Success Story: Modern Love
This summer, Grub Street was proud to feature Molly Howes in our Grub Street Rag e-newsletter "Department of Congratulations," highlighting her recent publication in the New York Times "Modern Love" column. How'd she do it? Read on.
The Modern Love column that ran on June 12 began as two separate pieces, the first a relationship essay, specifically about what happens after the inevitable first big disappointment. The second was a tirade at my husband for being so goddamn positive all the time. After he and I worked some things out, I put the two together, using our struggle as the example of the relationship quandary. When the piece was first workshopped in a Narrative Nonfiction class at Grub Street, the teacher’s feedback was a tad harsh, but fair and very helpful. He said I couldn’t pull off that smart-alecky voice, that I was trying to do too much and it didn’t hang together, etc.
In my next Narrative Nonfiction class, the reworked piece (now absent most of the snarky content about my in-laws) netted more useful critiques, for example: omit startling information that I can’t adequately cover in an essay this short. But, in addition, the class responded very favorably and Ethan, the teacher, recommended I submit it to "Modern Love." I visited the website for submission guidelines, cut 800 words and emailed “My Flimflam Man” to the New York Times, accompanied by a very brief note. This was followed by an enormous meltdown, as it hit me that I had sent out into the world my first submission, that it was very personal and who exactly did I think I was, anyway?
Soon after that, we had a class on query letters and I realized how inadequate my email note had been. So when I didn’t hear from the Times after a month (the time within which I had been told I would hear if they wanted it), I was disappointed but also embarrassed that I had thought I could just go ahead and send something in, without knowing what the heck I was doing. After another ten days, though, I got an apologetic email from the "Modern Love" editor, Dan Jones, saying that he had been busy with the college contest but that he was “very interested” in my piece. Not knowing what “very interested” meant, I approached him at the Muse and the Marketplace and asked him. He said he definitely wanted my column and didn’t think it needed editing, just shortening. His approachable, gentle manner made working with him satisfying, even as we back and forthed a bit about whether to take out some words versus others.
In June, “First the Radiance, then the Ashes” (the assigned, ill-fitting title) ran. If it hadn’t, I would never have thought to write my next column, much less submit for publication. But, in August, I had a funny/interesting moment with my husband on vacation, so I wrote it up and sent it – again, by email – to the Globe for the "Coupling" column. I spent about a tenth of the time I had labored on the first piece, partly because the subject is lighter, and partly because I wrote it very short from the beginning. I just found out they will run my bicycle-built-for-two column sometime in the next few weeks!
So, I guess my first take-home message is listen to and use critical feedback. It will probably make your writing better. Secondly, go ahead and send whatever it is in. You never know. Third, don’t give up when one person thinks your work sucks. Just before I met Dan Jones, I had experienced a remarkably negative Mart session about another piece of writing. I went from feeling terrible about my ability to convey anything in words to thrilled in a couple of hours.
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