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: http://dir.salon.com/story/mwt/feature/2004/09/02/protest_parenting/print.html

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.