I cheated a little. “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” is the title of an article published two years ago in The New York Times „Modern Love” column. It was read by 20 million people, which is about the size of Romania’s population around Christmas.
The New York Times piece was written by Mandy Len Catron and was based on the study done by an American psychologist at the beginning of the ‘90s. He apparently managed to make two complete strangers fall in love with each other, after he made them answer a set of 36 personal questions. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you? What is the greatest accomplishment of your life? How do you feel about your relationship with your mother? A type of Proust Questionnaire that makes you peel away at the onion layers that you’ve been using to cover your heart. To make you let down your guard, to start spilling the beans, and to find out the other person’s story. This is exactly what the “Modern Love” essays have been doing for the past 13 years. The more you read these personal essays that others have written on love, pain, trauma, and any questions they might have, the more you understand about them and about yourself. This can help you quite a lot, especially in this world where we put people in jars (“Arabs”, “Christians”, “gay”, “thecoalitionforthefamily”) and keep them from reaching us.
This is what personal essays are good for: they shorten the gap between people. And this is what Daniel Jones, the editor of „Modern Love”, is good for. He’s the guy who reads 8,000 essays a year, to choose the best 50. He’s the guy who wanted to be a professor at a small Iowa college, but ended up as the editor of one of the most successful columns in the history of American press. He’s also a universal love guru, something that annoys him to no end. We talked on a rainy morning, at the end of April, about love and writing, but especially about writing. Unfinished festival invited Jones in Romania to hold a conference on vulnerability.
You’ve been the editor of Modern Love for 13 years, now. Have the changes in American politics affected the way people write about relationships? Does context alter substance?
Wow, I haven't been asked that, so I really don't have an answer yet. Actually, I do have an answer for that. I’ve had a college essay contest over the past few months and a lot of those essays were influenced by the political situation. Both in terms of a sense of fear among marginalized groups, and a feeling that all the progress that has been made could be turned back, but also a greater sense of empathy among young people. They are very accepting of any kind of arrangement that has to do with sex or marriage, and very open to the discourse that’s trying to counter the direction they see their country heading. The young were overwhelmingly against Donald Trump, so there was this sense of betrayal from this old, bitter politician taking their country away from them. But it didn't seem like a fighting spirit, it seemed like a spirit of wanting to counter that with acceptance and lack of judgment.
You’ve recently announced that submissions are closed for two months this summer. Is this the first time you did something like this?
It's the first time I've ever cut off submissions. After our podcast reached a whole new audience, more submissions started coming in. They’ve gone up by probably a third compared to even just a couple of years ago, from maybe 5-6,000 to 8,000 a year... I stopped counting. Once we had the college essay contest and had to commit ourselves to that, we just got way too far behind. Even though I always wanted the inbox to be open and for people to send in the work when they feel like the work is right, we were simply drowning. I knew I was coming to Romania and I'm taking an actual vacation after this festival is over, so I thought I would just take a couple months off and allow ourselves to get caught up.
Do you ever get tired or lose the sense of the importance of what you are doing?
I think that personal essay columns come and go. And the only way to keep it fresh and vital is to read everything that comes in and not to rely on established authors. If you want new voices, you're not going to be publishing people who've been published all over the place.
Over the years, I've gotten myself better at knowing what's promising and what’s not much more quickly. Sometimes, within one sentence I know that this isn't someone who's going to write a piece that's going to interest me. So I do feel committed to it, even though it's exhausting. Most of the material that comes in is tragic in one way or another, and some of it is really tragic. People write about losing loved ones in various ways and really dealing with traumatic situations and I feel like a have to desensitize myself to that. Because, not only are these the most important stories in these people's lives, but I'm saying no to them, over and over.
How do you say no?
We have a personalized note we send, with their name. It was important to me that if I was going to have a column in which people were going to reveal private and important things, that it needed to be a place that they can trust; that there was an actual human being who cared enough to send a note back. Most places don't send anything back. And I think that it’s worked. I think it's become a place for people to trust with their most important story. That's why we didn't want to cut off submissions, but it was getting to the point where we just had to reject stuff en masse, in an attempt to get the numbers down.
Why do you think people feel the need to write their stories? To write, not tell them.
I think writing is a process of thinking. How you would tell the story to someone in a coffee shop is different from how you would try to make sense of it through writing. When you are writing, you really have to make a point, come to some conclusion, and figure something out. So, writing has always been a process of thinking, at least if you are going to take it seriously. People talk about it being cathartic, but I think that's too simplistic and frankly it sounds like it's a therapy session. Writing helps you to come to terms with and to understand your situation better. If you're good at it, then you help other people come to understand their situations, and you can serve as a touchstone for hundreds of thousands of people who may be in a similar situation.
What is one of the most pressing questions that people ask themselves in their essays?
There are two questions that dominate, two very basic questions. How do I find love and how do I keep love? It's pretty much what people want to know and they're both equally pressing. More specific questions deal with this obsession of ours of how am I going to do it better that other people do it. And how am I going to do it better than how my parents did it. There's this weird aspirational quality to love and that leads, especially for teens and people in their 20's, to experiment with all kinds of ways of trying to do a relationship in a manner that's going to avoid all the problems that they know come with relationships. And of course they end up not avoiding those problems!
Yes, we're doomed.
Ha-ha, yes. That's what's so great about it, you’re aware that it is not really possible, but you’re still trying. It’s the same thing with open relationships. People say that they don't think of love as a possession, but then ask themselves how to guard themselves against jealousy? It's very hard to stop basic human reactions, to be honest with these things, and not to cover them up.
How modern is modern love?
I think there's a distinction between emotions and the sense of attachment, which don't really change, and the sort of ways we find love and form partnerships, which can change quite a lot. Plenty of it has to do with social acceptability of different marital arrangements and with technology. I always think that the way we use technologies or anything else is all about trying to avoid being hurt. To do that you want to avoid being vulnerable and phones are great for that. It's a protective layer between you and the other person, but it doesn't ultimately protect you, it just feels like protection. They give you the possibility to act like you don’t care.
Last night, I was talking about a quintessential scene in essays, that repeats itself over and over in the essays and there was a person who really took it to the next level. And it had to do with a couple, a woman and a man in a casual relationship, where the woman starts to have more feelings than the man. Not to be sexist, but that's the way it works most of the time. Not all the time, but most of the time. And they would be in bed and she would say, very tentatively, I really like you and that is just death. And the guy would say I can't deal with that and he get up and leave. And she would chase after him. It’s like a scene from a movie, where the heroine was chasing after the hero, but she was saying I don't really care, I didn't mean it! I don't really like you, I don't really care. Can we just go back to the way we were, when we were having fun together, but neither of us really cared about each other? That scene used to be different with her chasing him down the street saying I love you! Come back, I love you so much! And now it's I don't love you at all! Come back! No pressure! Can we just go back to not caring about each other?
Do women write more than men?
Yes, about 75 per cent women and 25 per cent men. And women are much more apt to criticize and judge men than men are.
But not themselves?
Themselves too... But men are very gun shy, at least in print, about writing critical things about women. They worry that they're going to get beaten up over that. That disparity makes things feel less honest…
I love the fact that you give lots of tips and tricks for people to become better writers and to increase their chances of getting published. What do writing and love have in common?
Mm, I wrote about that. It occurred to me that when you see so much bad writing, you start to see trends and how exactly it's bad. Personal writing is the kind of writing that is so much harder than it looks. It seems easy, like you're just writing about your day but it’s actually really hard, partly because people are driven to the page by emotions, if they're not professional writers. They're driven to writing by a certain experience and sometimes “that” is anger, bitterness, and blame. So they write with those emotions and it shows through, so they become unreliable. You don't really want to hear someone's anger.
The qualities that make for good writing, which is being curious, open minded, non-judgmental, intelligence, vulnerability, all those qualities that contribute to writing well about love are also the things that make you more likely to succeed in a relationship. On the other hand, blaming the other person, being close minded and bitter, those are all the things that make you put the blame on your partner. Then the relationship is not going to work. When you write with that in mind, it doesn't work either.
There was so much overlap that I noticed between love and writing. The people who are able to write well about personal things seem appealing as people. Not because they live pure lives, but because they are able to examine themselves in honest ways. So it has to do with honesty, vulnerability, intelligence. But sometimes people are overwhelming you with too much honesty and vulnerability and can become toxic. There's an appealing kind of vulnerability, which is doled out in little portions. Besides, you need to be smart, to how much to reveal about yourself so that people want to know more about you.
Translated from the Romanian by Cristina Costea
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