Making Modern Love
Updated: Jun 11, 2022
What I learned from getting published in the New York Times' beloved column, and what I want aspiring Modern Love authors to know.
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Modern Love has been called the “American Idol” of aspiring memoirists—and for good reason. The New York Times column has inspired a star-studded podcast, a television show, and some 50 or 60 book deals.
And an acceptance is hard to come by. Even before the column exploded into pop culture, editor Daniel Jones was receiving 9,000 or so submissions a year. With only one spot per week, that puts the chances of acceptance at… slim. (I don’t do math, okay? I do words only. You get it.)
In some ways, my acceptance into the column feels like too much of a fluke for me to offer any sound advice about "getting in." I am not an aspiring memoirist. I don’t rub elbows with Twitter-verified reporters or bestselling authors. I am a 29-year-old cat lady who copes with the not-so-shiny parts of life by writing them into essays, and I don’t typically submit those essays for publication.
This time I did.
So here's a little bit about what my experience was like, what I learned from working with Dan, and how I (unwittingly) “cracked the code.”
A note on "getting in."
I’ve seen dozens of articles about how to get an essay accepted into Modern Love. They’re all about studying the formula—the “thesis in two beats," the "four step narrative," the declarative nature of the column's first sentences and the revelation that comes in its last sentences—and then emulating what you’ve read.
I’m not sure I buy it.
Yes, you should familiarize yourself with the column, respect its submission guidelines, and only submit what could reasonably be considered a potential fit. But if you’re trying to replicate someone else’s voice, it’s going to feel duplicative and inauthentic. And you’ll be doing your story a disservice.
I think my essay was accepted because I didn’t dissect the formula and try to reproduce it. I told my story as honestly as I could, in the way I felt the story needed to be told, and that was good enough.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t familiar with the types of essays they typically run. I've read and loved the column since I was 22, and my essay was inspired by a piece that ran four years earlier, “When a Couch is More Than a Couch” by the late Nina Riggs. Her essay, along with her gorgeous memoir The Bright Hour, felt so immediate and profound to me. She had received her cancer treatment at the same hospital in North Carolina where I was a patient. We drove the same routes, entered through the same doors, likely made small talk with the same nurses. So I wrote my story because Nina wrote hers.
But her work is far too beautiful and transcendent to reduce it to a strategy for snagging a high-profile byline. Nina made me want to understand the ways I was coping with my mortality. She made me want to explore my own story. Maybe there’s an essay somewhere in the archives of Modern Love that will do for you what Nina’s essay did for me. I hope so.
I can’t tell you what worked for other people, but I can tell you what worked for me, and it was writing by ear. Writing because I wanted to make sense of what had happened to me. Writing until I felt like I had a story that moved and breathed and said what it needed to say, for no other reason than I needed to have said it.
I know this is sort of eye-roll-y advice. "How do I get published in Modern Love?" "By not trying so hard to get published in Modern Love!" Bleh.
My point is that you should tell your story the way your story demands to be told.
Tell your story as honestly and painstakingly as you know how.
Tell your story because it matters.
Then decide what to do with it.
With all that said, if your goal is to get a byline in Modern Love, there are patterns worth noting—many of them provided by Dan himself.
Dan has said that often the pieces that get published are the ones that tell the story of someone’s life. The story of the most painful, the most absurd, the most significant thing that has ever happened to that person.
It’s not something you’ll write in a weekend. I spent probably eight or 10 months chipping away at mine, and for at least the first handful of them, I had no intention of publishing it. My draft lived in a Google doc titled "This one is for me." As is the case with most personal essays, I didn’t know where I was going until I got there. It took a lot of time—a lot of letting myself write in different directions—before I realized what the essay was even about.
One of my favorite creative nonfiction authors and editors, Sari Botton (whose Skillshare class I highly recommend), has said, “Write from the scars, not from the wounds.” If you're writing from the wounds, you might also need some intentional time away from the piece before you can return to it with enough emotional distance to do some decent editing. If this is the most important story of your life, it deserves time to breathe, and so do you.
A magical writing fairy named Laura Copeland did the work of compiling a whole bunch of other great tips from Dan. One of my favorites is tip #14: Ditch the pitch mentality. Here’s what he says about it:
I still end up reading many essays that read as though they were written with a pitch mentality. They don't seem to have grown organically or stumbled into surprising places or reached a place of heightened awareness. Instead, they feel constricted and workmanlike, hemmed in by a need to execute a pre-conceived point…
It's comforting to write that way, to not let yourself get lost, to write by following the essayist's equivalent of a pre-set GPS device. And it can be scary and inefficient to careen off the road into the deep woods. You might waste all kinds of time and energy and still wind up totally lost. But you also might discover a place that can't be boiled down into a two-sentence pitch. It just can't. If someone wants to understand, they're going to have to read the whole thing. And if you've done your job well, they're going to want to.
What I love most about creative nonfiction is that it gives the writer the ability to explore, to deviate, to discover. Give yourself the space to do that rather than locking yourself into formula or analysis, and I think you will end up with a much more authentic, more interesting essay. When you write with the intention of exploring, you might stumble on something unexpected and beautiful. It'll be meaningful for you, first and foremost. It'll be honest. And that will make it good.
Most of us have that piece. The one we've been writing quietly, in private, for months or even years. The one that scares us the most. The one that is the most emotionally taxing to write. That's what this essay was to me.
Go write that one.
Then, when you're done, if you think it might make sense for Modern Love (and if you're cool with turning your soul inside out for millions of people to read and scrutinize), you can read all 34 pages of Dan's tips and incorporate them into your editing process in whatever way feels genuine to you.
I have not done a lot of submitting in my life, but I understand the rules to be:
Follow the submission guidelines.
Don’t be a jerk.
My cover letter was brief. Basically: “I think this essay could be a good fit for Modern Love. Thank you for reading it.”
I didn’t include any credentials because I don’t have any. I’d written one previous essay which was published in HuffPost. I don’t have an MFA. I never took a college course on creative writing. I don’t have a long list of clips. None of that was required. Dan is great about working with emerging writers who have interesting stories to tell. As he puts it, “If your essay is rejected, it's not because you didn't have a connection or credits. If your essay is accepted, it's not because you have a book coming out. It's because you wrote an essay that made me stop drinking my coffee.”
I sent the email off and went on with my life. I had no expectation of a response of any kind. About four and a half months later, I got an email. It read:
This piece is fantastic. Let's talk about it?
I was only halfway through my first cup of coffee in the morning when I saw it. Having honest-to-God forgotten that I ever submitted the piece, I figured Daniel Jones was the guy from whom I was awaiting a quote for gutter cleaning. Then I saw his email signature, at which point I probably stopped breathing for 20 seconds, because "Oh, that Daniel Jones."
Despite his illustrious career and success, Dan is a super nice, down-to-earth guy with absolutely no discernible ego. You're submitting your words to a real live human, and he is a really good dude.
The Modern Love editing process
We set up an initial phone call, which lasted for about an hour. For the first half of it, he asked me questions about my story, and I walked him through what happened. In the second half we talked about the essay itself.
He read his notes aloud for me. It went basically like this:
I like that sentence…
Let’s establish your age higher up in the piece…
You can’t say ‘batshit’ in the New York Times…
It was a funny and encouraging and all-around nice conversation. I was nervous about it, but he put me at ease. He told me my essay was an easy acceptance, that it was well written but not overwritten. He approached it with the eye of a seasoned editor, but—if I may be so cheesy—with the heart of a reader, which is part of what makes him so good at what he does.
When we ended the call, I sent along a bone marrow biopsy pathology report and some notes from my oncologist to verify that my story is true.
The editing process was smooth and easy. We didn’t make many edits. Dan tightened it up and sent it my way in a Google doc for approval. Then it went to a second editor, Anya, for final edits. And that was it!
"Did it change your life?"
This is what people want to know. Did it change your life? Did publishers come banging down your door? Did the local news contact you for an interview? No (although that has happened for plenty of Modern Love writers). But I got a pretty beautiful moment out of it. Here’s what I wrote after I picked up a newspaper with my name on it:
I used to see people achieving their bucket list goals and think, “Their lives must change overnight.”
Then I got a bucket list opportunity. And my life didn’t change. It didn’t become more glamorous. I didn’t become more worthy. People didn’t love me more than they had the day before. I heard beautiful, kind, life-giving words from loved ones and colleagues and strangers, and then we all went on with the regular stuff of life.
I am still scrubbing cat puke out of the carpet. I am still up in the middle of the night wondering if my sadness will crush me for good this time. I am still doubtful, still insecure, still (almost) as sick as I was in the story they ran in the Sunday paper.
It was a beautiful experience, but it was just a moment. And now it’s a really pretty piece of paper that hangs on my wall.
This is all just to say, your accomplishments don’t determine your worth. The visible successes are not the core of us. They are momentary. We are momentary. Whatever it is, we go on.
Some final thoughts
It was the honor of a lifetime to be published in Modern Love. A completely thrilling and beautiful experience. But I know I didn't get there through hard work alone. Publication involves luck and good timing, and I am not a particularly lucky individual, historically speaking. So it would have been easy for me not to submit my essay at all.
If I had only submitted my writing to places I thought might actually publish it, I would never have sent it to the New York Times. Never ever.
So, as the saying goes, don't self-reject. Don't be the one to decide that it's not good enough. Send it anyway. You never know.