It seems the holy grail of essay writing about love is The New York Times’ “Modern Love” column. The popular weekly feature that began in 2004 has also become a mainstay in contemporary culture. In the season six debut of the HBO series Girls, Hannah, the main character and writer played by Lena Dunham, publishes an essay in the column. In real life, the question, “Where can I read Hannah’s ‘Modern Love’ essay?” burned up internet boards like Reddit and fueled cultural critiques on Flavorwire.
“Modern Love’s” growing franchise now includes live reading events, anthologies, and podcasts narrated by “notable personalities.” But the column read by many is written by few.
“You could get into Harvard 20 times before you could get into the ‘Modern Love’ column.”
In a 2011 Forbes article, author and “Modern Love reject” Kiri Blakeley wrote, “At any rate, like most of my friends, I had no idea what formula guaranteed placement in ‘Modern Love.’ A combination of excellent writing, luck, and more luck, I suspected.”
Even the column’s editor, Daniel Jones, has said on more than one occasion that getting accepted is unlikely.
“99.5 percent of the stuff is rejected, and a lot of it would be accepted by [other outlets]…” Jones said at the American Society of Journalists and Authors 2018 conference. “You could get into Harvard 20 times before you could get into the ‘Modern Love’ column.”
Like Blakeley and many others, I had my own archive of “I don’t find your essay right for our needs” emails from Jones. And since “the volume of submissions we receive makes it impractical for me to offer editorial feedback,” Jones’ rejections always made me ask: What was right for their needs?
And so, off I went, cataloging, counting words and sentences, annotating transitions, talking to authors. I dissected over 50 essays (the majority from 2015) in search of whether there was a formula that writers could replicate to increase chances of publication in the series…or anywhere.
Fine first lines
In basic essay writing, students learn five common ways to open an essay: story, question, strong statement or opinion, quote, or startling fact or statistic. In the 2015 “Modern Loves,” the strong statement reigns supreme.
The first line, usually a declarative statement that is written in a controlled, self-aware voice, establishes the essay’s opening action.
Take some examples:
“I have a soft spot for economists,” writes Patricia Park in “Whimsy Just Doesn’t Show Up On a Spreadsheet.”
“They were words I didn’t expect to hear from my therapist: ‘I don’t believe a person could possibly be asexual,’” shares Kim Kaletsky in “Asexual and Happy.”
“Happy families are not all alike,” declares Lara Bazelon in “From Divorce, a Fractured Beauty.”
“Not long after my mother died, my father found what he called ‘a lady friend,’” reveals Bob Morris in “My Father’s Last Romance.”
Besides establishing the opening action, the line communicates what is crucial to the writer’s “central dilemma” referred to in the “Modern Love” submission guidelines.
Through Park’s soft spot for economists, she realizes her own insecurities about intelligence and self-worth. Bazelon’s definition of a happy family morphs from what she thought it should be to appreciating what it is: parents becoming better parents while divorced. Kaletsky explores the concept of asexuality, ultimately establishing where she fits on the sexual spectrum and why.
If we can learn anything through the first lines of “Modern Loves,” it might be that whether you get there on the first draft or 50th, you need to write and rewrite until you find the crux of your piece. Then, put it in the first line.
A thesis in two beats
The five-paragraph essay structure is a standard in high school composition. According to this formula, the thesis appears in the last line of the first paragraph and contains three primary points. This leaves the writer with three body paragraphs for primary and secondary support and one for a conclusion.
As students of “Modern Love” essays, we also learn a way of imagining and executing the essay’s main idea. The thesis is usually developed in an I-thought-this-but-learned-this structure, or, as I call it, a “Thesis in Two Beats.” In the first beat, the narrator makes a statement or poses a question that addresses his or her central dilemma – “The Turn to Question,” as I like to call it – and in the second beat, “The Answer,” the narrator becomes wiser through a realization that unfolds in the narrative.
I asked ML alum Peter Mountford about the concept. Did he see that pattern in the two-dozen essays that he had read in preparation for writing his 2015 essay, “How I Came to Live in a Chair Emporium?”
Yes, says Mountford. “The first dialogue is where the character is oblivious, and the second one is a moment of crisis when they are confronting their obliviousness where the wisdom is unveiled in more a direct way.”
I asked him if he thought Jones consciously picked essays that followed that format.
“I don’t know if he chooses them,” he says. “I think that anyone [who] is good at this job [knows that] you need wisdom in the essay, otherwise it’s not going to be good for anyone.”
“How I Came to Live in a Chair Emporium” is a story about a man who reconciles his relationship with his past through his present interaction with physical artifacts: a bunch of inherited tables and chairs.
After the opening paragraph – a description of his small living room filled with 16 chairs – Mountford spends the next five paragraphs in a childhood flashback that introduces us to the strong relationship his family had with each other, friends, and furniture. Next, Mountford reflects on his marriage, which lacked the same social connectedness with friends and family, and describes how he acquired two storage cubes of the old, “poor condition” furniture, which he and his wife stored in their basement.
Their divorce two years later forces him to deal with the furniture.
“Divorce has a way of driving things to the surface, whether or not you want them on the surface,” Mountford writes, establishing the first beat of his thesis in paragraph 11. “To sell our house – to literally move on – we had to reckon with our artifacts: thousands of objects, each with its own gathered meaning, however insignificant or significant.”
Ultimately, Mountford decides to keep the furniture and have it restored, except the damaged areas. In fact, he instructs the restorer not to patch a noticeable chip on the table’s edge, one he had accidentally put there as a child.
The choice is instrumental to Mountford’s second beat in paragraph twenty-seven: “Reinvention is central to our national mythos, and it’s appealing, obviously. But you can’t wish away your scars; you have to wear them where they landed. Recently, I have come to see that while we will change whether or not we want to, our history – what we’ve inherited from others, and from ourselves – doesn’t change. Our task is not to wipe a difficult history away and start fresh, but to get right with it.”
The execution of the second beat, he says, “is a balancing act. The narrator must walk a tightrope, [avoiding both] seeing the world as a disaster [and] seeing the world as perfect.”
Mountford believes ML essays share that trait.
“It feels like you’re not seeing the world very clearly if you think it’s terrible, but if you think the world is perfect, you’re not seeing very well [either],” he says.
Mandy Len Catron’s essay “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” ended in that middle ground. In it, she recounts beginning a relationship with a man by unscientifically trying a psychologist’s experiment to make people fall in love. Her “Turn to Question” occurs in paragraph 33. She writes, “Most of us think about love as something that happens to us. We fall. We get crushed.” We learn her central dilemma stems from trying to understand what she believes about love.
After three paragraphs of exposition that expand on that idea and its relationship to the narrator, we reach the second beat in paragraph 37: “But despite all this, I’ve begun to think love is a more pliable thing than we make it out to be. Arthur Aron’s study taught me that it’s possible – simple, even – to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings love needs to thrive.”
Catron hadn’t realized that her piece mimicked the same structure as other MLs and said her decision to develop the thesis in that way wasn’t conscious.
“For whatever reasons, those felt like natural moments to switch into a more reflective prose, but I definitely wasn’t that conscious about it,” she says.
Perhaps one of the clearest examples of the two-beat thesis lies in Rosemary Counter’s essay “A Craigslist ‘Missed Connection’ Lure.” In the piece’s opening, Counter and her friends are perusing the popular online classifieds, “laughing at the desperate souls who loitered there” to find strangers who crossed their paths.
As the universe would have it, she ends up answering an ad herself, and after a quick and unfortunate relationship with the ad poster (he’s married and a liar, not just because he’s married), she begins to rethink her initial judgment of the people who post and respond to the Craigslist ads.
Counter writes: “But they were everything like me. We were all hoping love wouldn’t miss us. We were all eager to believe that love, for us, was meant to be.” We can almost hear her inner voice asking tentatively, “Isn’t it?”
She arrives at her answer in paragraph 36, 10 years after the 10-day relationship is over. “Meanwhile, he and his wife have divorced. They weren’t meant to be, either, apparently. One thing I do know: ‘Meant to be’ is just a fairy tale we tell ourselves.”
A four-step narrative
Each of the MLs in 2015 performs the same four-step dance. In step one, the narrator opens with exposition that can be categorized as “Where I Am,” “Where I Was,” or “What I Observed.”
Next, the writer moves to some stage of reflection or history: “How I Got Here.” Third, we return to the narrative, advancing the opening action, in a move of “What Happens Next?” In the final step, we see “What I Think or Learned Based on What Happened.”
Arla Knudsen’s “After a First Time, Many Second Thoughts” displays the four steps distinctly.
In “Where I Am,” she opens the essay on stage, at church, pledging to save herself for marriage. The first line is: “I was 13 years old, standing on stage with a group of fellow teenagers, when our pastor announced in front of the entire congregation, ‘These young people have all made the righteous decision to save themselves for marriage.’”
In the second step, Knudsen explains how she got there through exposition about her religious rearing. She writes, “I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma where most of the community belonged to a denomination of Christianity that abstains from drinking and dancing.”
Knudsen’s third, “What Happens Next” step returns to and advances the narrative from the opening action. Now off the church stage, she writes, “I was also coming of age, beginning to think for myself, and realizing there are other ways to live my life. I took my [abstinence pledge] ring off when I was 16.”
The writer’s “Turn to Question” typically happens in the third move or late in the second for most ML essays. For Knudsen, that’s paragraph 13 in the third step, when she finds she longs to leave her former self behind: “I thought that once I was no longer a virgin, I would finally be free. I wanted to claim a new sense of identity.”
What happens next? Knudsen moves away from her religion and thus moves away from the vow, mentally and physically: She creates a plan to lose her virginity.
Finally, Knudsen wrestles through that experience in “What I Think or Learned.” It’s here where she delivers the answer to her “Turn To Question” in paragraph 37, which is the last in the essay.
She concludes, “I thought losing my virginity would liberate me, and in a sense it did. I learned that no matter how calculating I am – right guy, right time, right place – I can’t control other people’s feelings, or even my own. And there’s a strange freedom in that knowledge. It allowed me to let go.”
For another example of the four-step narrative in action, here’s how Park’s “Whimsy Doesn’t Just Show Up on a Spreadsheet” adheres to the structure.
In “Where I Am,” her exposition reveals her propensity to fall for economists. In some essays, like Park’s, the first move is introduced – and concluded – in the first paragraph. Her second paragraph begins “How I Got Here:” She reveals that she learned to value economics through her dad, who made it a “begrudging part of our daily lives.” Park found herself in the red each time her dad questioned her and her siblings on the subject.
In “What Happens Next,” paragraph five, we watch Park continue to date economists in a narrative that leads to her “Turn to Question” in paragraph 13: “They say you sometimes project the qualities you lack onto a romantic partner. I began to fetishize those with economic prowess, as though they represented everything I was not.”
Finally, “What I Learned” introduces us to a Park who realizes why she’d been unsuccessfully dating economists. Her second beat happens in paragraphs 24 and 25:
“ …Yet I also believed they would make me a better version of myself. Until I finally realized there was no ‘better’ version of myself. I needed to stop shorting my own stock by evaluating myself through an economist’s eyes. So I took myself off the market. I focused on my novel with renewed energy (though as if fiction were wish fulfillment, I made my heroine a business major). I learned to reinvest in myself, for myself,” she writes.
If I were to outline a meta-“Modern Love” using the characteristic four steps of the column, it’d go something like this:
- Where I Am: Figuring out if there’s a code to “Modern Love” that I can crack.
- How I Got Here: A series of rejections from Jones and fear that I’m not a “good enough writer,” or one at all if I can’t snag the byline.
- What Happens Next?: I analyze, re-write, and submit, earning the one personalized rejection Jones has ever sent.
- What Do I Think Of What Happened?: I really didn’t need his damn validation in the first place.
But alas, I’m still at “What Happens Next:” Me drafting yet another attempt at cracking the column while synthesizing craft lessons from my continued obsession with the over 500 installments. Had the column always had this structure or is it something that evolved since the first one by Steve Friedman ran in 2004? How crucial are scenes and how many do you need? What about transitions in time? How much dialogue is too much? Too little? And most importantly, can all this data land me a book deal?
In the end, while getting a “yes” email or call from Jones may stay in the land of fantasy for many writers, making our writing stronger by studying published work and experimenting with techniques that live behind the prose is quite real indeed.
Submission guidelines for ‘Modern Love’
The editors of ‘Modern Love’ are interested in receiving deeply personal essays about contemporary relationships, marriage, dating, parenthood…any subject that might reasonably fit under the heading “Modern Love.” Ideally, essays should spring from some central dilemma the writer has faced in his or her life. It helps if the situation has a contemporary edge, though this is not essential. Most important is that the writing be emotionally honest and the story be freshly and compellingly told.
—From “How to Submit ‘Modern Love’ Essays” on nytimes.com
—K. Nicole Whitaker’s work has appeared in The Writer, the New York Times, and The New Yorker. She has an MFA from The New School.