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.”