A Conversation with Daniel Jones

How timely that the February 4th release of Daniel Jones's book Love Illuminated not only coincides with the 10-year anniversary of his renowned New York Times's “Modern Love” column, but also with the fêted Valentine's holiday. The book is a search to find the connections - the themes and trends - among the 50,000 stories that have crossed his desk over the years, and will no doubt offer some enlightening insights.

I had the pleasure of speaking with him last week about his new book, as well as his experience editing the ML column over the years. It was a treat to hear his perspective on everything from the rise of the personal essay to his own editing and creative writing process. You can read my full conversation with him below.

Daniel Jones has edited the Modern Love column in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times since its inception in October 2004. His books include two essay anthologies, Modern Love and The Bastard on the Couch, and a novel, After Lucy, which was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. His writing has appeared in several publications, including the New York Times, Elle, Parade, Real Simple, and Redbook. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wife, writer Cathi Hanauer, and their two children.


Karin: Tell me about your new book, Love Illuminated, and how it came to be.

Daniel Jones: This book was really a search for me to figure out what I knew, because I felt like I'd been doing this [Modern Love] column for years and years, and every once in a while I would sort of stand up and look around at what I'd done and what I'd read. I'd write, on an annual basis, an editor's observations column on Valentine's Day. I did that about five or six times. And I'd try to make sense in very few words - I think those columns were 1500 to 1700 words - of trends, and you know, entertaining asides. And I felt like I wanted to do that in a bigger way, and really try to understand what I'd learned about what people are doing and what's different. I didn't feel like I could do that unless I wrote a book. Because people would always ask me about it, and they would say, “You must be in a position where you ought to know something about this.” I felt like I was in that position, and I didn't know. So yeah, this book was to answer that.

It was a great experience, actually being able to see themes and how technology was changing relationships, what online dating was doing and how people who were having affairs were rationalizing them according to certain lines of argument. Those sorts of themes and trends started to emerge from the material, and that was a satisfying process.

How has the Modern Love column changed and evolved over ten years?

I think it has evolved in several ways. In the beginning we didn't quite know what the content of the column would be, other than it would be broadly about relationships. I remember we discussed what the name would be, and I was actually the one who suggested “Modern Love” and part of the intent was for it to be broad enough that we wouldn't be hemmed in just to romantic stories that were just about romantic love. I just worried about its longevity. How is this thing going to last if you limit the focus of what you're running essays on? So I interpreted that pretty broadly. At the beginning there was an eagerness about covering certain topics, and having a representative sample of experiences. It seemed wide open, but we wanted the column to represent a bunch of different things and get experiences out there that we thought people would want to read about and that would be eye-opening in one way or another. I wanted to shape readers' perceptions of what this column could be.

That has completely changed. I feel like so many different kinds of stories have run, there is a real freedom now in not feeling like I have to define the column anymore. People know what the range is now, and I feel that I can run things that are offbeat in one way or another or that barely fit under the umbrella of Modern Love, or as far as that umbrella can extend. If you have 12 essays and you're starting a column, those 12 essays are really important in terms of what you're saying. But if you have 500 essays, each one becomes less important in terms of how it's going to shift the perception of what you're doing. So that's a freedom. I feel I can just go after strong, varied material wherever it goes. And so many topics have been covered way beyond what I ever expected I could dream about getting.

Do you have a philosophy or opinion about why the personal essay and personal narrative in general has become so popular? It seems to be more than just a trend.

It's enduring, isn't it?

Young people are writing - people who are in college or in their 20s - with social media and blogging and all these phases that we've gone through. So much of it is about writing about yourself with a sense of audience. I don't think anyone my age or within 15 years of my age - I'm 51 - had that sense growing up, that you had an audience for your experiences. And my own kids who are high school age, wherever they go... or whatever trip they go on... or whatever they're thinking, they can post it and have an audience for it. And, I think, it's not fictional. It's not a fictional mindset. It's a “I've-done-this-and-now-you-guys-can-respond-to-it” kind of mindset. I don't know if that's the main influence, but I think it can't help but be an influence. People are experiencing things, and as they're experiencing them, they want to know what the response is. And it seems to me that that leads into personal essay writing. It's a much more difficult form than posting on Facebook, but I think a lot of the impulse might be the same.

Also, people had timed the rise of the memoir to pre-911 and post-911. I don't feel like I've figured that one out, but there was a lot of talk that that kind of jolt of reality somehow gave a boost to non-fiction, because you're facing things that are difficult. And people assumed that fiction wasn't as urgent enough in that way. I don't know, but that was another influence back then.

What do you look for in an essay submission? What for you are the key ingredients of a compelling story or personal essay?

It's very hard to answer. But a lot of it has to do with, not enough people writing personal essay realize that it can't just be a summarized story from your life. It has to employ the tools of drama that a reader needs - have scenes and dialogue - and the narrator needs to be transported from one place to a new understanding by the end. And hopefully some of that will be shown through scene and dialogue, instead of just told. People consider nonfiction writing or essay writing similar to journal writing, but journal writing is often just that summary style where you're getting it down. So much of what I get that doesn't work, even if it's good writing, is the 'this happened, then this happened, and then this happened' kind of storytelling where you're really just telling a summary of whatever you've just been through, and you're not really shaping into something that has a sense of plot or drama about it.

Beyond that, I think a tone - or a voice - that expresses curiosity rather than judgment or intelligence that you're trying to get down to the page. It's usually a curious but smart voice that works in these essays, someone who has been humbled by experience and is generously sharing that. A lot of material I get that doesn't work can be show-offy, in sort of a trying to be funny. Oh, a typical essay I get is “the long list of losers that I've gone out with.” That has to be really well done to work and not many people do it that well. It's a stance of “I'm better than all these people” and “these people are all nuts!” You don't want to hear people rant on about stuff like that.

You mentioned that you've become a better editor over the years. In what way?

In the early days, these could be difficult essays to edit - very personal stories where you're asking very personal questions and changing peoples' words in ways that cause conflict. That I almost never have anymore. Most of it is that I've gotten better at being able to talk through an essay and probe for more material, or whatever, in ways that are just professional. I don't feel like it is a fraught process anymore, and maybe that comes across to the writer. It's just like, “This is what we need to do,” and it's just a smooth, smooth process. I've learned what's missing in an essay and how to ask for it. I've learned how to write in material based on an interview with a writer, and have them massage it into their style. So that editorial process is probably the most easy and fun part of the job at this point. The hardest is saying “no” all day long and having to write an explanation to someone I would owe an explanation to about why a piece doesn't work. There's an art to that that I don't think one ever quite masters.

How do you work with the writers? Are most essays you accept pretty much “there” when they're submitted?

It's certainly nice to get a piece that is close, and that just requires cutting. The piece I'm working on right now, which is for mid-February is a piece that was 1800 words, really perfectly written from start to finish, and it's just trying to find 300 words to take out. It's just not very hard. It doesn't require a lot of back and forth.

But the essays that I've worked on in the past year - and I work on a lot - were really good stories or powerful perspectives that I wanted to run, but they needed work. And it wasn't that I felt I was doing a person a favor, it was just that, “This is a really good story and I want to get it in, and we're going to go back and forth on this enough times that it gets into that shape.”

But it is true that in the first years of doing the column, when I didn't have this sort of glut of material, I would do a ton of work on something. There was a piece that I ran that someone recommended - a writer that he'd been teaching in a workshop and she was working on this 5,000 word essay. And I had to take a 5,000 word essay and cut it down to a 1,700 word essay. And that was a lot of work. It was worth it and I learned from it, but I would never do that these days. If something comes in over 1,800 words, I just say, “You didn't read the guidelines.” It would really have to be good and close for me to take it on.

As far as your own book, Love Illuminated, can you describe what your writing process was like? How did you find the structure for it?

This is the first nonfiction book I've written from start to finish. I had a novel that came out in 2000, and the process of writing that was like the famous quote, that writing a novel is like driving a car at night where you can only see as far as your headlights shine, but you can make the whole trip that way. I didn't know what was more than 30 feet ahead of me and I just kept writing that way forward and I didn't jump ahead, I just kept writing forward.

Love Illuminated, I felt, needed a structure. The real challenge with this book for me was, “What can I say about this that hasn't been said a million times?” and “What can I bring to it that another writer on this subject matter couldn't?” It seemed to me I had all these stories - both published and unpublished - that I could draw upon and I had my own experience, my own marriage and all of that as material, to the point where I ought to be able to see trends in it and how was I going to compile that into a book? 

I made several attempts. I have a very blunt agent who is not afraid to say, “What were you thinking?” and I had a couple of stabs at book ideas that just were not right and mostly based on what I thought a book like this needed to be, based on what I'd read and gone to the shelves in Barnes and Noble and saw what people were writing about. And my agent, she was very good at saying, “This has to be a book that you would want to write, put the other models out of your mind.”

It didn't really come to me until I wrote what became the first words of the introduction to the book, which was: “Let's start with a quiz.” You know, so many of these books start with quizzes, and they're serious. They have a quiz, and if you answer a quiz in a certain way, then you get a score and it means something. It just seemed sort of ridiculous to me. But I thought, if I were to start with a quiz... and I'd write that sentence in a wry way instead of an earnest way... what would that quiz be? And what were the questions? Everything that I get - all these essays I get - are not answers, but they're all questions that are like, “How do I figure this out?” and “What am I supposed to do about this?” So I thought, what would be the 10 questions that would be most representative of all the stories I read? And I came up with those 10 questions really pretty quickly. And those 10 questions were the themes that were sort of the progression of love in someone's life from start to finish. And within each of those themes were stories that represented situations, trends and all of that; and it was just a matter of going to chapter to chapter and stitching all of that together, and trying to say things that were smart and funny about them, and use examples so that people would have stories to latch onto that would demonstrate what I was talking about. It was really hard for the first few chapters, and then it got easier and easier and easier, and by the end it felt very natural. I had to go back to the earlier chapters and try to get that easier style back into the material that had been over-worked.

How did you juggle your job as the Editor of Modern Love with writing your book? Did you write at night and off hours?

No, I couldn't. I could only do it in several days in a row. And that was different than my novel. I had a full-time job when I wrote my novel, a 9 to 5 job and a little kid. And that I did at night, like 9 to 1 in the morning, or something, and I just had momentum.

With this book, I had to take days off. It was excruciating because, you know, my in-box doesn't stop and my weekly deadlines don't stop and all the busy work associated with the column doesn't stop. And you have to write badly in order to write well; you have to turn out all this crap. And I'd just keep saying to myself, “I don't have time to go through this phase of the book. I don't have time to write badly. I just have to write well.” Of course, that was ridiculous. But those days were horrible. I would just spend day after day after day falling further behind at work, but not really making progress. I was making progress on the book, but it didn't feel like progress. I felt like I was just spinning my wheels and further behind at the same time. The good thing about the column is it's not timely, and if I get a good amount of material - it takes some doing, but - I can get ahead and get some breathing room. And I just had to keep doing that, I had to keep pushing that ahead, getting the submission's pile down as far as I could get it to feel comfortable, and then taking time off. A friend of mine loaned me their farmhouse in New Hampshire for a full week once and that was really important, to be off the internet and to really have time where I wasn't responsible for anything else.

Yeah, but writing books is so hard. I don't know how people do it.