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?


  1. Hello Ellen, Fresh from my first Modern Love rejection, I am back to reading your blog. I was surprised that you hadn't generated a lively discussion about the idea that the key to the Modern Love essay is "my most humiliating moment." It is a thought worth pursuing.

    I can't believe that the two essays you cite were about those authors' "most humiliating moments." Getting to seventy, or even fifty, takes much more humiliation than that.

    So what made those essays "Modern Love" material? The artfulness of the writing, their personal nature, the timeliness of the message--sex and 70?

    I watched an amazing documentary on the life of Alice Neel last night, filmed by her grandson, in which she said that art is a search for freedom and there is no distinction without risk.

    "No Distinction without Risk." I posted it on my refrigerator, where I put words that mean a lot to me. I think that is what Sue Shapiro is talking about.

    Thanks for your blog. Mary

  2. Hi Mary, you may be right. Plain old humiliation is certainly not the key to success. Clearly, it's being able to use that moment to tell a larger story -- and that's where the skill of the writer comes in.
    Re: lack of discussion. Well, it's funny. In the early days of the blog I got tons of traffic, but it seems to have fallen off. I think I need a good old fashioned publicity stunt. With so may blogs out there these days, you really need to give people a reason to read yours.