Writing Like an Orphan and Publishing in The New York Times
February 21, 2017 § 30 Comments
By William Dameron
I resigned myself to rejection several weeks before the email from The New York Times editor landed in my mailbox. This was the fourth essay in as many years I had submitted to the popular Modern Love column. The “Thanks, but no thanks,” email always arrived punctually at the six week mark. But this email came a day or two after twelve weeks. When I read the salutation, Dear William Dameron, my heart sank. I took a deep breath and readied myself for the inevitable rejection. I am interested in your essay.
I stopped breathing.
For many memoir writers, a byline in the Modern Love column is the holy grail of publication. Book deals have been struck based on those 1,500 words and the odds of being published in the column are slim. Out of 7,000 submissions annually, only 52 are accepted, less than one percent. But this one finally took and I was going to give birth to my beautiful newborn essay!
I have an unexpected opening soon and want to be assured that your family is OK with publication. Are they?
“Ok” seemed like a vague term. What exactly was his definition? I thought about my daughters’ role in the essay. In it they chat on the telephone and sleep through my goodbye. They had minor roles; sure, they would be ok with that.
What about the handful of other people in this essay: my childhood neighbor, the college girlfriend, the guy in the bar from more than thirty years ago and the man from Match.com? They were just cameos; no problems there. My mother? She was a little trickier, but I could easily edit those two sentences.
And then I considered my ex-wife.
Here is the thing about writing memoir; you can’t just scratch the surface and expect readers to care. You have to dig deep and expose the fault lines. You must jump into the abyss and then somehow claw your way back to the top. No one makes that trip alone. Sometimes we work together, often we fight each other for a toehold and sometimes we stand on each other’s shoulders. But sometimes, we let go. And this was an essay about letting go.
For the past three years I have been getting up at 5 a.m. to write a book-length memoir. Each morning I think of Anne Lamott’s quote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” And another one that sticks with me is Joyce Maynard’s quote: “Write as if you were an orphan.”
This essay was not vengeful. Neither was it a tribute. It was truthful and there were two paragraphs regarding my ex-wife that had never been revealed to the public. Those two paragraphs held the others together like a keystone. Without them, everything else crumbled.
I sent the essay to my ex-wife with a note explaining how our story was so important and that revealing yourself, warts and all, was incredibly liberating. Her response? “I can’t believe you even wrote those two paragraphs about me. They need to be removed immediately.” But I didn’t remove them. I modified them and sent the changes back to the editor who was quick with his own reply.
With essays like this, you can’t be coy or evasive or you lose credibility. With the change, you’re making readers fill in the gaps, to speculate, to fumble around. It’s like in trying to walk a tightrope you end up falling off both sides.
I had a sickening feeling in my gut that felt like falling. Falling back into the abyss where I had braided together 75,000 words that lay coiled like a rope on the cavern floor. They would never see the light of day.
Yes, we own everything that happened to us, but do we own everything that happened to others which in turn affected what happened to us? When can we claim someone else’s secret as germane to telling our own? While Lamott’s directive “Tell your stories,” seems clear, reality is not.
I have shared my most intimate secrets with complete strangers in writer’s workshops and received accolades for dubious life choices I have made. “Oh you abused steroids? What a perfect metaphor. You have to include that!” Through the process of writing about my life, I have become inured to the pain and hardships. But I had not allowed others to process what happened to them because of what happened to me.
I took a deep breath, crafted an email to the editor and told him that the two paragraphs must be removed. If the essay fell apart, then I had to accept the consequences.
Four days, three hours and twelve minutes later, I received an email from the editor, certain that it would be “Thanks, but no thanks.”
We’re going to run the essay short and I’ll use the space to promote our college essay contest.
When I re-read the essay I realized it didn’t fall apart, but it had shifted focus and in turn, so did I. This was an essay about love after all and so I needed to show it.
Every morning I wake up early and tell my stories. Yes, I will always write as if I am an orphan, but when I publish them, I’ll remember that I am not.
Out of Bounds: The Origin of An Essay
April 6, 2015 § 9 Comments
Randon Billings Noble discusses the origins of her Brevity essay, “The Heart as a Torn Muscle””
Sometimes when people read an essay or a memoir they think they know more about the writer’s life than they actually do. They might speculate or wonder, or, if given the chance, ask the writer something that falls outside the boundaries of what was written and shared. But there’s a firm line between what is written and what is lived. Sometimes the best response to these speculations is to tell another story.
When my NYT Modern Love piece “War Weary from a Dangerous Liaison” came out (an essay about how hard it was to tell my most significant ex-boyfriend that I had married someone else), a family member confronted my husband at a dinner party: “How do you feel about this?” she asked — but it was more of a disapproving challenge than a legitimate question. I was standing next to him, blushing hotly, ready to say something about boundaries (see above) when my husband, a prince among men, said, “Did you read the essay? Because she married me.”
Reader, I did marry him. And I am perpetually happily grateful I did. Even when writing – or living – a piece like “The Heart as a Torn Muscle.” Here’s a bit about how it came to be:
One hour into a ten-day residency at the glorious Virginia Center for the Creative Arts I pulled my back. I was trying to move a gigantic desk closer to the window and just as that little voice inside my head was saying, This is a bad idea – you should ask for help, some small junction of nerves and tendons and muscles in my lower back torqued out of their usual groove and left me bent over at a 45-degree angle for two days. I was barely able to make eye contact with my fellow residents at meals and was supremely grateful to an artist who not only gave me Advil but also drove to a drugstore four miles away to procure a heating pad. By day three I was better – still sore but fairly upright – and after another 24 hours I was back to my usual self.
I had been sketching an essay about temptation and heartbreak and was thinking of structuring it as a timeline: How long does it take to get over a crush, especially a forbidden one? What stages does one go through, what milestones does one pass? Then I started to think about my back and how long it took to heal. Could a heart heal in the same time span? After doing some seemingly unrelated, very practical and non-literary research about ice packs and anti-inflammatories, I realized that the heart, too, a muscle. And much of what I was reading about an actual torn muscle started to feel relevant to treating a metaphorically torn heart. I took the structure from various medical advice sites and wrote from there.
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; Brain, Child; The Millions; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; The Los Angeles Review of Books; Fourth Genre and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction reader for r.kv.r.y quarterly and Reviews Editor at PANK. You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.
A Brother Lost and Found: Sierra Bellows
September 19, 2011 § 2 Comments
We’ve been pleased over the few years to see so many Brevity authors appear in The New York Times Modern Love essay section. Proof, we like to think, that The New York Times shares our devotion to voice, intimate detail, and the power of brief nonfiction. Plus, in most cases, we featured the authors first. It honestly feels good to help new voices reach a large audience.
Yesterday, Brevity 30 author Sierra Bellows appeared with a sharp, honest essay about her troubled brother. Here’s a bit of the opening, followed by a link to the full essay:
At first, we didn’t know where she had taken him. To South Korea, where she had a lover? To the Philippines, where her family lived? My father made calls. He talked to the local police. He spoke with Interpol.
A BROTHER, LOST AND FOUND IN THE NY TIMES
Jennifer Percy’s Modern Love
December 8, 2009 § Leave a comment
On Sunday mornings, everyone on the Brevity staff gets two-hours off from reading submissions, so we brew coffee and rip into the New York Times. It has become rather commonplace (but always pleasing) to find a past Brevity contributor featured in the Times‘ outstanding Modern Love column. In the past, Modern Love has featured valued Brevitians such as Ann Bauer, Lori Jakiela, Gary Presley, & Tim Elhajj, to name just a few.
Anyway, this past Sunday we open our Times and are halfway through the Modern Love column when it hits us — “She’s in the next issue!”
So while you are waiting for Jennifer Percy’s wonderful essay “Closing Time ” to arrive in the January 2010 issue of Brevity, check out her intriguing essay in Modern Love:
“I was so in love with you there,” he said one evening when I mentioned the place in the Midwest where we had met. He said that phrase often, and it always vaguely distressed me, as if he was suggesting that love was a label he could pass along freely from day to day, attaching it here and there in his memory.
I asked a friend about this and the friend said he thought it was better that way, about love, and how my boyfriend moved it around like an object. He told me he thought my boyfriend was honest, and that no one can ever love someone constantly, equally, at all times. It has to rise and fall and wax and wane to maintain its permanence. That is its permanence.
The full Modern Love essay is here.
‘You Need to Take My Son to Jail’
September 4, 2008 § 3 Comments
Those of you who read Ann Bauer’s powerful Modern Love essay in the New York Times this past Sunday may also want to read Ann Bauer’s Brevity essay “The Nowhere Place.”
This is the second time in recent months that a Brevity veteran has landed in the Modern Love column, and that makes us smile. If you missed Lori Jakiela’s essay on sex chairs (among other things) you missed a good one.
Both Jakiela and Bauer are veterans of the same issue — Brevity 11. A fine vintage, it seems.
Of Huge Clown Feet and Sex Chairs
April 17, 2008 § 6 Comments
We’re happy to throw up a big huzzah for Brevity contributor Lori Jakiela (Brevity 11) who pretty much stole the show in Sunday’s New York Times with her Modern Love essay:
The Plain, Unmarked Box Arrived
THE night we ordered the sex chair, we’d been drinking. Not a lot, but enough to make a sex chair seem like an investment, like junk bonds or an I.R.A.
READ the whole essay here: The Plain, Unmarked Box Arrived
or dig out your Sunday paper before the recycling truck arrives. Wonderful stuff.
Modern Love, Walks Beside Me
February 13, 2008 § Leave a comment
From the hippie culture to the AIDS epidemic to the Internet revolution, love has gone from “free” to fraught to Facebook. What is love now, in this age of 24/7 communication, blurred gender roles and new attitudes about sex and dating?
The NYT invites college students nationwide to submit a personal essay of between 1,500 and 2,000 words that illustrates the current state of love and relationships. The winning author will receive $1,000 and his or her essay will be published in a special “Modern Love” column on May 4, 2008 and on nytimes.com.