Can the New York Times’ Modern Love Column Change a Writer’s Life?
On Winning the "American Idol" of Aspiring Memoirists
Three years ago, I spent time at Hedgebrook, the writers’ retreat for women on Whidbey Island. By then, I’d learned that slipping my New York Times Modern Love credit into the conversation quickly established my bona fides with other writers. The column’s high profile and one-in-a-hundred weekly acceptance rate has put it on many a writer’s bucket list. But I was taken aback when one of the women in our group asked, “Did it change your life?”
It seemed a little silly to think a single essay could change one’s life. Yet I knew what she was asking: Had agents and publishers beaten down my door after the essay appeared? Modern Love, which began in 2004, has become mythic among aspiring writers—a literary equivalent to winning American Idol. The column’s longtime editor, Dan Jones, estimates that 50 to 60 book deals based on Modern Love essays have been struck to date. Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s recent essay, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” prompted a lucrative film rights bidding war ultimately won by Universal Pictures.
My essay, “A Measure of Desire,” did not inspire such a dramatic response. Still, on the eve of my first book’s publication, five years after the essay appeared, I have to admit that Modern Love has indeed had a significant impact on my life and career. And having spoken to several other writers about their experiences, it is clear that I’m not alone.
Nicole Hardy told me that she never would have written Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin if Modern Love hadn’t shown her that there was a demand for her particular story. At the time, she had already published two books of poetry, but “no one in the industry knew who [she] was.” She didn’t know about the column or its influence, either. She had started to experiment with more narrative poetry and essays. When a friend said that one of the essays sounded perfect for Modern Love, she submitted it.
It was the right story at the right time. As Hardy understands it, “people want[ed] a peek behind the curtain” of Mormonism. Mitt Romney had announced his 2012 presidential bid, The Book of Mormon was about to debut on Broadway, and several abuse cases involving the fundamentalist Mormon Church were making headlines. As she put it, “Mormons were in the zeitgeist.” Still, she isn’t sure that she would have been brave enough to write the memoir if big agents and editors hadn’t asked her to. “I would have put it off,” she said.
“One of the reasons the column has a large readership in the publishing world is because we showcase the work of so many unknown writers who are telling their most important story,” explained Dan Jones. While there are many other venues for the personal essay, the idea that Modern Love features profound stories may be why the column has led to dozens of books. “Part of the power of Modern Love is also in its length,” Jones told me. “At 1,500 words, it’s just long enough to form a real narrative arc. Pretty often that story, if it’s rich enough, can also suggest a book-length exploration.”
Another writer, whose essay appeared in the early 2000s, is still sensitive about the ups and downs of her Modern Love experience (and requested to remain anonymous). “A fancy New York agent read it and sought me out,” she said. “She took me to lunch. She sent me home with a contract, which I signed within a week. I was totally living the dream.” But then the requests for revisions came. The agent wanted her to abandon the book of essays she intended to write to work on a memoir—“a somewhat dirty memoir, more sex than city.” She pushed back, and ultimately the agent dropped her unceremoniously by email.
“I was crushed,” the writer told me. As she slowly “uncrumpled,” she saw that the agent had been “someone to fantasize over, but not at all the right match for me.” So she kept writing. She reshaped her book again and again. Despite the initial false start, she holds that her Modern Love experience made a significant impact on her. “It showed me who I am as a writer, and how committed I am to my identity as an essayist,” she said. Over a decade after her Modern Love essay appeared, her “dream publisher for an essayist” will publish her collection.
Claire Dederer, on the other hand, was already an established writer when her Modern Love column came out. Her publisher encouraged her to write a piece to help raise awareness for her new book, Love and Trouble. She told me that she attributes the column’s prestige to the high quality of editing at The Times.
“Modern Love is one of the only places at the paper that features really personal writing, and it’s treated with the usual Times editorial rigor,” she said. “The purest feeling still needs to be contained in the structure of clear thinking and a well-made story. Precision is just as important in memoir and essay as it is in hard news, though as writers, sometimes we tell ourselves otherwise.”
As I experienced myself, Jones speaks with every writer before he accepts their piece. When I asked him why, he explained, “I have multiple goals: to verify the story, to learn more, to probe for meaning and context and clarity. Sometimes the best stuff in the essay comes from those conversations, and the connections and understandings they lead to.”
Getting my first email from him felt a little like new love itself—my heart fluttering and hoping this was “the one.” The turning point that would signal I was a writer who’d made it. When we had our conversation a few days later, it felt like a cross between a first date and a job interview; though our subject matter was intimate, I still wasn’t sure the piece would be accepted.
The calls are part of his overall personal approach to editing the column, reading and answering every submission himself. “I want people to submit not only their best work but also work that is deeply personal,” Jones said, “so I think it is important to respond and create a venue that writers can trust. This is a human business, after all.” He told me that when he was an aspiring writer, he sent his work out and often got no response. “I didn’t send back to those places. I don’t want writers to be treated that way or to give up.”
Initially, I wanted Modern Love to make me an overnight sensation. I didn’t realize that I was simply gearing up for a long and exhausting book-writing process. But I’m convinced the experience helped sustain me. Having such a committed and discerning editor take an interest in my work at the start of my career made me believe that I had promise and encouraged me to keep going. For a writer, that vote of confidence can change everything.
Andrea Jarrell’s I’m the One Who Got Away is available now from She Writes Press.