didn’t say a word, but handed me the paddle and (I think) shoved me a little into the bow. I got up on my knees, grasped the paddle, and began to canoe.

When I was ten, my family spent the summer in Sag Harbor, New York. We spent every summer on Long Island, but that summer was special. That was the summer of the canoe. The house we rented was on the bay across from Long Beach. It had a dock that stretched out into the water, and a canoe. My father, my sister and I would go for long paddles, all over the placid bay. My father at the stern, me at the bow and my sister in the center. We paddled up the clear blue middle. We paddled around the marshy banks. We made one great effort to paddle all the way into the town of Sag Harbor. And I felt like a grown up, at the front of the boat, half the engine (or so I thought) responsible, strong, equal.

Dad liked to take us out – on bikes, on boats, on foot, even in the car. Exploring, he called it. Not bound by a destination or timetable or any discernable sense of direction. And he liked to recite poetry while we wandered – Robert Frost was a favorite and later Wallace Stevens. My sister and I were mostly willing. Although we did think our father had a remarkable ability to get lost in towns he’d been summering at for decades. One year, as snarky teens, we penned: “Whose woods these are, Dad doesn’t know. He lost the map three days ago. But that won’t stop him. Oh my, no. For ‘round that corner he must peek. There’s miles to go before Mom shrieks.”

(Apologies to Mr. Frost. Dad did the real poetry justice.)

But the canoe was a new iteration in our wanderings, mostly because it elevated me from passenger to co-pilot. And I understood the promotion. I remember learning not to turn around when Dad called out instructions (since that would rock the canoe) but to tilt my head to the side to show I was listening to him. When I call up memories of that summer, I don’t see Dad or my sister in them. I see water and sky before me – with the soundtrack of Dad in the background.

It had been 30 years since my father and I had paddled together, and yet on this tiny sliver of the Jordan, it seemed to come back to us. Quickly, we found a rhythm. I remembered to power. He remembered to steer. I felt the currents and shifted my paddling side to keep the boat centered in the water, moving forward. I didn’t swivel around, but instead, listened to him while facing forward, out into the water. Our boat grew silent, and we moved downstream, now not fighting the current but drawing on it. Our fellow tourists stopped laughing. We started to notice the scenery – green and gold in the late afternoon sun.

Then we approached the rapids.

To be fair, these were what I’d have to call Jewish rapids. By that I don’t mean, tough Israeli-Jewish, but citified, shrink-seeing New York Jewish. Really just a short stretch of fast-moving turbulence. Two employees from the rafting company stood on each side of the entryway to the rapids to guide the boats in. And there were two more to catch boats on the other end. Not exactly extreme sports. Still, for us -- the boat that couldn’t float straight -- it was a legitimate challenge.

“Paddle up!” the guides signaled, hands held high. I followed suit and we chuted in. Water shot up all around us. We forgot we were trying to shed our image as the loud Americans and shrieked as we barreled through the foam.

At end, we faced one more stretch of calm water as we headed for the dock. Dad and I resumed our paddling and we did the final stretch like pros. If Yoel noticed that we were not the same crew positions that had left the dock, he didn’t mention it. He just snapped another photo as we skidded up onto the sandy bank.

I jumped out onto dry land and back into mother mode. I helped my daughter out of the boat. I helped my son off with his life jacket. We all chattered excitedly to each other about the boat and the scenery and the rapids. Awesome, we agreed.

I looked back for my father – the first time I’d actually looked at him since we’d gotten into the boat upstream. Like the rest of us, he was drenched and smiling and shaking off his boating gear. He took off his life jacket, and hung it on the railing. Then he walked over to me. And shook my hand.


Monday Morning Quarterbacking XVII

On Friday? I am totally slipping. But it's been a busy week.

Anyway, on to the commentary. This week's essay is "A Brief Visit From My Soldier Son" by Charles Rush.

What struck me as I read this essay is that it’s not about modern love, it’s about ancient love. The love of a parent for a child. The most primal love there is.

The strength of this essay is the way it conveys the emotional roller coaster of parenthood. We get the mixture of pride and love and terror this father feels as his son moves through the world. He faces this moment of truth – his son is a man, and yet still his boy.

In many ways, this son is clearly a man. He’s gotten married. He’s made a career choice. He’s even done the mature work of putting his affairs in order, should the worst happen.

The fact that this particular son is a soldier makes for a wonderful contrast. The father is facing the fact that he can no longer protect his boy – and that in fact, his boy is now protecting him.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Revenge of the Essay Subjects

I've always felt a little queasy about using my family in my essays. I've wrestled with the issue of letting them read the text first, before it goes out of the house. Does this undermine the essay? Am I pre-censoring? Should I be brave rather than worry about what all anyone is going to say to me at Thanksgiving?

Well, then my good writer friend Lisa Romeo sent me this link.

Clearly, the answer is not in pre-publication. It's in post-publication. Let the subjects talk back! I love it.

I may change my mind the day my children start posting their own versions of my essays. But for right now, I think it's genius.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking XVI

Before I get into this week's critique, I thought I'd let readers in on a fiction project I'm working on with a Modern Love twist. I'm writing a series of revisionist fairy tales called Once Upon How It Should Have Happened. (Or somesuch. It's a working title.) I'm retelling or expanding on some well told tales in my own oddball fashion. So far I've done Little Red Restraining Order and Cinder Best Seller. Next up is Dating Nemo. It's a fictional Modern Love column, penned by Nemo's girlfriend, all about the long term impact of helicopter parenting.

Okay, now back to our regular programming.

Lots to like about “All I Wanted Was A Hug” by Holly Welker. A well-crafted essay that takes us to a far away land and into a tightly structured and often secretive society. That’s a great place to write from and the author gives us lots of detail about what her life as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan was like.

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today.

Holly Welker’s essay is admirable not just for its subject matter. It’s a winner because it does not play the blame game. This essay recounts a painful period in the author’s life – a time when she felt alone, confused, in need of comfort and human connection. She found she was unable to find this solace among her fellow missionaries or in the work of the mission itself. This was the beginning of the end of her relationship with the church of her upbringing.

And yet, there are no villains in this story. Welker tells this story with emotion, intensity and detail. But not with blame.

Perhaps one of the biggest sand traps in the writing of a personal essay is the tendency to blame. Whenever we write about intensely emotional experiences, this can happen. We blame our parents, our exes, our bosses, our teachers. When we write about something hard that happened, we look for ways to make our choices look right and often that leads us to create a bad guy for contrast.

Welker doesn’t do this. Despite the rich territory for blaming – who doesn’t love to blame the church (or any religion) for being over-bearing, insensitive, sexist, etc. – she avoids this. The characters we meet in this story are there as contrast to the author – but they are also beautifully humanized. The apparently judgmental companion in the opening of the story is found stealing a few moments to play her beloved piano at the end. The fellow missionary on whom the author develops a crush won’t be the boyfriend she desires. But he compliments her, even expresses that he loves her. And even when the author has a true angry confrontation with a church supervisor, she finds a way to make him three-dimensional. Look at this bit of dialogue that takes place after Welker has yelled at an elder and created a scene in a missionary meeting.

“President’s really mad at me, isn’t he?” I said.

To which her fellow missionary replies: “I think you hurt his feelings.”


When you can’t even hate the pushy church elder in a story about a religious break, the author has worked a nifty miracle.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking XV

This week I'm getting smart and posting before the Giants game. That way my writing ability will not hinge on the status of Eli Manning's sore foot.

What’s love got to do with it?

This week’s essay provides an interesting window into what Modern Love editors mean when they say “love.”

Because frankly, there’s not a whole lot of love in this essay.

This week’s gripping piece is by Michelle Nicole Lee and it tells a fascinating, sometimes painful tale of the author’s lifelong battle with depression. Like many a great ML essay, “When Madness Is in the Wings” takes a familiar topic and travels an unfamiliar route. Mental illness – certainly depression – have been well covered in essay land. What makes this one different? It’s the relationship the author chooses to share with the reader.

Instead of friends and family, the author tells us about her relationship with a woman she encountered as a graduate student – a woman who displays signs of mental illness and becomes a mirror and a reference point for the author as she travels her own route through depression.

And so that brings me to my original question: why is this a story that belongs in a column about love? Even as the author expresses her sympathy, her connection and finally, her gratitude to this woman in her life, she does not say she loves her. There isn’t any indication that the emotion of love, as we understand it commonly, is present at all in this story.

So the essay is interesting, because it isn’t really about love. At least not traditional love. And that gives me a new insight into the market. The title of the column is not “Love.” It is “Modern Love.” What’s the difference? The addition of the word modern allows the possibility of reinterpretation of the emotion, of relationships, of what it means to feel love.

Perhaps the author does not feel the kind of love for this woman that she might feel for family or friends. On the other hand, there is a powerful, emotional experience there. And perhaps it’s one that shouldn’t be relegated to anything less than love.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On the road...

...Monday Morning Quarterbacking will post later this week.
Besides, I'm too depressed about the Giants to face a football metaphor. Maybe by Thursday I'll be over it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Thank you for writing to Modern Love at The New York Times."

My latest, The Jordan Runs Through It, is off into the email ether.
Go, baby, go.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking XIV

For the Boy Who Makes Waves by Joe Blair

This essay beautifully illustrates the benefits of simplicity in writing. It is an intimate and powerful vision of a father confronting the limits of parenting and the limitless nature of love.

There are several elements of this essay that just blew me away:

*Focus. Clearly, there is a lot of rich material going on in this writer’s life. He’s a pipe fitter in Iowa getting ready to relocate the family to California. No job. No waiting family or other community. Just a full out pilgrimage west. Already, that’s a book. But Joe Blair shows his writing chops by not insisting on telling the WHOLE story and instead, taking a small slice of his book-worthy life and giving it full treatment. Smart, and great reading.

*A new take on a popular theme. There is one word that does not appear in this essay, but is thematically all over the text: Autism. I’m not trained in developmental disabilities, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say Michael appears autistic. He stims (pacing and cracking the belt in a repetitive wave-pattern). He does not communicate in a socially recognizable fashion. He sings, screams, howls. He engages in what looks to my layperson eyes as echolalia – repeating rather than responding to conversation. And autism is a popular theme in writing today. It has gained greater recognition and stirs heated debate in medical and educational circles. But this essay does not wander into that territory. There is no discussion of diagnosis, school issues, dealing with unsympathetic friends and neighbors. In fact, the essay doesn’t even utter The Word. It’s a new twist on a well-covered topic.

*Tension. The writer injects tension into this story at several junctures. The opening graf creates tension by describing items that sound scary: a padlock, a bolted six foot fence. The scene visiting the hugging saint is disconcerting, surreal, and it serves to destabilize us. In the final section, the author is describing Michael’s behavior and casually drops this line “…which might seem cute to you but to me indicates Michael is on the edge of a seizure.” And like that, we’re afraid. Is a medical crisis about to unfold? The writer’s style is quiet and restrained but he does not allow us to be lulled by it.

A quick Google tells us this author is an experienced essayist. I'm not surprised. His skill shows.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking XIII

Well, I finally got to Modern Love column that I’m not wild about. And it may be because I’m a cat person. But I don’t think so. I think it’s because I didn’t find anything new or dramatic to bond to in this essay.

This is an essay about how someone who wasn’t sure he could love a dog, finds out he can and what’s more, the dog makes his whole life better than it was before.

Nice story, but not new. And it’s not made new by the fact that the couple in this story is gay. Although that does allow the author to get off a great line expressing his concern about owning a long-haired miniature dachschund. “She’s too small! She’s just too gay!”

I thought the essay was well written. But it didn’t turn me in any new directions. In the end, it was just another happiness is a warm puppy tale. Ever since John Grogan managed to make a mint off his Marley, the world has been quite well-populated by How Great Is My Dog stories.

I guess this essay does give me one bit of good news: you don’t necessarily have to tell your deepest, darkest secret to make Modern Love. I’ve read Bob Morris before, in the NYT and elsewhere. This is not his most revelatory piece.

Maybe the editors decided the column needed a break from the My Most Humiliating Moment trend?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking XII -- the short version.

I’m too backed up this week to do a full critique -- but I do want to point out the value of good timing when it comes to essay writing. Sunday’s Modern Love essay “My Mother’s Imposed Fast: I Feel Her Hunger” by Natasha Singh ran on erev Yom Kippur -- the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, marked by a day of fasting. Obviously, that’s not an accident. The essay ran at a time when many readers would be thinking about the fast they would undertake a few hours later.

So had that essay dropped into the Modern Love email box today, it might have missed its news hook.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking XI: Modern Humiliation?

Sue Shapiro (last week’s ML author) made a key reveal in her Q and A with this humble blog last week.

“I teach a class called Instant Gratification Takes Too Long. One of my assignments is: Write about the most humiliating thing that ever happened to you. It’s produced something like ten Modern Love columns and 12 Lives columns. There’s something about writing about the worst thing that ever happened to you that works. “

Certainly, this week’s ML essay fits that pattern. “Forget the Men. Pick a Guy,” by Cathleen Calbert is an essay that looks like it’s going to be a light-hearted socio-semantic rant about the difference between men and guys. Until Graf 14, when it hangs a sharp right with the phrase “After I was molested in a deserted schoolyard –“

Wow, way to move the center of gravity in an essay. My head almost swiveled off.

At that point, the essay moves decidedly from lighthearted rant into familiar Modern Love territory: The most humiliating thing that ever happened to me. Calbert keeps her man vs. guy debate rolling throughout the text, but the heart of it, the gripping moment, is the reveal that she was molested by two teenage boys from the neighborhood, and then further victimized by her father (a typical “man”) who blamed her for not screaming.

I liked this essay very much and I was especially impressed with the technical skill of the writer – she didn’t rush her story, she trusted her writing to keep us with her until she was ready to land her big punch.

But I’m not sure what to do with the realization that humiliation is often a key component of success in this market.

I’m thinking back over the essays I’ve critiqued here over the last few months. And many of them have that common theme of “my most humiliating moment.” The 70something woman whose doctors thought her sex life was weird. The 50something woman whose dog bloodied her new lover’s nose.

They’re not all about a humiliating moment. But a lot of them are. Sue Shapiro has revealed a truth and Cathleen Calbert is just one of many ML essayists to back it up. So, the question is: what are we, who want to be in this market, prepared to do with the information? Are we willing to go there?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Reading Forever with Boys

Another essay to join the Not Ready for Modern Love Collection. In this one, I think I get closer in topic and tone to my goal, but ultimately, this doesn't clear the hurdle. Maybe it lacks drama? The ticking clock I've set up is artificial so perhaps there's no real tension in the story. Anyway, Onward.

Reading Forever with Boys

By Ellen Neuborne

I have a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever. It’s ten years old and it’s never been read. I purchased it at the now-closed Astor Place Barnes and Noble when my daughter was a baby. As I nursed her in the one semi-discrete corner of the coffee shop I happily day-dreamed about when she’d be a teenager and I would give her this book. We’d read it together, I knew, and have long mother-daughter talks about love, sex and relationships.

I kept that fantasy fully intact until this month, when my oldest prepared to enter high school. My oldest is not my daughter. My oldest is a boy. And it’s a very different thing, reading Forever with boys.

As his first day of school approached, I took the book out of its hiding place – and promptly put it back. I couldn’t do it. It’s not like I’d never discussed sex with my son. We’d given him the birds-and-the-bees lecture years ago (to which he had responded in typical 7-year-old-fashion: “That’s disgusting!”) And I had no illusions as to what he’d already seen -- on the Internet, on cable. Heck, his favorite sports programs are sponsored by Viagra. He’d been briefed.

But my vision for Forever was not to have a sex conversation, but a love conversation. What did it mean, I’d say to my daughter, to be in love? How and why does sex enter into that conversation? How do you know what you want and when you want it? How do you say that to your boyfriend?

Or girlfriend?

I had never envisioned the Forever conversation as anything but woman-to-woman. Clearly, I was caught short.

Thinking I could get around my hang up, I marched up to the remaining B&N in my neighborhood and purchased Changing Bodies, Changing Lives and handed that to my son.

“When you’re reading, if you have any questions, you can ask me. Or your dad.”

“Whatever,” he responded.

When I went into his room later that week to pick up his laundry, I noticed the book open on his bed. I patted myself on the back mentally for being such a good, educating mother. I peeked a little closer to see – it was open to the page on sexual fantasies. Oy vey! I fled.

And worse, I knew I’d cheated. I’d skirted the issue, avoided the hard part. If it was my responsibility to face and educate my daughter, did that not also apply to my son? Is it not also our mission to raise feminist boys?

I read Forever for the first time in junior high, standing in the stacks of Community Bookstore while my mother shopped at the Key Food across the street. I read it 15-20 pages at a time, as my mother’s shopping schedule would allow. I have no idea if she would have purchased it for me. It had sex in it. I wasn’t even brave enough to ask.

I read it again as a graduate student, this time more critically, looking for ways the author used sex as a craft element of the novel. I was stunned and moved as I read with adult eyes, the story of Katherine, the 18-year-old protagonist, who moved through her first relationship with clarity, self-awareness and maturity. She was no push over, this young woman. She was fully in control of her life, her sexuality, her relationships. She was everything I would want my daughter to know and admire.

So, what did I want for my boy?

I tried buying a new copy of Forever for him. I thought maybe I could do it if I wasn’t giving my daughter’s book away. Didn’t help me. Now I just had two books stuffed into my nightstand drawer. And I think they were both laughing at me.

But finally, in the weeks before he would step out into the full world of high school, I did it. I took a copy of Forever, knocked on his door.

“This is a book I’d like you to read,” I squeaked out. “I think you’ll like it and there’s lots for us to talk about in here.”

He eyed it. “Looks like girls book,” he said.

I tapped into my mother/daughter daydream for the response. “This book is a story about young people in love. There’s a lot here that I want you to think about, that I want you to know about, as you go to high school and start, well --”

“-- meeting women?” he supplied helpfully.

God, this was harder that I expected.

And then he sat up from where he’d been slouched on his bed and gave me the signal that he really was prepared to listen: he took his ear phones from around his neck and placed them on the nightstand. “Why do I have to read a book? Can’t you just tell me what you want to tell me?” he asked.

So I did as he asked and took the direct route. For the next few minutes he listened politely while I pontificated about girls and respect and listening and inner beauty. And sex. How sex changes everything. How it’s more than a physical act and you can’t possibly imagine how it changes you and changes a relationship until it’s already over. How I wished I could do it all over again, knowing what I know, that I wanted him to read and think and ask questions.

When I stopped, he looked at me. “All done?”

“Yes,” I said. “Do you want to say anything?”

“No, it’s fine,” he said. “Whatever.”

I put Forever on his nightstand and left. In a few days, it was covered up by his copies of “Sporting News” and “Modern Drummer.”

If you’re looking for a nice, wrapped-up, closure ending, it won’t happen here. Teenagers don’t give you closure. They are an open-ended conversation. When you say Forever, they say whatever. That’s what I have to embrace as my oldest starts high school. You hope they’ve heard you, but you don’t know for sure. No book can give you the certainty of forever. With teenagers, you only get today.

Ellen Neuborne is writing a novel about mothers and daughters and sexual politics.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking X

Are our families fair game?

Every essay writer faces this at some point. Families make great stories. When we write about our families, do we owe them anything?

I thought about this issue a lot in the last week. Sue Shapiro’s essay brought it up. Hers is an essay that reveals quite a bit about her husband and his pack rat tendencies. And I’ve also faced it in my own Essay of the Month, "Reading Forever with Boys" which is about my son.

What do we owe our families when we write about them?

Sue handles the issue nicely by portraying her husband as somewhat whacky but ultimately lovable. Among the items he hoards are 100 personalized yarmulkes from their wedding. Awwwwwwww. So while the essay reveals some personal stuff, it’s not bad stuff. Also, her husband is a writer and presumably familiar with what goes into a personal essay. If he got a lot of emails on Sunday morning ribbing him for his pack rat-itis, he probably wasn’t surprised. He knows how the game is played.

So what about my son, who is 14? Can he consent – with true understanding – to appearing in my personal essays? I’ve written about him before. Here’s one that I’m particularly proud of:

And I’m working on another one now that features my daughter – and my long-standing phobia about cheerleaders.

Writers have long leveraged their families for material. But this is the age of the Internet. As I say to my children when they post on Facebook or other social networks: the Internet is forever. What you post today can be Googled for a long, long time.

I know an essayist whose policy is don’t ask, don’t apologize. “I don’t need permission to write about my life,” she says. Even if other people are in it? “They can write their own memoirs.”

I see her point, but I’m not willing to go there. I let my family read before I hit send. My children read essays that feature them before I send them out. My husband blessed my essay on Green Sex before it went out for public viewing. Because maybe I don’t need permission to write about my life. But I do want their okay to write about theirs.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Susan Shapiro Speaks

The latest generous Modern Love columnist to share her story with us is Susan Shapiro. She is the author of today’s Modern Love offering “Making Room for My Junk Man” and the new novel “Speed Shrinking” (St. Martin’s Press). She has a lot of great information about what makes a great Modern Love essay, what it’s like to be edited by Daniel Jones and why those of us who have put a few months, even a few years, into trying to crack this market have nothing to whine about.

Tell us about your path to Modern Love publication.

This is about my tenth try. I’ve been teaching since 1993 and I can’t tell you how many of my students have gotten into Modern Love. I was like the wedding planner who couldn’t get married. I’ve been writing essays for 28 years and this was making me crazy. At a certain point, I thought: I’ll never get it. I’ll just help all my students get it. But I kept trying.

Did you have any inkling that this essay was The One?

The minute I brought it to my writing group, everybody cracked up. So I had an idea.

Tell us about the editing process.

Dan is a brilliant editor. He is like a good shrink. I always say a writing teacher is just like a therapist except we get paid less. Dan was great. He said – and I’m paraphrasing -- that he likes pieces that start in one emotional place and go to another. The early draft of my essay did not have enough of that transformation. I teach essay writing. If there’s not a transformation, it seems staid and one-note. I am good at helping others but I didn’t see that in my own work until he pointed it out. Dan was very incisive.

What advice do you have for us wannabes?

Read the column. I always say to people: Buy Dan’s book, The Modern Love Anthology, read it. The more you read, the more you understand the tone, the length, the structure of the Modern Love essay. Really analyze them. They tend to be high concept. “I married my gay friend for his green card.” “I fell in love with a man who wears an electronic ankle bracelet.” The biggest mistake my students make is they write, “I had a bad breakup, Bummer.” Those don’t have a beginning, middle and end. Go for the bigger, higher concept. Go for deeper meaning. And darker. Go darker. Write about the worst thing that ever happened to you. I teach a class called Instant Gratification Takes Too Long. One of my assignments is: Write about the most humiliating thing that ever happened to you. It’s produced something like ten Modern Love columns and 12 Lives columns. There’s something about writing about the worst thing that ever happened to you that works.

Is your Modern Love essay connected at all to the promotion of your new book, Speed Shrinking?

I’ve literally been trying to get into Modern Love since the first day the column started so I can’t say I planned this. But with my novel out now, it couldn’t have been better timing.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking IX

In this week’s Modern Love column, the author provides an excellent lesson in choosing your moment.

“Giving Myself Consent to Let Go,” by Elizabeth Scarboro is an essay about a single thing: a woman’s decision-making process around the frozen sperm sample of her now-deceased husband. It is the parameters of this topic that make the essay so successful. The author has reined in what is obviously a long and complex story and told one slice of it.

Clearly, this is a much longer tale. The author met her first husband as a teenager – a man with an illness they knew would eventually kill him. The story of their life together has got to be rich with drama. It could fill a book. Probably it already does – the author has deftly used the cut line space to let us know there’s more where this comes from. “Elizabeth Scarboro, a writer in Berkeley, Calif., is working on a memoir.” But in the writing of this essay, the author chooses one element of the tale and sticks there. Her restraint allows the reader to become involved without being overwhelmed by details.

Finding focus is often a huge hurdle for essay writers. I encounter it myself in my work and I run into it all the time in the essay and memoir classes I teach. Writers have a tendency to want to tell the whole story. They feel compelled to fill you in on all the back story, everything that lead up to the moment. In doing so, we dilute what we came to say. The best essay is a slice of a great story – a moment in time, captured and presented as its own little island of truth.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Sexing the Mammogram

In my fantasy, this ran in October, when all the breast cancer awareness campaigns would be in full bloom. I'm leaving the lede as is. After all, if I can't have it my way on my blog...

Sexing the Mammogram
By Ellen Neuborne

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month and we are awash in public service announcements to run, walk, donate and get a mammogram. And this time, I can’t be silent. I have to speak out. Because I know the answer. I know why women aren’t getting mammograms in droves. And I know how to fix it.

Not to knock the marketers of the breast cancer awareness. They have done a bang up job spreading the word and completely hijacking the color pink. Seriously, well done. But they need to take it one step further to make the mammogram desirable. They need to sex it up a bit. Okay, a lot. And that needs more than a marketer. That needs the services of an experiential marketer.

What’s that? Oh, believe me, if you live in the First World, you’ve received the ministrations of a good experiential marketer. Ever pay $4.50 for a cup of coffee? (at Starbucks) $14.50 for a hamburger? (at The Hard Rock CafĂ©) or three figures for shoes? (insert Sex in the City-esque boutique here.) Then you have been roundly handled by an experiential marketing pro. These are the professionals who are so good at making the mundane sexy, that you open your wallet willingly, eagerly, even stand on line and get all huffy with your neighbors for a chance to do it again. These are the people who make an experience so worthwhile, we beg for more. And it’s my belief that if experiential marketers can make chronic foot pain attractive, the annual mammogram should be no problem at all.

Twenty years, I’ve been covering the marketing beat for every publication that will buy my copy. I have a few modest proposals of my own.

Dreamy Docs. Suppose instead of the perfectly competent ladies who apply the pannini machine to our breasts, the work was done by a substantially more attractive crew. Think McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy. Or George Cloony of ER fame. Or Denzel (anyone remember him from his St. Elsewhere days? He looked great in scrubs.) Suppose you could fill out a preference card in advance, like a room service menu, and pick your type – age, features, gender, whatever works for you. And suppose he had some really good lines. Like “Wow, those are beautiful. Really, I should know. In my line of work, you see a lot. And yours are really lovely, just top notch.”

Okay, fine, so we’d all know they were lines, but delivered well, we’d take ‘em. I don’t think the Starbucks barista really cares if I have a nice day or not, but when she says it with feeling, I smile.

Waiting Room Entertainment. Never in my life have I passed time in a setting so tense as the mammogram waiting room. There’s nothing to do but ponder your mortality. At the perfectly well appointed place where I go, Marriott-esque chairs are arranged against the wall of the rectangular space so that we all sit there, stone silent, clutching our demi-robes around us, staring ahead into the maw of possible deadly diagnosis.

No, no, no, no, no. All wrong. Now try this.

Mammogram waiting rooms come equipped with plasma televisions playing a loop of standup comedy. Or a Barbara Streisand concert. Or classic game show reruns. Anything but the silence.

Some firms might compete for patients by really working the entertainment theme. How about live music? What about a wine tasting? Or free pedicures? Believe me, if they put a little thought into it, that whole waiting room experience could be a serious point of differentiation for any up and coming radiology practice.

Better clothes. I mentioned the demi-robes. Let’s look at that option. Can fashion meet functionality in this bit of attire? I say, let’s find out. Turn the cast of Project Runway loose on this one. Have these talented folks compete to design the most fabulous mammogram robe. And don’t say it can’t be done, because seriously, it’s pretty clear that nobody has ever tried. I am not much of a fashionista, but even I think these 100% cotton schmatas in faded solid blue and pink have got to go. Tell me to take off my top and put on the latest from Oscar, Coco or Isaac, and tie it in the front. I’ll feel better about the whole experience if I’m not dressed in a dinner napkin.

Like any great marketing push, the mammogram needs to go the full distance. Every ad pro knows that creating awareness is just the first step. Then you have to get the customer to act. And that’s the hurdle breast cancer marketing must now clear. Now that we’re all aware, you need a good, powerful call to action. All I’m saying is: use all the tools in the tool kit. There’s a lot we’ll buy if we find it sexy. No reason breast health can’t be on that list.

And next up: sexing the prostate exam.

Writer Ellen Neuborne is pretty well convinced that marketing makes the world go around.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking VIII

Whoops. Missed a week. Sorry about that.

Onward to ML’s most recent offering.

“Once Political, Now Just Practical,” by Sara Sarasohn is the most recent Modern Love essay and it is just the sort of essay I hope I write for Modern Love one day. This is an essay that marries the political with the personal. It’s my favorite kind.

What works in this essay:
*A timely topic. Gay marriage is a hot button issue.
*Good use of personal detail. It’d be easy in an essay like this to hide behind the politics. Instead, the author reveals elements of her marriage, her feelings about motherhood, feelings about who she is, as part of the narrative.
*Great exploration of a cultural subject. What is a “wife?” What does the word mean to us? How has the meaning of that word changed (or not) in recent generations?

I think a personal essay achieves its highest calling when it can leverage a personal moment to discuss a broader cultural point. I expect all around the NYT readership on Sunday wives considered their roles, husbands considered their expectations, couples compared notes and experiences and young people opened their eyes to the realities and possibilities of grown up relationships. This is an essay that makes you think about a word you may use without a second thought.

“I’ll check with my wife.”
“She’s so-and-so’s wife.”

It’s an easy word to use, yet how often do we stop and considered what we’re saying when we say wife?

Maybe it’s because I write for a living that I really enjoyed this part of the essay – the dissection of a word and its meaning. One word, properly used, is power.

“Do it.”
“Just do it.”

One word makes all the difference. The first phrase is an order. The second is an exhortation. Nike made a whole lot of money understanding that.

I’m working on a series of flash fiction pieces all of which play on a word in some way. The first is titled “Yes Please.” And it’s about a girl whose first name is Please. Another is called “Missing Person” and it’s about hero’s hometown street – Jesperson Place – and what happened after some local vandals trashed the street signs. The one I’m writing now is called “Parking By Permit Only” and it’s an all-dialogue short in which a man and woman debate what to name their first child. The dad-to-be (a New York City-born pragmatist) is lobbying for the first name Permit. That’s actually based on an old joke my (New York City born) dad used to tell. Whenever we had to circle the block looking for parking, he would tell my mother, “Let’s have a third child and name it Permit.”

Monday, August 24, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking VIII running late.
Aiming for Tuesday.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking VII

“Snappish at First, Now All Warm and Fuzzy” is a nice example of how great writing can make an essay work.

The essay, by Candida Pugh, hits some familiar ground. It’s a story about a woman seeking love via online dating. Well, been there, read that. It’s also a story about how mature adults must work their way through the challenges of old habits to find love. Okay, still not the freshest concept I’ve ever encountered.

But the author makes it work through great writing.

The lead is a gem. “The local newspaper columnist had most of the details wrong.”

Already I’m hooked. What happened that was newsworthy? What details were wrong? What’s the real story? Already I know I’m in the hands of an experienced writer – one who knows she’d better hook me fast before I flit my eyeballs away to some other task.

This somewhat ordinary dating story is brilliantly framed in the anecdote of how the author’s dog and the author’s boyfriend ended up in a bloody encounter. By bringing the dogfight into the story, the author is able to inject drama into what is an otherwise routine tale. In addition to the fish hook lead, the author takes another smart stroke by not telling us the whole story up front. We know it involves a dog, the author’s boyfriend, and blood. Want the rest? Keep reading.

And it would appear that the author and I have something in common. We share aspirations. Her cut line reads: “Candida Pugh, a retired copywriter and aspiring novelist, lives in Toronto.” Agents in search of a sharp writer with a flair for making the ordinary dramatic should check her out, quick quick. ‘Cause now she’s been in Modern Love so the secret is out.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Good news, bad news and a commentary

The good news is: Essay No. 2 is finished. "Sexing the Mammogram" is funny and edgy and topical.

The bad news is: It’s not a fit for Modern Love. It is 100% relationship-free. No way.

So I won’t be sending this one in to Modern Love. And here to comment on that is my Inner Critic.

Unbelievable. Month Two and already she’s off the program. So much for the momentum of the quest. Now what?

Now I write Essay No. 3.

What for?

To move on and move forward. Apply what I’ve learned.

You’re a slow learner.

That’s a little harsh, don’t you think? I’m two steps into a twelve-step process.

See, I say you’re 0 for 2.

Well, you would.

You should start your next novel.

I know.

And get a new ghostwriting gig.


And get a haircut.

Say goodnight, critic.

I’ll be back.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Kerry speaks: How I got that essay in Modern Love

In telling the story of this essay, Kerry reminds us that good things don’t just drop out of the sky like magic. Success comes when you are willing to put in the time and effort to build it. This is abundantly clear as Kerry generously shares with us the story of how she got that story.

Sunday’s Modern Love essay has its roots in an earlier project Kerry was involved in – eight years ago.

“I wrote an essay for an anthology called The Bitch in the House, which was edited by Cathi Hanauer, the wife of Daniel Jones (editor of the Modern Love column.) I met Daniel for 30 seconds eight years ago. Ever since I made that connection, I’ve known I need to write the perfect Modern Love essay.”

Knowing that the space was in hot demand, Kerry realized she probably had one good shot at leveraging her connection. So she searched for the perfect topic. It was only this year that she knew she’d found it, in her experience with Facebook and her birth mother. “I was talking to a friend about the Facebook experience and she said: that’s the perfect Modern Love column. And I said: you know what, you’re right.”

As she began to write, Kerry wrestled with the right balance of personal and tech. “The first draft – well, actually like the first 15 drafts – were all about the technology. I felt like that was the catch for me. That’s the part that made my story all Modern Love sexy,” Kerry says. But as she asked fellow writers for feedback, they gravitated to the emotional aspect of her story. And encouraged her to move that theme into a more prominent place in the essay. She did. And that, Kerry says, was probably the key to its acceptance.

After sending the essay to Daniel Jones, Kerry says about two weeks went by before she got a reply. Even after saying he liked it, Jones had Kerry work on aspects of the essay, particularly around privacy issues.

What’s the response been like? Different from anything Kerry says she’s experienced thus far in her writing career. “For most of us, we’re coming out of an MFA program where a good readership is ten people – most of whom already know you.” So the shift from hearing from a tight circle of friends to a vast sea of New York Times readers is a significant. “So far, it’s been good. I’ve gotten a lot of response from birth mothers and also responses from adoptees. Then there is a whole group of people who related to the larger emotional ideas in the piece,” she says. There’s also been professional interest in Kerry’s writing. “There are interesting syndication things that I am trying to sort through. It’s good and it also feels a little surreal right now.”

And no, she says. No agent. Yet. “By Sunday afternoon, my friends were emailing me: do you have an agent yet?” But rather than wait by the phone, Kerry is putting her next plan into action. “I’m working to get myself together and leverage this,” she says.

Just like she did eight years ago.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking VI

I said earlier that a great essay lives at the intersection of personal and universal. If you can write an essay that has an element of universal appeal, but is told in such a way that it can only be you writing, you hit the sweet spot.

This nexus is what works beautifully in “Dear Birth Mother, Please Hit ‘Reply’” the most recent Modern Love essay. The author is my Stonecoast MFA classmate Kerry Herlihy. Kerry hits those two marks. The essay has clear universal appeal in its discussion of technology. Facebook, email and the other trappings of cybersapce provide the stage for much of this essay’s action. This is a theme to which all of Kerry’s readers can relate. Even the difficulties she has with the technology is familiar – the anguish of waiting for an email to be returned, the frustration of dealing with someone whose tech skills (or at least appreciation) don’t match your own. We’ve all been there.

Yet, for all its universal threads, this essay could only be Kerry’s. In addition to the universal theme of technology, Kerry is telling us the story of her origins. She is giving us a window into the life of an adult adoptee, looking to make sense of her relationship with her birth mother. And this is not the Hallmark version of the story. This is after the search, after the face-to-face meeting, the part that never seems to make the TV movie versions. The “now what?” of the aftermath.

Because universal and personal meet on this page, the essay feels at once familiar and entirely new.

Applying this theory to my own essay “How Green Is My Sex Life,” it’s pretty easy to see where I went off track. The universal is on the page, no problem. The issue of global warming is pretty omnipresent. And sex, perhaps the most universal theme of all. (After breathing.) So, universal themes: check.

Now, where’s the personal? It’s not there. My essay could have been written by any number of cheeky writers. There’s nothing here that makes it me. Even the most personal detail I include – my sex on the beach experience – is hardly unique. (Raise your hand of you’ve done it outside.) As much as I enjoyed my summer sizzler, I can’t say I invented it.

So, it’s back to the drawing boards.

One more note: the talented and generous Ms. Herlihy has agreed to do a brief q and a with this humble blog later this week. Stay tuned.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The First Reject

Dear Ellen Neuborne,

I'm afraid we've chosen not to use your essay in Modern Love, but we
appreciate the opportunity to consider it. The volume of unsolicited
submissions we receive prevents us from responding personally to each
writer, but please know all essays are read and considered, and in
fact we discover most of the essays for the column among these
submissions. Thank you for your interest and best of luck.

Daniel Jones
Modern Love editor
The New York Times

But Modern Love's loss is Making Modern Love's gain. Here it is, for your reading pleasure -- the first reject.

How Green Is My Sex Life
By Ellen Neuborne

As if I didn’t have enough guilt to fill a steamer trunk, my children have been hounding me all summer with the knowledge they acquired during the school year about global warming.

“How come we don’t have a recycling bin?”

“You can re-use those baggies, you know.”

My daughter takes her environmental responsibilities so seriously that last week as we engaged in our nightly ritual of hogging the bathroom and preparing for bedtime that she reached over and slapped shut the faucet I’d left running while I brushed my teeth. She met my eyes and shook her head. Not a word was spoken, but I heard all too clearly: Tsk Tsk. What about the planet? What about the children?

So I find myself rating my green-ness in all areas of my life now. Is our car green? What about our food? Our apartment? And it was only a matter of time before I got to sex. Can you have green sex?

I posed the question to one of my writer-mom friends. She shrugged. “Ask the kids. They’re the global warming experts.”

“Ask my kids about sex?”

“Okay, maybe not.”

Definitely not. But the good news is, in this day and age you don’t have to ask anyone about anything anymore. Everything you want to know is on the Internet. Certainly, green sex turned up hits aplenty. I went surfing for answers.

I discovered my preferred method of birth control was probably contributing to alarming rise of pharmaceuticals in our water supply. I learned sex toys made from certain plastics may transmit dangerous PCVs into places unmentionable and then go on to last a millennia in our landfills. It seems the jury is still out on whether or not latex condoms are biodegradable, but vegans can opt for a particular brand that is free of milk enzymes. (I’m sure my rabbi never told me condoms were dairy – but apparently this is a common ingredient in latex.)

But what I really found online was community. As I read up on sex and the global warming conspiracy, I quickly found many total strangers willing to discuss sex with me and weigh in on my green possibilities.
One helpful soul recommended bamboo fiber sheets. Another said biodynamic wine is a great aphrodisiac. Then there were the many individuals who encouraged me to do it au natural.

“Oh, I have,” I typed quickly, eager to show off my true green colors. And I related my most memorable act of outside sex. An August afternoon, an episode of skinny-dipping in the summer house pool followed by great sex on the foam rafts laid out to dry by the diving board. These decades later I can still call up the blue of the sky, the dark green of the leaves on the trees high above, the way the colors framed my lover’s face as he bent in to kiss me. Awesome.

But not, apparently, green.

My new friends were quick to point out the myriad planet killers in my still-steamy memory.

“What kind of rafts did you say? Foam?”

“Pools are not planet friendly. Chlorine? Gunite? Try the beach. ”

“That’s a misdemeanor in my zip code,” I typed.

“We all make our choices,” was the reply.


So, I choose to keep my synthetic-laced sheets. I choose to keep my current birth control (and to forget that I ever acquired the knowledge that would make me wonder if condoms present a Kashrut violation.) I choose not to think too hard about whether my nights of lights-off, kids-in-bed, late night comedian cracking wise in the background sex are green. Green or not, it’s how I still show him I love him. And love is likely the only thing that can heal the ailing planet. I’d better go tell the kids.

Ellen Neuborne has written a novel titled “My Mother, the Porn Star.”

© Copyright 2009 Ellen Neuborne

Monday, August 3, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking V

The best way to crack any market is to study it, understand its pattern, and pitch something that fits that pattern, but has a fresh twist.

This past Sunday’s Modern Love essay is an excellent example of the “pattern with a twist” in action.

The essay, “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear” by Laura A. Munson is the story of how the author was able to employ a unique behavioral response to her mid-life-crisis tortured husband. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that by refusing to buy into his drama, she was able to turn him. The essay begins with his surprise announcement that he’s leaving and ends with him returning emotionally to the marriage.

So what’s the pattern? Well, this essay has a nifty similarity to one of Modern Love’s most successful essays of all time. The Shamu essay. Fans of the column may remember “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage” by Amy Sutherland. It ran in June of 2006. Even people who aren’t fans of the column may remember this essay, because it was one of the New York Times’ most emailed stories ever. In her essay, Sutherland tells of how she was able to change her husband’s behavior for the better by employing techniques animal trainers use to get hyenas to pirouette, elephants to paint, and killer whales to leap out the water and plant “kisses” on their jailers. Sutherland reported that by treating her husband as a trainer would treat Shaumu, she was able to improve his behavior and the dynamics of their marriage. (By the way, Sutherland is one of the many Modern Love alums who landed a book deal off her essay. I’m just saying.)

Anyway, despite their radically different tones, Munson’s essay has a lot in common with Sutherland’s. Both are stories of errant husbands and quick-thinking wives who use their wits and their brains to transform marital conflict into marital bliss. Sutherland’s story is funny. Munson’s is definitely not. But she follows Sutherland’s lead. When her husband announces that he no longer loves her, maybe never did, and he’s leaving, she leverages technique many parents use with a tantruming child. She does not reward the tantrum by getting drawn into the fight. Instead, she goes about her business, expressing sympathy, offering support, but not playing into the drama.

Two essays. Same basic topic: how I leveraged a surprising technique to get my husband to behave. One humorous. The other, serious as a heart attack. Same pattern; fresh execution. Brilliant.

Munson’s essay has more than pattern going for it. It has strong dramatic tension – will the husband leave? Will this crazy plan of Munson’s work? The reader definitely stays in the story to find out how it ends. And the writing is great – staccato and punchy making smart use of fragments and colons. Very edgy.

In fact, my only criticism is the headline, which is kind of off topic. But I’m a newspaper veteran so I know there’s almost no way the author wrote the headline.

I’m betting agents are already trying to track this author down. There’s definitely a book in her story. Watch the Barnes and Noble tables for “Rejecting the Drama: The smart woman’s guide to her man’s mid-life tantrum.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Joyce Sets Me Straight

Many thanks to Joyce Maynard, who took the time to answer my email on publication day of her new novel LABOR DAY. (Run. Buy. Read. Writers need to support each other.)

Joyce says: The best way to get an essay into Modern Love is to write a great essay.

She writes: “although my name is known, and i have a book coming out, i don't
believe this was a factor in the case of my submission, which came in
over the transom like everyone else's, unagented.

in fact, it's my belief that the Times probably prefers publishing
new , unknown writers in this space , when they can find a really good

So this calls into question my recent paranoid fantasy about how agents and publicists are hogging all the Modern Love slots.

In truth, while Joyce’s essay may have come over the transom like everyone else’s, she’s being a little modest (in my opinion) when she says her name is “known.” I was born and raised in New York and I’ve lived most of my professional life here. To say Joyce is known to the New York Times readership is an understatement. Joyce is the author of a seminal New York Times Magazine story. And she’s gone on to many other Times bylines. So she’s not just known. She’s one of their voices. When you’re sending your essay over the transom, a track record like Joyce’s can’t hurt.

That said, her advice hits home. The trick to success as a writer is great writing.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Answering My Critics

You’d think in a blog with six followers, I wouldn’t get much mail. But the critics are out there. And today, I answer them.

“You just make yourself look like a whiner.”

Well, I am a whiner, so I suppose there’s nothing actually wrong (at least not dishonest) about my looking like a whiner. Besides, the literary world has a fine tradition of whining.

“You shouldn’t talk about agents rejecting you. It just makes other agents think they should reject you, too.”

Honestly, I am so over trying to psyche out what agents think. I don’t know why they think what they think. Or how they think what they think. Or if there is even a “they” out there to be analyzed.

“It will never work. The Modern Love column is unattainable.”

Maybe. But I’ve been told my goals are unattainable before. For example, the many many people who told me I would never make a living as a writer and would eventually have to break down and go to law school. First heard that one about 20 years ago. Still haven’t taken the LSATs

“Suppose you get to the end of your 12 months and still no Modern Love essay? Then what?”

Then I’ll have 12 funny, sexy, already-written essays. That’s practically a collection.

“Suppose you are successful with one of the early essays?”

It should only happen to me.

“Suppose you sell a Modern Love essay and still don’t attract an agent or sell your novel?”


“You should put your time into writing a second novel.”

Actually, that’s good advice. I’m on that one. In the meantime, this is as good an outlet as any.

“Maybe your novel just isn’t any good.”


“That could be it. It could be that you just suck and your novel does, too, and no essay you pitch is every going to change that.”

(That’s not actually from a real critic. That’s from my inner critic. He can be pretty brutal.)

Look, inner critic, why don’t you go back to hammering me about my parenting skills and let me have this moment where I feel like I’m making progress in my writing career.

“Okay. But someday, I’ll say: I told you so.”

Well, one of us will get to say that.



Monday Morning Quarterbacking IV

Talk about a small world. I actually know the author of this week’s essay. Sort of.

Joyce Maynard wrote this past Sunday’s column titled “My Secret Left Me Unable to Help.” Joyce was an instructor in the creative non-fiction track when I was pursuing my MFA at the University of Southern Maine/Stonecoast. Joyce was not my teacher, since I was in the popular fiction track. But I enjoyed hearing her work at the faculty readings.

I’ve emailed her to see if she’ll answer a question or two for this blog. But I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s too busy, since her Modern Love cut line makes this announcement: Joyce Maynard lives in California. Her latest novel, “Labor Day” will be published July 28 by William Morrow.

That means a book tour and other publicity events. Providing commentary for my itty bitty blog may not make it to the top of her to-do list.

Either way, Joyce’s Modern Love column and cut line are instructive because they help to hammer home something I’ve noticed of late: Modern Love authors are often already book authors. In the last five weeks, the cut line has been used three times to highlight the author's book. That suggests that the essays were not over-the-transom submissions, but instead, more calculated marketing efforts, arranged by agents and publicists.

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud that. I am all for leveraging this space for marketing. I’m doing it myself (or trying to.) But it does make me realize how hard my task will be. If some – maybe most? – of the Modern Love spots are going to arranged publicity placements, that lowers my chances of making it through the publicly available email address.

But then nobody said it would be easy. Successful writers make their own breaks. Indeed, this is not Joyce’s first appearance in the Times. She secured her first byline at the age of 18, writing a cover story for the New York Times Magazine. A gig she landed by pitching the Times via good old-fashioned snail mail.

Back to writing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking III

Yes, yes, I know it’s Tuesday. So sue me.

The first thing I want to point out about this week’s ML column is that it is by a man. Again. Three of the last four ML columns have been written by men. Nothing against men. I’m just saying. I wonder if in the early years, ML was so female dominated that they are now trying to swing the other way to demonstrate their attention to equality. Political correctness is a powerful force in the media.

“A Time to Put Aside Armor” by Ariel Sabar is a rather gentle tale of fathers and sons through the generations. It’s kind of an evergreen-- an adult learns to see a parent through the new eyes of a child It’s not really all that unusual for men to be strict with their children but putty with their grandchildren. I was 12 before I learned that my sweet and devoted Grandpa was actually quite the tyrant to his own kids. But the writer of this essay brings nice original detail to his own telling of this familiar saga: the Iraqi background of his father, for example, the generation gap that often exists between new immigrants and their American-born children over things like clothes, language, freedom and responsibility.

Ultimately, this essay works because it blends the universal father-son drama with this writer’s individual experience. I tell my students a great essay is at the intersection of the personal and the universal. So you need a topic that is both intensely yours and immensely the world’s. When I wrote “Imagine My Surprise” (an essay penned when I was so very young that I was shocked shocked to discover sexism in the workplace) that essay worked because it was my personal story – and the universal experience of a young woman in her first job. When I wrote “Mom, What Are Asses of Evil?” (thanks editors for that nifty headline) it worked because it was about me and the event that was all over television that week. It was about my experience – and the experience of every parent in town at that time.

That’s my biggest challenge – trying to write something sexy and funny that is both personal and universal. It’s a lot of bases to hit in one essay. For my next topic, I’ve picked Sexing the Mammogram. I can’t say I’m 100% confident it’s a good topic. Can I get a laugh around the topic of breast cancer and not sound like a jerk? Is what I’ve got in mind even funny or am I just weird? But I’m already seeing public service ads for breast cancer awareness events coming up in September. And editors like a news hook. So I’m going for it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How Green is My Sex Life?

Thank you for writing to Modern Love at The New York Times.

If you are sending a letter in response to a column, thank you
for your feedback. Correspondence sent to this address for the
writer of a particular column will be forwarded if appropriate.

If you are submitting an essay for consideration, please allow
3-4 weeks for a response. If you don't hear from us within a
month, you should assume we won't be using your essay.
-NYT Modern Love Auto Responder.

And so begins my odyssey. Today is the 15th of the month and as I promised, I submitted my first essay to Modern Love. From my list of possible topics, I picked Green Sex. I like the way the essay turned out. We’ll see if anyone over at the NYT agrees.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking II

Is sex just for young people?

This week’s ML essay is penned by a 70-year-old artist from New Jersey who faces what she feels is a decided backlash against sexual activity in the Golden Years. She bristles at ignorant doctors who assume she’s long past her sexual prime. She relates stories about the elderly denied the comfort of the human touch in hospitals and nursing homes. And she lets us in on a great married life chuckle when she and her husband (who see the same urologist) prepare for his visit to the doctor by comparing notes to make sure the husband and wife are each reporting the same amount of sexual contact. God forbid the doctor should compare charts and find a discrepancy!

Love that bit.

I’ve hit this very issue in my writing since the porn star in my novel is not the daughter in the mother-daughter story. It is the mother. And she is 60.

It’s the age of the porn star that inspired the agent who told me “Yuck.” (It was at a conference, so I do know exactly where I lost him. At the word “porn” he lit up like a Christmas tree. It was only a few sentences later that my pitch disappointed him to the point of interjection.)

I got roughly the same reaction from one of my instructors in my MFA program about a year ago. I knew I was in trouble when he handed back our papers and on my manuscript, he had scrawled CREDULITY??????? To his credit, he did not say yuck. But he was thinking it.

Why does our society think sex over 60 is yucky, but sex at 16 is not? Which one of those age groups is best prepared to come out of the sexual encounter without lasting negative effects?

The good news is, this particular stereotype is on its way out. I predict it. Over the next ten years, sex over 60 will become the Hot New Thing.

How do I know? Because the boomers are turning 60. And everything they do is great, or haven’t you heard? I’m not a boomer myself so I can say this with all possible love and affection for my elders. There has never been a group of people on the planet more in love with whatever they are doing at the moment than the boomers. When they were young, they glorified youth. When they became parents, they glorified parenthood. Believe me, as they turn 60 in significant numbers, it will be the in thing. The biggest segment of the generation will start hitting the big 6-0 over the next five years. About which time, watch for the Time Magazine headline: Super! Sexy! Sixty!

This is the generation that believes it practically invented sex. Will boomers give it up out of a sense of maturity etiquette? No way.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking

Welcome to a regular feature of Making Modern Love in which I will critique the previous Sunday’s Modern Love column and thereby display my raging jealousy of the author.

Today we have “In My Fantasy, I Caught Up To Reality” where we find our hero is so incredibly introverted he misses the many signals that his life partner is about to ditch him. Then, once ditched, he consoles himself by ogling the really hot runner chick at his gym.

Men are so dense.

But this is about the writing.

I admire the writing of this essay. It is clean and spare, without extraneous detail or florid description. It also has several really nice twists. There were at least two moments in the essay in which I was genuinely surprised, yet not thrown out of the story. That’s nicely done – he was able to keep me engaged as I read and yet not telegraph the plot twists in this tale.

One way the author achieves this is by staying exactly in the moment when he writes – not analyzing it beyond its defined space in time. So when he is at the gym, watching his fantasy lover run on the treadmill, he relays information, thoughts, details, only in the gym. His narrative does not wander. That keeps us rooted to the moment, and prevents us from looking ahead to what might be happening next. So when his ex meets him on the beach and says she wants to come home, we are as surprised as he must have been at that moment. Come to think of it, the real genius of this piece is that it succeeds in making the reader – at least temporarily – as dense as the writer. Now that’s skill.

This strikes me as a classic Modern Love essay, in that it is heavily relationship oriented. It raises an interesting problem for me in my quest to use that space to leverage my novel. Although my novel is certainly relationship oriented, it is also about sex – sexual politics, sexually explicit material, sex lives.

Can sex and relationships mix?

You’d think that’s an easy yes, but I’ve encountered some resistance to this combo in the literary world. My rejections have taken an interesting pattern. The agents who rep “women’s fiction” find the porn angle too explicit and frankly, too over the line. Porn, they say, cannot be portrayed positively. It’s not possible. It’s ironic that this mindset gets me a rejection, since it is exactly the mindset of my main character at the start of the novel. And I’m not surprised by that mindset – I recognize it. Those of us raised by the first generation feminists were taught to view pornography as rat poison. Nothing, but nothing, could make it okay. Apparently, there’s not a lot of willingness in the women’s fiction community to challenge that particular assumption.

No worries, I moved along and began to target another set of agents – those with an interest in erotica. And they said: love these sex scenes, can you take out all the boring plot and character elements?

It appears with both relationship and explicit sex, I am between genres. But I’m undeterred, since genre crossovers are all the rage now. I figure if Jane Austen can mash with zombies, I must be able to make the case for feminism and porn in the same story. It’s not any crazier than Abe Lincoln, the Vampire Slayer.

Is it?