Thursday, November 26, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking XIX -- Complete with secret to Modern Love publication!

Happy Thanksgiving, readers. While my turkey roasts, I will post.

And now, as a reader service, I will unveil the Great Secret to getting your essay published in Modern Love:

Question: What are the Modern Love editors looking for in an essay?

Answer: Facebook.

Facebook is sexy. Facebook is the element that takes a regular juicy emotional story and elevates it to Modern Love material. It is the hot topic that gives a good essay the necessary boost into publication status. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Newspaper editors are always looking for the thing that is trendy, hot, talked about, to get into their pages. These days, that’s Facebook

This is not lost on the writers, trust me. Back when I interviewed my friend and classmate Kerry Herlihy about her Modern Love essay, she shared with me her a-ha moment about the Facebook element. Because Kerry is a talented writer of many, many great essays. So what made this one Modern Love material? Facebook. And she knew it even as she conceived the essay topic in her head. She’s a smart writer, and she leveraged the sexy, hot element of the moment to get her essay into Modern Love.

So too, did our essayist of the week, Charles H. Antin, author of The Boundaries of a Breakup. In Antin’s essay, Facebook is a main character. It is the way by which he somewhat creepily spies on his ex-girlfriend. And it is the way by which he has an unnecessary conflict with his grandfather. These are two love stories and their common bond is the Facebook connection.

Does this work? Mostly. Here’s the problem: there are two stories here and in my opinion, they don’t pack equal emotional punch. The story of the author with his grandfather is wonderfully nuanced. There are several great details that enhance this tale – the way his grandfather clearly does not “get” the way language is used online (he writes his emails in traditional letter format) he misses the social etiquette of the virtual world and when it creates tension in the family, he simply puts it down. This action horrifies the author, but you can sort of see it from Grandpa’s perspective: Whatever. It’s just a toy, right? No great loss if I never touch it again. Grandpa, obviously, is not all that concerned with creating a virtual brand for himself. I found the sections involving the author and his grandfather funny and touching and illuminating of the way technology has insinuated itself into our lives and relationships.

Therefore, I am disappointed with the other relationship in the story – that of the ex girlfriend. I get nothing of the detail in the grandfather section – no dialogue, no detail, no sense of why our author liked her at all, much less still carries a torch for her after the break up. There may be reasons the author has failed to flesh out this relationship for us. Maybe they are legal reasons? Perhaps Grandpa is not going to complain that his relationship with the author is appearing in the New York Times, but the ex-girlfriend (not to mention Charlie 2.0 with the unusual, Google-able name) might not be so generous. By making them unidentifiable, the author (and the Times) avoid any lawyer calls. But they also avoid the emotion needed to make this section as strong as the other.

Still, if you’ve got Facebook, even a vague breakup story can feel fresh and modern. So anyone with an essay out there with a Facebook theme polish it up and hit send. That window won’t stay open forever. Any minute now, the Times will discover Twitter.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking XVIII

Happy Friday, readers.

"That Delicate Membrane, the Heart"
By Kim Barnes

How convenient -- a father/daughter essay in Modern Love, appearing just as my own father/daughter essay is rejected by same. Really, very thoughtful of ML to not only tell me no, but publish an example by which I might see clearly my own shortcomings.


Well, there’s no way around this.

As I read the two side-by-side, I can see the differences. Here are the biggies:

Dramatic setting: Hospital room versus family vacation. Which one has the more intense natural tension?

What’s at stake? Routine family dynamics versus life or death.

Dramatic characters. Pentecostal mountain man versus professorial poet. Okay fine, I’m seeing the pattern. I’m picking softer subjects.

Moment of realization: Actually, this one is interesting. I think I do have a moment of realization in my own piece, but Kim Barnes is explicit about hers. “I came to understand that my father was my antagonist.” That’s an interesting choice as a writer, to tell rather than rely on showing. (Which is not say she doesn’t show. She does. But she also tells.) That might make sense for me to try.

And onward.

Friday, November 13, 2009

More for The Rejection Collection.

Dear Readers,
Below, please find my latest Modern Love reject. Thanks for reading.

The Jordan Runs Through It
By Ellen Neuborne

Standing in the extra-strength Israeli sunlight, I had a flash of understanding as to why this was called the Wailing Wall. Beside me, my teen-aged son argued with his father. My parents stood a foot or so apart from us, debating solutions to the family meltdown in progress. And my 9-year-old daughter was, well, wailing. She had marched herself up to the very edge of the plaza called the Kotel, found a sliver of shade, and sat down in it to cry out her late afternoon vacation frustrations.

I wanted to join her in the shade and in the cry. But I knew I couldn’t. I was making my own last stand that afternoon – indeed, that whole trip. I was doing my best to be an adult.

When I told people I would be traveling to Israel with my husband, my children and my parents, I got two reactions. The optimists said it was wonderful. The cynics remarked that it was the ultimate Sandwich Generation experience – eight days in the Holy Land with parents and children in tow. Both were right on the money.

Throughout the trip, I engaged in a constant tap dance to maintain my double role. I was still mother to my children – and that meant I was always carrying sunscreen, a water bottle, a snack and a Band Aid. I was always worrying, were they hungry? Tired? Bored? At the same time, I was there with my parents, and I was their child. In my child role, I shopped with my mother, listened to my father’s history lectures, and worried whether any given activity was too hot or had too many steps or was too religious for their tastes. It was not so much a vacation as a high wire act. One evening when we returned to our hotel, my husband began to voice some complaint to me and I cut him off and snapped, “Look, I have a lot of people to take care of on this trip and you’re not at the top of the list.”

Nasty, rotten thing for me to say, especially since my husband was on his vacation with his wife, his children and his in-laws. That had my Sandwich Generation complaint beat by a mile, but he didn’t press the point.

For eight days, we were together 24/7 and my parents were, well, my parents. They planned the day’s activities. They picked up the check. They told the tour guide what we all wanted. And I had to self-talk through a whole slew of complaints I knew were ridiculous. I mean, who complains when someone else picks up the check? Really. I was chafing and fretting and fully aware of just how much of a child I really was being. Grow up, Neuborne was my muttered motto. My parents were just being parental. The fact that this made me crazy was obviously my hang up.

I say my parents, but I really mean my father. My mother has adjusted relatively well to my adult status. My father would have pickled me at age 10, if given the option. To this day, at any given moment he can be counted on to call me by my baby nickname (It’s Tootsie. Don’t even try it.) or kiss me on the top of my head in greeting. My father was a helicopter parent before the term was trendy. I don’t mean he hovered over me at playgrounds. But he was always super involved in whatever I was doing – most especially whatever I was thinking. When I was a freshman at Brown, my dad got hold of my syllabi and read along with me through World History, Greek Drama and English Comp. Growing up around him was a constant Socratic dialogue from which he never tired. My advancing years altered nothing in that regard.

The day of the Jordan River raft trip we visited Safed, an ancient city of winding streets, beautiful art galleries, and not a whole lot to engage the passion of your average 9 and 13-year-old. To keep the kids from mutinying, our wise tour guide, a beanpole of a man named Yoel, told them we would cap off the day with a rafting trip. It was late afternoon and the sunlight was already turning pre-dusk golden when we pulled up to the raft location.

After a brief safety lecture, we were given life jackets, and helped into our boat – a 6-person dinghy. My father got into the back and my husband into the front. The rest of the family piled into the middle, Yoel (remaining on shore) took a picture, and we were pushed off into the green-brown, lightly moving water.

This was a disaster I should have seen coming. Because my husband doesn’t like boats. He doesn’t like boats or water or any of the activities therein. He was born and raised in El Paso, Texas and thinks desert is an ideal climate. In fact, David probably thought a raft trip was a terrible idea when Yoel first mentioned it. But as I mentioned, David was pretty much lowest on this family vacation totem pole, and not once during this very long day had anyone asked him what he thought of going rafting. He’d been a good sport and gotten into the boat as asked. But that was about as far as he could go masking this bad idea. The reality of it soon became evident.

First off, both my father and David are lefties. They both immediately began to try and manage the motion of the wide rubber craft by paddling on their strongest side. We got picked up by the current and began to slide downstream, paddling in a circle. My mother and I yelled helpful suggestions. (We thought they were helpful.) The kids just yelled. The tourists in the boats nearby laughed in several languages.

We crashed into the bushes and reeds on one bank. We pushed off, slid in circles banged into other boats on the water, and crashed into the bushes and reeds on the opposite bank. We didn’t move forward so much as we got dragged downstream. Slowly. So that all the picnickers on the banks could get a good look at us – the loud American family paddling in a circle. We were an international relations metaphor.

We were headed for our fourth bank crash when I decided to step back in time.

“Switch with me,” I said to David.

He didn’t say a word, but handed me the paddle and (I think) shoved me a little into the bow. I got up on my knees, grasped the paddle, and began to canoe.

When I was ten, my family spent the summer in Sag Harbor, New York. We spent every summer on Long Island, but that summer was special. That was the summer of the canoe. The house we rented was on the bay across from Long Beach. It had a dock that stretched out into the water, and a canoe. My father, my sister and I would go for long paddles, all over the placid bay. My father at the stern, me at the bow and my sister in the center. We paddled up the clear blue middle. We paddled around the marshy banks. We made one great effort to paddle all the way into the town of Sag Harbor. And I felt like a grown up, at the front of the boat, half the engine (or so I thought) responsible, strong, equal.

Dad liked to take us out – on bikes, on boats, on foot, even in the car. Exploring, he called it. Not bound by a destination or timetable or any discernable sense of direction. And he liked to recite poetry while we wandered – Robert Frost was a favorite and later Wallace Stevens. My sister and I were mostly willing. Although we did think our father had a remarkable ability to get lost in towns he’d been summering at for decades. One year, as snarky teens, we penned: “Whose woods these are, Dad doesn’t know. He lost the map three days ago. But that won’t stop him. Oh my, no. For ‘round that corner he must peek. There’s miles to go before Mom shrieks.”

(Apologies to Mr. Frost. Dad did the real poetry justice.)

But the canoe was a new iteration in our wanderings, mostly because it elevated me from passenger to co-pilot. And I understood the promotion. I remember learning not to turn around when Dad called out instructions (since that would rock the canoe) but to tilt my head to the side to show I was listening to him. When I call up memories of that summer, I don’t see Dad or my sister in them. I see water and sky before me – with the soundtrack of Dad in the background.

It had been 30 years since my father and I had paddled together, and yet on this tiny sliver of the Jordan, it seemed to come back to us. Quickly, we found a rhythm. I remembered to power. He remembered to steer. I felt the currents and shifted my paddling side to keep the boat centered in the water, moving forward. I didn’t swivel around, but instead, listened to him while facing forward, out into the water. Our boat grew silent, and we moved downstream, now not fighting the current but drawing on it. Our fellow tourists stopped laughing. We started to notice the scenery – green and gold in the late afternoon sun.

Then we approached the rapids.

To be fair, these were what I’d have to call Jewish rapids. By that I don’t mean, tough Israeli-Jewish, but citified, shrink-seeing New York Jewish. Really just a short stretch of fast-moving turbulence. Two employees from the rafting company stood on each side of the entryway to the rapids to guide the boats in. And there were two more to catch boats on the other end. Not exactly extreme sports. Still, for us -- the boat that couldn’t float straight -- it was a legitimate challenge.

“Paddle up!” the guides signaled, hands held high. I followed suit and we chuted in. Water shot up all around us. We forgot we were trying to shed our image as the loud Americans and shrieked as we barreled through the foam.

At end, we faced one more stretch of calm water as we headed for the dock. Dad and I resumed our paddling and we did the final stretch like pros. If Yoel noticed that we were not the same crew positions that had left the dock, he didn’t mention it. He just snapped another photo as we skidded up onto the sandy bank.

I jumped out onto dry land and back into mother mode. I helped my daughter out of the boat. I helped my son off with his life jacket. We all chattered excitedly to each other about the boat and the scenery and the rapids. Awesome, we agreed.

I looked back for my father – the first time I’d actually looked at him since we’d gotten into the boat upstream. Like the rest of us, he was drenched and smiling and shaking off his boating gear. He took off his life jacket, and hung it on the railing. Then he walked over to me. And shook my hand.


Monday Morning Quarterbacking XVII

On Friday? I am totally slipping. But it's been a busy week.

Anyway, on to the commentary. This week's essay is "A Brief Visit From My Soldier Son" by Charles Rush.

What struck me as I read this essay is that it’s not about modern love, it’s about ancient love. The love of a parent for a child. The most primal love there is.

The strength of this essay is the way it conveys the emotional roller coaster of parenthood. We get the mixture of pride and love and terror this father feels as his son moves through the world. He faces this moment of truth – his son is a man, and yet still his boy.

In many ways, this son is clearly a man. He’s gotten married. He’s made a career choice. He’s even done the mature work of putting his affairs in order, should the worst happen.

The fact that this particular son is a soldier makes for a wonderful contrast. The father is facing the fact that he can no longer protect his boy – and that in fact, his boy is now protecting him.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Revenge of the Essay Subjects

I've always felt a little queasy about using my family in my essays. I've wrestled with the issue of letting them read the text first, before it goes out of the house. Does this undermine the essay? Am I pre-censoring? Should I be brave rather than worry about what all anyone is going to say to me at Thanksgiving?

Well, then my good writer friend Lisa Romeo sent me this link.

Clearly, the answer is not in pre-publication. It's in post-publication. Let the subjects talk back! I love it.

I may change my mind the day my children start posting their own versions of my essays. But for right now, I think it's genius.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking XVI

Before I get into this week's critique, I thought I'd let readers in on a fiction project I'm working on with a Modern Love twist. I'm writing a series of revisionist fairy tales called Once Upon How It Should Have Happened. (Or somesuch. It's a working title.) I'm retelling or expanding on some well told tales in my own oddball fashion. So far I've done Little Red Restraining Order and Cinder Best Seller. Next up is Dating Nemo. It's a fictional Modern Love column, penned by Nemo's girlfriend, all about the long term impact of helicopter parenting.

Okay, now back to our regular programming.

Lots to like about “All I Wanted Was A Hug” by Holly Welker. A well-crafted essay that takes us to a far away land and into a tightly structured and often secretive society. That’s a great place to write from and the author gives us lots of detail about what her life as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan was like.

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today.

Holly Welker’s essay is admirable not just for its subject matter. It’s a winner because it does not play the blame game. This essay recounts a painful period in the author’s life – a time when she felt alone, confused, in need of comfort and human connection. She found she was unable to find this solace among her fellow missionaries or in the work of the mission itself. This was the beginning of the end of her relationship with the church of her upbringing.

And yet, there are no villains in this story. Welker tells this story with emotion, intensity and detail. But not with blame.

Perhaps one of the biggest sand traps in the writing of a personal essay is the tendency to blame. Whenever we write about intensely emotional experiences, this can happen. We blame our parents, our exes, our bosses, our teachers. When we write about something hard that happened, we look for ways to make our choices look right and often that leads us to create a bad guy for contrast.

Welker doesn’t do this. Despite the rich territory for blaming – who doesn’t love to blame the church (or any religion) for being over-bearing, insensitive, sexist, etc. – she avoids this. The characters we meet in this story are there as contrast to the author – but they are also beautifully humanized. The apparently judgmental companion in the opening of the story is found stealing a few moments to play her beloved piano at the end. The fellow missionary on whom the author develops a crush won’t be the boyfriend she desires. But he compliments her, even expresses that he loves her. And even when the author has a true angry confrontation with a church supervisor, she finds a way to make him three-dimensional. Look at this bit of dialogue that takes place after Welker has yelled at an elder and created a scene in a missionary meeting.

“President’s really mad at me, isn’t he?” I said.

To which her fellow missionary replies: “I think you hurt his feelings.”


When you can’t even hate the pushy church elder in a story about a religious break, the author has worked a nifty miracle.