Three Takes on ‘Modern Love’

Barnard alums explore the intricacies of love and relationships in the New York Times’ Modern Love column

By Tom Stoelker and Nicole Anderson

woman holding a heart balloon illustration

In recent years, several of our very own Barnard grads have contributed to “Modern Love,” the immensely popular New York Times column on what love looks like today. The column has spawned another column, a contest, and a television series, in addition to a podcast launched by yet another Barnard alumna. The stories from our alums demonstrate that modern love is a concept that is both familiar and evolving. From open relationships and gay courtship to a daughter’s memories of her mother, the universality of the emotions expressed in the three essays underscores the diversity of experience. We spoke with our Modern Love writers — and the podcast’s founding producer — about what it was like to contribute to this beloved column. 

Photo of Erin Thompson '02

Erin Thompson ’02

“If a Rat Falls Into Your Bed, Call Your Lover’s Boyfriend”

Thompson’s April 2022 contribution to the column starts with every New Yorker’s worst nightmare: finding a rat in the apartment. In this amusing piece, Thompson refuses to accept the help of a man, specifically her girlfriend’s man. 

Much of your writing focuses on art-world-related issues. What was it like to write something more personal?
I was raised in a church that tried to make me believe that I would go to hell for being queer or having sex before marriage. I wish I’d had the Modern Love column when I was young — to read funny, sweet stories celebrating all sorts of ways of living, loving, and having sex. I’ve been writing personal essays for the past few years in the hopes of connecting with readers who might need them.

What kind of reception did you receive? 
I heard from people in open relationships that they appreciated the column, both as a nondramatic depiction of an open relationship and as an acknowledgment that I’m in an open relationship at all. I know lots of people who aren’t public about all their relationships for fear of blowback.

There are some wonderful comic turns in this story. 
I didn’t even have space for all the funny parts! For example, I think the rat was karmic retaliation. That evening, I had been to a book launch event where the author of a memoir about sex work reclined nude on a table, their body covered in creampuffs for guests to eat. “That was the most New York thing ever!” I thought as I fell asleep. Maybe the city sent in the rat to show that she could do me one better....

I hope there are no more rat sightings in your apartment. 
Not in my apartment, but I did overhear the super who was so skeptical about my rat telling an exterminator that the building was having problems with rats in the trash. Vindicated! 

Madeline Taylor-Örményi and her wife at their wedding
Taylor-Örményi (right) with her wife, Lhana Örményi, at their wedding

Madeline Taylor-Örményi ’16 

‘United by Flight’

Taylor-Örményi’s January 2021 Tiny Love Story recalls a Barnard class in New York ornithology where she met the love of her life. 

For “Tiny Love Stories,” you tell your personal narrative very succinctly. What were the challenges and advantages of this abbreviated format?
I tend towards verbosity in my writing, so the 100-word limit was a challenge — cutting it down to fit the limit was agonizing! But it was also a helpful limitation, because it forced me to focus on the details that mattered most and to trust my readers to make the leaps between them. 

How does it feel to read or revisit your story a few years later? 
It feels special and sweet to revisit this piece, especially because this tiny story has come full circle in a funny way — my wife now works as the technical supervisor of the Glicker-Milstein Theatre at Barnard, where I proposed to her! 

Any advice for fellow contributors who want to tell their stories in just a few words?
I recommend not limiting your first draft to the word count — start by getting all your ideas out. Then find the details that hold the most emotional weight and lean on those to tell the story. 

Do you still bird-watch with your wife?
We do! We are far from experts, and our birdwatching is casual and incidental when we’re hiking or in the park. I’m better at identifying the bird calls, and she’s better at identifying the birds by sight.

Becky Miller headshot

Becky Miller ’24 

Becoming a Woman Without Her’ 

Miller’s homage to her late mother weaves together memories of her mother with self-identity by way of songs, the smell of a perfume, the texture of a sweater, a stance, a gesture, and an attitude.

What inspired you to tell your story in the Modern Love column? Did you write it for the column specifically?
I wrote the piece originally for an essay writing class I took at Barnard. After submitting it in class, I sent the essay to a few friends and relatives whose reactions made me feel really confident in the piece and my writing. My professor, the wonderful Sasha Bonet, had encouraged us to send our work to publications, and I was particularly proud of that essay, so I sent it to the Styles editor at the The New York Times. She then sent it to the Modern Love editor Dan Jones, who thought my essay would work well in the column. He reached out to me, and we began editing the piece, sending revised versions back and forth for a couple weeks. It was extremely cool to collaborate with Dan.

What was the process of writing a piece like this, which is so personal?
Writing the piece required dedicating an entire Friday to sitting in the library and parsing through my memories of my mom. I wanted to be really intentional with which stories about her I included, and I had to find a way to string those childhood moments and family sayings together around a coherent thesis, sort of doing an analysis of my own life. But many of the little stories and memories I wrote about in the essay are moments I think about all the time, so it wasn’t that weird for me to sit in Milstein on that Friday and access them and put them into writing. I only expected Professor Bonet and myself to read the piece when I was writing it, so I wasn’t scared of making it very personal. My goal was to translate everyday thoughts about my mom’s womanhood, as I remember it — and my own, as I create it — into words in the most accurate way I could.

Headshot of Jessica Alpert

Jessica Alpert ’03 

Alpert launched and produced the Modern Love podcast with The New York Times at WBUR, Boston’s NPR station.

You launched the Modern Love podcast in 2016. How did you bring these personal essays to life through audio? What were some of the strategies?
The first thing we did was read every essay and categorize them by theme. I wish I could see that spreadsheet again in all of its glory. We ended up calling it “the bible.” This not only helped us to understand the breadth of topics but also helped us cast the readers more thoughtfully.

Our major goal was to support the essay and never distract from it. Sound design can be thrown on like paint, covering an episode from beginning to end, which can create ear fatigue. When it comes to Modern Love, we use music and sound to intensify certain moments.

For example, we did an essay about open adoption (episode #3) in which the listener hears the mother describe her heartbreak and the difficulty of giving her child up. At some point, I felt like we needed a reminder that there was a baby at the center, so we added some sweet baby giggles that were recorded by a colleague. It was just a few seconds, but it broke through and made the situation so real. 

What makes specific kinds of Modern Love stories work particularly well in different mediums — in writing and on audio?
Something that I learned very quickly: Humor is hard. There is no laugh track and no audience for the reader to feed off of. It requires a very specific actor willing to work on timing. The second part relies on the sound designers; they have to work with the reader and with the story itself to encourage the listener to laugh along. Of course, it also has to be aesthetically beautiful and on brand. Those funny essays were always the hardest for me, but when we nailed them, we nailed them.

How do you think hearing a Modern Love story feels unique from reading it?
When we began the initial run of the show, some people complained that the writers themselves should read the essays. I can see the validity of that argument, and we did end up speaking with all of the writers at the conclusion of each episode. But in the end, we had actors read the actual essays. I wanted us to leave the drama and the performance to someone who appreciated the story but was not in it. These actors had a level of remove that allowed us to build up the drama and the intensity of the story without feeling inauthentic. In order to achieve that level of storytelling, we truly needed a performance. Now it is cliché to say this, but we really did want to create a movie in your mind. We worked hard to create an all-encompassing environment that made you feel an essay.

Latest IssueWinter 2024

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