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.


  1. Ellen, this is a great idea for a post. I loved getting a behind-the-scene glimpse at how Kerry's essay evolved--very helpful to us aspiring Modern Love essayists.

    Interesting to know that Daniel Jones worked with her on the essay--a real editor. I would have liked a comment or two on her submission letter, always a hang-up of mine.

    Dumb me, I really wasn't thinking of the FaceBook story as being the "modern" hook for this essay so much as the narrator's ability to discover who her birth mother is, which is also a modern phenomenon. But clearly Facebook puts a whole new spin on it, and Kerry used it very effectively in her essay.

    Thanks for the post, Mary

  2. That is a fine story of tenacity and editing. Thank you for putting it together, Mary. I'll have to track down the Modern Love column.