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.


  1. Ms. Neuborne, you are a master of spotting the theory -- anywhere -- and applying it to your own work. These are great insights, helpful to any writer dealing with rejection. I mean, not that any of us are. Necessarily. I'm just saying.

  2. Hello Ellen, Your blog is now an important part of my ritual reading! Pretty exciting to see Kerry's essay in Modern Love. Congratulations to her. You are right. Kerry is a talented writer and certainly has a story to tell.

    The conflicts in the essay between the birth mother and the daughter, between the narrator's longing for a connection with her birth mother and her agonized respect for her birth mother's privacy, are very compelling. Here, not in the technology narrative, is where I think the universal lies. In the unfolding of the age-old emotions of love, anger, and despair, that Herlihy conveys so movingly, the reader connects with what Vivian Gornick would call the "story." The problems and opportunities the Internet presents--that narrative is Gornick's "situation." Without the deeper story, it would be little more than an amusing anecdote.