Tag Archives: essay writing

chain letter …

I received an internet “chain letter” tonight via Facebook. At first glance I cringed … then I sighed heavily and cringed again. But, since I was sitting on the pot’, I read through it.

It is important to note that this was sent to me by someone who I suspect never sends superfluous things like this to others. I questioned for a moment whether or not her account was hacked, or maybe she was feeling glum or blue, and I was intrigued. So … I read it.

While reading the message, I was flooded with memories of my youth. Memories of opening the squeaky lid to our mailbox on Antonio Lane and reaching in to find an envelope addressed to me. It reminded me of that important and giddy feeling I had on the inside while carefully carrying it to the roll-top desk in my bedroom. Not seeing a return address, I would inspect the cancellation stamp.

“Ooo! From Arizona? Who is this from?”

It could be from Colorado, or somewhere else in California, or somewhere nearby like Cupertino or Campbell. It didn’t matter; it was a mystery that needed to be solved. I slowly would break the envelope’s seal and remove and unfold the letter.

And there it was — a message.

Letters like this always included directions about how many letters the receiver needed to send and by when. Some even contained a list of addresses to send it to. The frantic feeling of having to do what was required within the deadline would build. I would have to do this! Otherwise, the unspeakable could happen — bad luck, sadness, or something else to avoid. If I were to send them in time following the exact directions outlined, something magical could happen. Something like good luck, granted wishes, or some other mystical occurrence.

It was exciting. It was mysterious. It was entertaining. The wonder of it all. IT WAS FUN!

I could see my towheaded-self open the second drawer down on the right side of my roll-top desk to retrieve fresh and clean ruled paper, carefully counting out the number of sheets I needed to complete the task at hand. God forbid I didn’t have enough! I’d search my school binder (a Star Wars Trapper-Keeper) and other drawers in the house until my supply needs were met. I would grab a pencil, sharpen it into a point, and start the task of carefully copying the directions.

If I used a pen, I would be quickly reminded that pencil was a better option, especially considering how I deemed mistakes as a definite reversal of fortune if left uncorrected; or worse, scratched out. If my Eraser-Mate had a good eraser on it, I might use it. But, pencil was safer … it was good decision making.

If all went well, I would be able to complete the letters, fold them neatly in thirds, insert them into envelopes, carefully address them, and seal them – an act that seemed like I was sealing my fate inside each and every envelope. The sealing gum tasted like the misery and doom that would overcome me if I didn’t get them in the mailbox by the deadline.

Then, the hardest task of all had to happen … asking Mom for stamps.

“What on earth do you need twenty-two stamps for?”

She would ask this while at the kitchen counter cutting carrots, or while sitting at her sewing machine, or while unloading groceries.

“For a chain letter.”

“For what?! A chain letter? Do you know how much stamps cost?”

She would be clearly irritated and then follow up with:

“I don’t even know if I have that many stamps. Go get my purse.”

It was a good sign if the stamps were in there; or if some were found in her purse, and some in the catch-all cupboard, or some in the wall basket by the kitchen phone that held mail, address books, and coupons.

Once the stamps were adhered, and the squeaky mailbox lid was closed over the letters that were dropped in, there was a sense of relief. Then a sense of dread. Over the next few days, knowing the letters were out among the thousands of other letters floating through the US Postal Service, there was this sense of expectation.

“I sent them three days ago. That means there are seven more days until I can ask for three wishes. So then, that means that in twenty days, I will get those wishes granted. Wait! No…. Twenty minus three is …”

I count on fingers. Math never was my strong suit.

“… seventeen, so in seventeen days I will get those wishes granted. Awesome!”

Then it gets blurry. Time goes by. The letters would be forgotten along with the anticipation and the hope for whatever the chain letter promised. It would be replaced by other childhood antics, or rehearsals, or playing with friends, or reading, or anything and everything else.

Only to be remembered when, surprisingly, some random day as the squeaky lid to our mailbox on Antonio Lane would be opened to reveal an envelope addressed to me, and that important and giddy feeling would fill my insides while I carried it carefully to the roll-top desk in my bedroom.

So … I thought about it for a minute. And then I did it. I held down my finger on the text bubble in the Facebook message, selected copy, started a new message, held my finger down again, and pasted the message in it. I chose fourteen people as directed (with a sound methodology in an attempt to ensure those who receive it wouldn’t be targets by others in my list), and I clicked send.

As far as the wishes and promises it made, I highly doubt those will ever come to fruition. But I must acknowledge this: if I hadn’t received that cringe and heavy-sigh inducing chain letter, I wouldn’t have had those lovely memories, and I wouldn’t have been inspired to put them into  words that others may read – something I love and enjoy, and something I have deprived myself of.

To those who received my chain letter: my hope is that it inspires you to do something you love. Just for you.

rejection …

Today, I received my very first — very, very, very first — rejection letter. It came from the editor of the Modern Love section of the New York Times. They accept and review essays about everyday life situations that tug heartstrings, epitomize personal growth, and are of relatable situations.

Their mission is stated as follows: “The editors of Modern Love are interested in receiving deeply personal essays about contemporary relationships, marriage, dating, parenthood…any subject that might reasonably fit under the heading “Modern Love.”

In my opinion, “A Love Letter to 401 WEA” was exactly that. It was a personal essay about a relationship I had with my apartment, its importance to me, how I stumbled upon it and fell in love, how it enhanced my life, how it was there for me in goods times and bad, how I finally had to make the decision to leave it, and how all of that affected me emotionally. I thought it was a perfect fit. Boy meets apartment, boy falls in love with apartment, boy has life experience in apartment, boy leaves apartment. (Cue sappy and swelling violin music here.) If ones love of their New York City apartment doesn’t “reasonably fit under the heading “Modern Love,” then I don’t know what does.

A dear friend of mine thought my essay a perfect fit and encouraged my submission:

“This is the most beautiful piece of writing you’ve ever completed. You must publish this piece. Send immediately to … Modern Love – which is the Sunday Style section feature where this piece belongs. Please read the requirements below. LMK if you need my help to shorten. I didn’t count your words.

SEND before you leave. I’m begging you.”

She gave me the courage and confidence to hit the send button to the Modern Love Department. I was nervous and excited and I really, really, really wanted to hear that it would be used. I really wanted to see it in print. I really wanted to see a link to it on their website. I really wanted to be able to say that I was published in The New York Times. I really wanted to feel that weekly subcribers — to either the traditional paper, the online paper, or those that choose only “the weekender” — would read my essay and heave a collective sigh of understanding and remorse, yet deeply breath in the anticipation of starting a new adventure. Maybe even some of them would nod their head and wipe empathic tears from their cheeks, while they reached again for thier cup of coffee. A few might even tear the page out and keep it, neatly folded and placed in thier journal, or showcased on their refrigerator held by Duane-Reade magnets. But, alas, none of that will happen.

My original essay included 2068 words. The submission requirements say that essays are to be between 1500 and 1700 words. How on earth was I going to ever reduce my word count between 568 and 368 words? I was stumped. I re-read my essay twice and considered what content could come out. I was reluctant to remove anything. Then, inspiration hit. Maybe I didn’t have to remove anything. Maybe I only needed to re-word sentences to reduce word count, which is something I am quite adept at after being a techincal writer in my professional career. I started editing.

My friend also edited for me and gave me excellent ideas and feedback. We collaborated on sections. In her edits, she removed a part that was very important to me. It was the “visual GPS” of my move that I included in change of address cards that I made.

USA – NYC – UWS – WEA

She helped rephrase a section that I had tried many times over to rewrite to no success. What was a chunky sentence that I used out of frustration and lack of passion to try anymore, ended up crisply articulating my thought.

I wrote: “I met with a broker and asked him to show me apartments in Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, and the Lower East Side. I wanted to be where the men were since I was single again.”

She wrote: “Now that I was single again, it was time to look at apartments. I wanted a place in Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, or the Lower East Side – a neighborhood where I would find men to date.”

There were three drafts that passed between us. Each frought with its own set of cuts and edits, restructuring, and elimiations, additions and deletions. Finally, I achieved succuss. 1693 words! Seven words less than the highest threshold. I DID IT! I maintained the integrity of my essay without compromising the content that is deeply personal to me: my relationship ending with Dion; his hospitalization, recouperation, and eventual death; my expression of adulthood by furnishing the apartment, hosting dinner partiess and holiday meals, and having many guests for extended stays; through my drug and drink issues and my new found sobriety; to meeting my fiance Kirk.

The latter expressed passionately and from the heart as follows:

“This was the apartment where a friend and I organized packs of freeze-dried food in preparation to backpack the Appalachian Trail. This was the apartment where that friend became my boyfriend, and where that boyfriend eventually moved. This was where we set up Christmas early and our parents met for the first time at Thanksgiving. This was where a puppy, Rhoda, was adopted to keep Victor company and round-out our family. Where I left for a Broadway show and dinner with my boyfriend, and came home with my fiancé. This was the apartment where we decided to move to Charleston, South Carolina; the one I would leave and watch shrink smaller in the rerview mirror.”

I wrote using current feelings about my my apartment and flashbacks to how I ended up living in it, loathing it, loving it, and then eventually leaving it. I started each paragraph with “this was the apartment” where something happened of emotional sigfinicance to me. Then, I’d flashback to working with a broker to find an apartment. This was that apartment; the one I didn’t want to see.

He took me to several places in the neighborhoods that interested me. None of them fit my “wants”. They were too small, too dark, too low, too creepy, too smelly, too boring. Too … too … too … too. They were too little and I was too much.

* * * * *

This was the apartment where I spent nine hours fastidiously measuring and taping the hallway in order to paint vertical stripes. The smell of blue painter’s tape lingered on my hands, in my hair, on my clothes; the taste of it in my mouth. A once cream and overly bright hallway became a rich and luxurious walk from the living room to the kitchen. The dark green stripes with a base of a deep brick red evoked a masculine men’s club. This was the apartment where I explained to guests that the stripes were not black, but a deep green, secretly relishing in the fact that the stripes were so rich and dark they were almost an enigma.

And now I am faced with a different set of present feelings and flashbacks. Present feelings of slight failure (Why didn’t they choose my essay?), embarassment (I can’t believe I actually thought it was that good.), and confusion (He read it, can’t he at least tell me why it wasn’t chosen?). Flashbacks to my being frustrated by the editing process, the spark of creativity that came to bouy my confidence, and the anticipation of looking for it published each week, since, of course, they had too many submissions to even say it would be published. I would just see it print, of course!

But instead I read in my email today, the following:

Dear Scott Pfeiffer,

Thank you for sending your writing to Modern Love. Although we have decided not to use your essay, we are grateful for the opportunity to consider it. I regret that the volume of submissions we receive makes it impractical for me to offer editorial feedback.

Best wishes,

Daniel Jones
Modern Love editor
The New York Times

My friend, who was equally upset said mine was not chosen was because I am not a lesbian. Modern Love loves their lesbians. It might have something to do with that. Or it might have something to do with structure, content, relatability, or arc. I will never know. What I do know is that this essay is the first that was rejected.

This was that essay.