Your Heart

Modern Love Outtakes: What Does it Mean to Have Compelling Love?

By January 17, 2016 4

I’ve never had a Modern Love.

Or rather,  I’ve never had a love that was good enough for the Modern Love Column.

Every Sunday, the New York Times releases its latest essay in the ongoing Modern Love Column. Each essay is written by a different contributor; the stories come from people from all walks of life, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and career histories. The point of the column is to boil the ocean into a drop- to distribute one quick snapshot that evokes some grand understanding of what you define as “Modern Love.” The stories are funny, painful, beautiful and, above all, annoyingly well written.

The column is massive in every sense of the word. It doesn’t just cover love as a theme- it redefines love entirely. My favorite essay was written by an author who refused to apologize for loving her husband more than her kids. Another killer is one woman’s analysis of what it really means to have a love worth dying for. The column is, in my uninformed and unsolicited opinion, the literary pinnacle: the creation of work that redefines something previously thought to be concrete.

I imagine every Sunday morning release to be accompanied by a soaring violin chorus and a trash bag of doves released in Central Park. At the same time, a quiet hush falls over the NY Times office as all of the bright eyed college interns read the thousand words or so, their lips mouthing out the latest love story while a harpist plucks softly by the copy machine.

(I’ve obviously never been to the New York Times office, and there are no signs that point to an invitation, so the image remains untarnished.)

I read somewhere that over 50,000 essays have been submitted for consideration so far, with only 52 making it to print every year. Let’s put that into perspective: you have an infinitely better chance of getting into Harvard than you do of having and communicating a love story that the New York Times deems worthy of discussion. That puts the whole “better chance of being plane-hijacked in your thirties than getting married” statistic to shame.

Read one of the essays, then come back to that number. Think about how much exhaustion, investment and capital F feeling was put into the creation of each of these little monsters.

In spite of its regularity, I don’t read the column weekly. I would no doubt have a healthier relationship to it if I did, if it were some Monday morning ritual that I partook in: seven minutes of indulgence during my work commute as I sipped my coffee and the subway rattled underneath me, my legs crossed daintily. Then again, I’d probably live a healthier life altogether if I didn’t categorize reading a romance column as a relationship in the first place.

Instead, my Modern Love spiral happens in the same way I imagine heroin binges to occur: I’m scrolling through my newsfeed, and then a few meandering clicks lead me to an essay. I blink, and it’s 3 AM. My eyes are bloodshot and my room stinks of Thai food and I can’t remember how the hell I got home from work or why I’m wearing pantyhose underneath my sweats. I’m in a cold sweat, and a thought bubble emerges above my head like a frightening cartoon: I need more.

I don’t portion myself one essay at a time. I read them in strung-out bursts, ten or twenty before I come up gasping for air, scrolling through my text conversation with my latest failed romance and cursing him for not being able to spell out anything fully.

(How the hell is my life supposed to compare to one of these essays when I’m navigating the “what are we” conversation strictly in emojis?)

What’s more, it’s not just the cute, “Oh how joyous love can be!” type of essays that I crave. It’s the bad ones that crawl under my skin and settle on perched haunches behind my ribcage, pressing against my lungs.

“Why hasn’t anyone ever broken up with me that violently?” I wonder, staring at my ceiling in a glazed state of panic. “Why did I feel sexually comfortable in my last relationship? Is there something wrong with me?”

Even scanning the essay titles feels like some kind of tantalizing literary foreplay. “Sharing a Cab, and My Toes,” “When Cupid is a Prying Journalist” “The Five Stages of Ghosting Grief.”

It’s like softcore porn for the romantically challenged.

As a writer, it’s hard not to look at these essays and feel jealous. I absorb the turns of phrase like an IV drip. I wonder how the writers came up with each line, how they were able to find the right distance so that they could look at their past with a critical, artistic eye.

As the dizzying high wears off and the pangs of withdrawal set in, there’s always one thought that slowly rises above the others. While I pick at the stray pad thai noodles drying into crisps on my bedcover– leftover debris from my manic state– the thought bubble reaches the surface of my consciousness and pops:

“These writers have found a way to do the impossible. To do my impossible.”

I was workshopping one of my pieces with an old English teacher from high school a few months back. It was a short story about a guy that I had met on Hinge, an exposed archaeological site of some love that I continued to dust off and dig at. I sat across from her as she flipped through the pages that held the scattered bones of my relationship.  I had hoped that writing about him would put the Whole Thing in perspective, or at the very least put the Whole Thing in another container that wasn’t so close to my vital organs.

This was it: the last trick I had up my sleeve, a Hail Mary throw for closure after months of failed please-god-give-me-peace-of-mind play executions.

The pass was intercepted.

Less than two minutes into reading, my mentor looked up at me and put the papers down on the table between us. She leaned forward with an elbow propped on each blue-jeaned thigh, resting her chin atop laced hands. She paused, then said, “This form of love just isn’t intellectually compelling. The type of dating, the hookups, whatever you want to call it- it’s just not compelling for the audience.”

Excuse me?

She continued. “It’s not just you, although I don’t want to stray far from the piece. But it’s just…tricky, to make the whole casual dating phenomenon compelling, when it isn’t by virtue of the definition.”

My immediate response was to set my jaw and tell her that she just didn’t get it. After all, it’s not my fault that the sexual revolution backfired so goddamn much. Maybe she should point her finger to Steinhem and Jobs for creating a world where we meet online and can’t even expect a guy to message us first, let alone pick up the tab. I wanted to circle all of my pretty little metaphors and five syllable words in crimson on the papers in front of her, because how dare she tell me that my writing wasn’t compelling? How dare she tell me that my relationships and life experiences weren’t compelling, and that I as a person was not compelling by extension?

“I’m goddamn compelling, you aging out of touch sadist,” I wanted to say, as the wind fluttered through the cape I suddenly had on. I left the room in a flurry, gathering all of my typewritten papers so that I could mail them to the New Yorker, where the entire editorial board would call me the next day on speakerphone and ask me how I had managed to harness the very essence of unrequited love with a few paragraphs.

Except none of that happened, minus me leaving in a flurry, and adding in a stop at Taco Bell on the way home. But I couldn’t forget her expression, that face that adults always seem to give me after I explain dating apps to them: “Oh, god, I would hate to be your age at this point in history.”

I read my story the next day- she was right. My piece wasn’t compelling. I sounded whiny and naive, taking up large chunks of white with incoherent arguments about the futile nature of texting. It was like some uncut confessional that you see on a reality tv show, a girl on a couch talking to the blinking red light with drunken sincerity, and I was the audience that winced and moved to grab another beer. “Yikes, this chick is nuts. Do we have any chicken wings left?”

I rewrote it a few dozen times. Each time I would have a brief moment of epiphany, some new metaphor that would illuminate everything, that would illuminate him, and then- boom. Flat. Over. He would unravel into my fingers as soon as I continued to type. The more it crumbled, the more frustrated I was, and the more time I spent thinking about him. Why did he seem so boring on paper? Why did our conversations read so sterile? And for the love of god, why couldn’t I find another word to describe his hair besides “feathery?”

I couldn’t decide which truth to subscribe to: the one where I was a failed writer doomed to alcoholism and cats, or the one where the love that I had spent so much time on was in fact the least compelling story of all time.

The only thing I kept in each draft was my opening line.

“He was 28. A sports writer.”

What would my title have been if I submitted to Modern Love and was selected? Bring in the softcore literary porn:

On Hinge: One Liners and One Night Stands

“He was 28. A sports writer.”

Literary Poignance with a 60 Character Limit

“He was 28. A sports writer.”

Verified on Twitter, Absent in Person

“He was 28. A sports writer.”

Welcome to the solitary confinement prison chamber of recycled thoughts that is my brain.

I never figured it out, and the file still winks back at me from my desktop. I didn’t know a word document could be described as “looking smug” until this one. Each time I look at it, I’m reminded of Modern Love- this holy grail that just as much represents my goals in life as my goals in writing. How do these essays–the fifty-two chosen ones–come into being? Are the writers better than me because of their superior capacity as humans to establish more rounded relationships, or because of their superior literary ability to create rounded moments out of fragmented ones?

It’s hard to quantify in my brain the amount of heartbreak that those 50,000 unchosen essays could encompass.

For the ones that make the cut, is the love itself unique, or the way it’s written? Is love ever unique, or is it always? Is either answer better?

My mental friction lives here, in a swaying hammock between these two words: “compelling” and “unique”. They make up some core crust of how we derive meaning, but even more so, they’re the foundation of how we rank the significance of both our love and our literature.

When you fall in love, or when you read a book, you are answering one central question:

Does it compel you?

When you look back on either experience, you remember it in relation to how you answer another central question:

Was it unique?

I couldn’t write about my love in a unique and compelling way, but I know that he and I were unique and compelling.

My goal is to reconcile these two truths. To navigate the Modern Loves of my life that can’t fit under a single pithy title, or even under a few. And not just my own, but the ones that exist around me, the bizarre spiderwebbed interactions that exist with my loved ones and their relationships--all of these muddy experiences that have stopped and started and ebbed and flowed, in such fragmented and meandering ways that I can’t help but find them to be utterly, devastatingly, relentlessly compelling.

And maybe in doing so, to talk to my cats a little bit less and to type a little bit more.

And maybe to lose five pounds. But that’s another column.


*Disclaimer:* if anyone knows where I can find a trash bag of doves, it would be much appreciated for next week.



  • KensiBlonde

    For me what is interesting about this essay isn’t not getting into Modern Love (who hasn’t not gotten in) but what starts on the 10th paragraph, with what I have to assume is a millennial lamenting what passes for ‘love’ these days… hook-ups, FWBs, casual sex, casual ‘relationships,’ texting, no strings, etc. I DO feel sorry for young women today because they have gotten hooked into this – look, sex without having to immediately get married the next day is great. Glad we got it. But for eons men have been nudged into commitment because they wanted sex. End of story. I feel bad for young women who genuinely want a family and commitment by a certain age – good luck, at least in cities. If women want to reverse course on this, it sounds tight-assed, old-fashioned, and judgmental, and I’m NONE of those things (and have done the casual thing myself), but they need to withdraw the casualness with which they give their bodies, time, attention, and love to men who merely are looking for the next hookup. How sad that there are generations now who may never ever experience what love truly is – that goes for the men and women.

  • Niki Payne

    You definitely write with Modern Love caliber. I really enjoyed this piece and felt really connected to it as a writer myself who aspires to one day publish my own Modern Love essay for the New York Times.

  • RSAdisqus

    First, this is brilliant. Second, my Modern Love essay was published but sort of accidentally (#humblebrag), in the sense that I spent a couple of evenings writing it and I hadn’t been aware of the column the day before I sent it out. (I’m a huge fan now.) The lesson I take? [T]ime and chance happeneth to them all.

  • TcMc

    I had an essay published in Modern Love a couple of years ago. I tend to think what they’re looking for, more than anything else, is your specific understanding of love. That is the unique aspect. The circumstance is a framing device and not really central to the essay except as something to hang the larger context of piece onto. Secondly, I can’t even tell you the number of drafts I went through, but 35 would probably be the low end, if I had to guess. Also, and probably most importantly, that aging out of touch sadist is the most valuable resource you have. I had someone constantly ripping my work to shreds and it was the difference between publication and “nice try buddy”. Finally, you know when what’s on the page is clever BS and when it’s something real. You know it somewhere deep down. When it’s something real it feels like your soul has been scraped with a cheese grater, after which you’re duct taped, naked, to an overpass. You have to find a way to dig around in the stuff that you can’t bear to look at about yourself. Otherwise it’s just going to read as sophomoric and banal. Which, believe me, was what most of those 35+ drafts were filled with. Anyway, good luck. Here’s the link.