My Modern Love Essay is in The New York Times

My Modern Love Essay is in The New York Times

One evening a couple weeks ago I woke up from a nap and groggily checked my phone, then my email. Sitting in my inbox was a message from Daniel Jones, editor of the Modern Love column at The New York Times. Even if you haven’t heard his name, it’s likely you’ve read, or perhaps even listened to, his work.

I have been familiar, probably even obsessed, with the Modern Love column for years. As far as essayists are concerned, there is no bigger platform. One former contributor to the column called it the literary equivalent of landing a spot on American Idol.

It’s incredibly difficult to get an essay published in Modern Love. I imagine this is because it’s highly competitive, but also because the timing has to be right. For instance, I read that one of the essays chosen in 2012 had better odds as it focused on Mormonism because Mitt Romney was running for president. Even still, timing is always tricky. Last year I wrote an essay about my mom. I submitted the piece a month before Mother’s Day, hoping it would be accepted in time for the holiday. It’s always good to think ahead. Still, I ended up waiting four months for a reply, only to be rejected. You just never know how the submission process will go.

But, like any persistent writer, I tried again.

This year I decided to send in another submission, but change things up a bit. I’ll try to take you through my creative process, but bear with me, describing what goes on in my mind could get messy.

I knew I needed to nail down a unique topic. I wanted to subtly raise awareness about Lyme disease and ME/CFS by mentioning the two in my essay, as I typically do in all my work. But I also needed something broader, more captivating, something everyone could relate to. So I thought about who I love because, after all, the column is about different kinds of love.

The only problem: I love a lot of people and I’ve written about many of them already. There was one person I hadn’t written about, though. Coincidentally I had been wanting to write about my girlfriend, Shannon, for a long time. After channeling my love for her, I had to figure out how to write about our relationship from a unique perspective.

I tried to focus on the most abnormal part of our life together. If you read this blog, then you know my life is full of unusual things, but I needed the piece to relate to both of our lives. It felt like I had already written about most of the abnormalities in my life. But I went with my first thought, which was to write about how Shannon and I are confined to such small spaces. Then I came up with the idea of comparing that to the lifestyle of healthy couple (we’re both sick, if I didn’t mention that).

Most couples spend maybe eight hours in bed each day, but we spend all of our time in bed. Though, I had some issues with accuracy on this. For starters, Shannon and I don’t live together, so it would be hard to make the case that we spend all of our time together in bed. When we’re together we do, sure, but we’re not together often enough. Unfortunately, for the last few months we’ve both been bedridden in different countries.

With this in mind, I broadened the essay’s scope and narrowed its time frame. This way I could honestly say that when we’re in the same place we spend all of our time together and also mention that we live apart, adding another layer to our already complex relationship.

Then, for reasons I’m not conscious of, the 70s movie “Love Story” popped into my head. Perhaps it was just because I really enjoyed the movie, but I latched onto the famous exchange when Ryan O’Neal’s character tells Ali MacGraw’s character that he’s sorry, and through tears, she replies: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Or at least that’s how I remembered it in my mind.

By some sort of free-association, I decided to change the last part of the famous line to fit with the circumstances of our relationship. I write most of my essays about parts of the human experience, many of which are different for sick people. I have written about how relying on my smartphone isn’t an addiction, it’s survival; I’ve written about how I want to have kids but can’t because of my chronic illness. So perhaps it was this template of sorts that gave me the idea to rework the famous line from “Love Story.” But then came the really hard part: actually writing the essay.

Researching Modern Love

While I wrote the piece, I also researched the types of essays that have been featured in the column in the past. I religiously listened to the Modern Love podcast, which has celebrities read the essays written for the column, and at the end of each episode Daniel Jones, the editor, gives his take on each work. I tried to absorb as much of his perspective from the podcast as possible, but I also combed through his posts on the Modern Love Facebook page. That was a big help. Particularly, I really latched on to a note on the Facebook page encouraging writers to submit their essays even if they hadn’t been perfected. I took that to mean: quality is important, but a submission doesn’t necessarily have to be flawless to get accepted. In other words, syntax can always be tweaked later on. I assume this is because most essays go through a couple rounds of editing before being published, so there’s plenty of chances to polish up each sentence during the editing process. This is also my guess because topic and narrative arc seem to be emphasized in Modern Love essays. I could be wrong on that, but it’s a pattern I’ve repeatedly noticed.

I have read a lot of Modern Love essays and, while there are other similarities, the common denominator I always notice is each essay has an unusual perspective on a relatively common subject. There was the man who dealt with the death of his father through the lens of a dying goldfish, or the lesbian couple who grappled with their evangelical Christian faith, or the single woman who decided to forgo social norms and ask her local baker on a date.

Acceptance

When I opened the email from Daniel Jones I was expecting to get a rejection, but at the same time I suspected that he may surprise me. Mainly because his email came less than two weeks after I submitted the essay and the rejection I got from him last year took four months. This time, I thought, he was either really on top of his rejections or I had just landed the publication of my dreams. I opened the email and found my essay was accepted. Although I have to admit, I had to read the email several times to make sure it properly registered in my mind. For two reasons: (1.) sometimes acceptances aren’t really acceptances — maybe an editor wants you to work on your essay some more and resubmit it, but won’t commit to using it; or (2.) maybe an editor is just being nice and you read the email wrong and it’s really a rejection.

Thankfully, I read correctly. Daniel’s email said that my essay was “lovely” and he wanted to use it. Honestly I can’t remember a moment in my career in which I have been so happy. I used to write about port-a-potties. I once wrote about the best nightclubs in Durham, North Carolina; I’ve never been to Durham, never been anywhere remotely close to North Carolina. And I didn’t even get a byline for those pieces. Now I was going to write, as the podcast says, about “love, loss, and redemption” for The New York Times. And I did. Today you can find my essay, “Love Means Never Having to say … Anything,” online and in the Sunday edition of the newspaper this weekend. Please check it out.

If you can’t tell, now I feel like I can die a happy, or at least content, person. While I may have other goals I want to accomplish, it’s hard to imagine achieving anything more satisfying than writing for my favorite column in The New York Times. This is something that seemed unattainable for such a long time, especially while I’ve been stuck in bed. But I did it. I accomplish one of my loftiest goals without leaving my bed. Ha! Beat that George Saunders! Just kidding. Nobody should aim for trying to accomplish anything without leaving bed. Well, except maybe some really good sex. And sleep. Try to get some really good sleep.

All I’m trying to say is I will probably accomplish many more things in my life, but when I do, it will most definitely be “icing on the cake,” an extra bit of success on top of the things that fate nearly kept me from achieving.

Lastly, thank you for being part of my success — as my health has gradually improved I wouldn’t have kept writing without this blog nor would I have maintained it without readers like you.

Before you go:

1. Thanks again for reading!

2. In case you missed the link to my Modern Love essay above, you can read it online here. But also, please consider reading it in print. It’s nice to read something tangible sometimes. The essay will run in the Sunday edition of The New York Times this weekend. I think you can get it at just about any Starbucks or chain grocery store.

3. I am fundraising to pay my medical bills so if you’d like to help out by buying a shirt or hoodie I would be very grateful!

4. If you would like to donate to support this blog I would be equally grateful!

What are you Reading?

What are you Reading?

Unpaid labor is not a new idea. But the idea that anyone can write for a major media publication is relatively new. And that’s because some of these companies exploit non-professional writers by publishing their work without pay. One could venture to guess that this contributes to the true problem of “fake news.” These so-called “content mills” include online publications like Elite Daily, The Mighty, Bleacher Report and, until recently, HuffPost.

HuffPost announced it was closing its contributor network of more than 100,000 unpaid writers and adding two new sections to be filled by paid writers. HuffPost’s network of unpaid writers ran for nearly 13 years and created content that drew between 10 and 15 percent of all traffic to its website. The company didn’t pay any of the writers who created that content.

HuffPost, a company that billed itself as a platform for anyone to report the news (hmm, how could anything go wrong with that?), was hit with a lawsuit in 2012, after the company was bought by AOL for $315 million. The group of unpaid writers filing the suit believed they were entitled to a portion of the purchase price.

But U.S. District Judge John Koeltl ultimately ruled that the writers were not entitled to any compensation because “they never expected to be paid.”

And therein lies one of the biggest problems with freelance writing and content mills. In a perfect world these companies wouldn’t exploit writers, or any kind of worker to do a job for free, but the responsibility to ensure proper compensation ultimately falls on the writers. So if you’re a writer: DON’T. WORK. FOR. FREE.

Boycott

Of all the sites that doesn’t pay its writers, The Mighty has always made my blood boil. The Mighty makes me angry because not only does the site not pay writers, many of them are disabled.

It’s like that news story a few years back about Goodwill paying disabled people far below minimum wage thanks to its nonprofit status. Well, except The Mighty is a for-profit company and doesn’t pay writers at all. As one former editor wrote, the company sells users’ information to pharmaceutical companies and monetizes its content with ads from those businesses.

So while The Mighty may portray itself as “a digital health community created to empower and connect people facing health challenges and disabilities,” it also profits off those people. The Mighty sells itself as a place where “We face disability, disease and mental illness together.” Oh really? Together? As in: You exploit disabled people while making them feel like you’re helping?

I’m not the only one who feels that The Mighty doesn’t care about disabled people — it has faced similar criticism in the past.

But perhaps The Mighty considers itself to be on the level of Facebook, a company that profits from a community of users who post content. But there’s a big difference. Facebook is made up of all kinds of people, notably those who can earn a living. The Mighty profits from many users who have disabilities and can’t work. And not just from their clicks or sloppy posts ranting about their Uncle Pete being a Trump supporter or photos of their meals. The Mighty actually enlists disabled people, many who can’t earn a living, then actually edits their content and publishes it as any other publication would.

One potential solution to this would be for writers to boycott writing for content mills like The Mighty. Collectively, they could choose not to write unless they are paid. But the problem with that is not everyone who writes on these platforms is a professional. In fact, I would venture to say that most are not professionals.

For these people, writing is not a profession, it’s a hobby. Many of the unpaid writers working for content mills aren’t in it to earn a living, they do it for fun, or as advocacy work, or for the potential exposure they could receive if something they write goes viral. And the underlying problem is they put little or no value on monetary compensation and far too much value on the exposure they could, but most likely will not, receive from writing an article for a content mill. Nonetheless, this is why there will always be people willing to write for free and companies willing to profit from them.

Just look at some of the people who wrote for HuffPost’s contributor network. The 100,000 unpaid writers who wrote for HuffPost formed an eclectic conglomeration of people. Some were casual bloggers and citizen watchdogs, while others were political figures and celebrities. Jennifer Aniston, one of my friends from high school, Oprah, and Barack Obama all wrote for HuffPost — without pay. And none of them made their living solely as a writer.

While articles written by celebrities are enticing to readers, they come at a cost to writers like me who have fewer paid writing assignments thanks to content mills. By accepting submissions from just about anyone, these sites not only dilute the market for paid assignments, they give instant credibility to non-professional writers without experience and sometimes even adequate education.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to quantify how many paid writing assignments would be created if every content mill closed its unpaid assignments and added paid sections like HuffPost did. But it would certainly be progress, which professional writers, and the economy, could benefit from. While this would mean less web content overall, it would mean more quality content. And certainly, it would mean more paid opportunities, particularly for those who write as a profession, not a hobby.

Don’t be a Freelance Writer

Whether you are a paid writer or working for free my instinct is to tell everyone to avoid freelancing. Don’t be a freelance writer, don’t be a freelance anything. It’s far too easy for companies and people to take advantage of you — I once had a client skip out on a $500 invoice, never to be heard from again.

Not to mention, being a freelance writer is not easy, it takes a dizzying mixture of literacy, personality, introspection, and business savvy, among many other things.

I was recently listening to a segment on the Bad With Money podcast about being a freelance writer, which reminded me that some people have to write for free because they have no bylines. I suppose that is where the term “paying your dues” comes from, but still, it’s hard for me to justify free labor. Especially when you consider the enormous corporate wealth we have in this country. But, as desperate as working for free makes a writer look, it makes a company look way worse. If only the public knew about it.

The problem is nobody knows they’re reading content written for free. I would guess that most people used to read HuffPost not knowing that the people who wrote the content weren’t paid. Would this change their reading habits? Would you boycott a major publication if you knew the writers weren’t getting paid? I would hope so, but that’s probably just me being optimistic. I think most people are barely focused on which publication their reading, let alone whether it pays fairly.

So, if you want to support writers and fair wages, please don’t read sites like The Mighty or Elite Daily. And if you’re a writer and you feel you must work as a freelancer, don’t work for free, even if you need a byline to show employers. For your sake and fair pay, write a blog and show that to prospective employers, use it as a vehicle to find a better paying, securer job that suits you.

A few things before you go:

1. Thank you for reading!

2. I am fundraising to pay my medical bills so if you’d like to help out by buying a shirt or hoodie I would be very grateful!

3. If you would like to donate to support this blog I would be equally grateful!

Why I Refuse to Write About Trivial Things 

Why I Refuse to Write About Trivial Things 

My life, as it plays out in my mind, is a series of fragmented memories. Perhaps it is my foggy brain, or just a normal faded memory, but my mind feels like it is filled with a bunch of blotchy points set in time. 

10 years ago I was graduating high school, seven years ago I was in college — flipping huge tractor tires in my backyard. Three years ago I was riding my bike and getting increasingly sicker; two years ago I was on my deathbed, last year my health started to improve, and now this year, I’m on the verge of getting out of bed again. 

These are the moments and associated topics I choose to write about for many of my essays and blog posts.  

I also write about newsy topics, sure, but only if I am able to fit in a paragraph or two about a cause I care about. While not entirely true, it seems I can’t bring myself to write about any topic of which I can’t pair with MECFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis / chronic fatigue syndrome). Take my Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times: If I wasn’t able to mention MECFS in that piece I’m not sure I would have willed myself to write it. Okay, it was the LA Times, so I probably would have found a way to complete the assignment, but it certainly wouldn’t have been as rewarding and if it had been a lesser known publication I know for a fact I wouldn’t have written it. 

How I got Here

Three years ago, when I was still able to live on my own and before I became bedridden, I worked full-time (albeit from home) as an editorial assistant for a financial publication. Everyday I woke up and monitored three separate stock portfolios of which my boss tracked and wrote about for the 50,000 paying subscribers to his weekly newsletters. I did a lot of research, ghostwriting, and editing for his newsletters as well. 

I was a business major in college and investing was always something that interested me, but writing with a conservative, Reaganomics ideology took some major acting skills on my part.

And while I did a pretty good job mimicking a fiscal conservative, I was primarily doing it for the paycheck. Eventually that mentality took my body down, as I couldn’t handle the workload while living with ailing health. I remember my boss leaving me a voicemail on a chauffeured drive home from one of his weekly appearances on Fox News and I just couldn’t gather enough energy to call him back. 

I soon became too sick to take care of myself, let alone work. And as I mentioned in my last post, working my body into the ground while my friends and family took care of me felt selfish.

Eventually I had no choice but to let go of my job. I was too sick to speak or eat and distinctly remember my mom having to call my boss and tell him that, despite his “No man left behind” speech, I couldn’t continue. 

While that was only two and a half years ago, my outlook on life and how I want to spend the rest of my time on Earth has immeasurably changed.

I Won’t Write About the Kardashians 

I submit my essays to many publications and nine out of ten times they get rejected. I would probably have a better success rate if I was willing to write about the Kardashians or articles titled “7 Hidden Menu Items at Starbucks.” But I’m just not willing to do that anymore. Why? Well, besides having already gone down that path as a new college grad desperately looking for ways to pay off my student loans, my heart just isn’t in it. It was never in it, but now — ever since the ghostwriting about Reaganomics — I just cannot muster the will to write about trivial stuff. And let me tell you, it’s not like the paycheck makes it a tough decision. 

When I had to write about things like porta-potties and the best nightclubs in Tulsa, Oklahoma (yes, I actually wrote about both of those things) I only made about $20 an essay. The work I do now is much more infrequent, but it’s way more rewarding. And infrequent is actually a good thing for me because I am all-too aware of pushing myself too far with deadlines and the stress of a large workload like I have done in the past. So now I write at my own pace and only about topics I truly care about. 

That said, I still put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to achieve things. I want to have my memoir published, for instance, and despite countless rejections, I will not give up until it is published. But that’s because my heart is in it, just as my heart is in every post I write on this blog and every essay I write for publication. So here’s to keeping the ball rolling….

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