How Publishing a New York Times Essay Changed My Life
The essay was published in the New York Times the weekend of April Fool’s Day, 2017. It seemed fitting because holding that newspaper in my hands felt like some kind of cruel (yet magical) prank. If it weren’t for the black streaks of ink-stained on my fingertips, I’d have thought I was dreaming.
The Modern Love Column has 52 slots a year and thousands of submissions are fighting for that page space. The chances of getting a story published are slim, not power ball jackpot slim but slim nonetheless. Which was why, when I had the opportunity to take a Modern Love class with the editor of the column himself, I signed up immediately. Dan Jones was teaching his first-ever course at Columbia University, where I was getting my MFA at the time.
The class was amazing. Dan was generous with knowledge, gentle with criticism, and somehow he managed to put a room full of nervous, over-eager writers at ease. Week after week, twenty of us squeezed into a lecture room and studied the archives of previously published essays. We dissected each one, trying to uncover why some worked, why some went viral, why others were quietly received and why others caused controversy.
At the end of the semester, each one of us turned in our final papers. He had made it clear that these would all be considered for publication but that it was unlikely. We shouldn’t hold our breath. And yet we did. We had all viciously revised our beginnings, middles, and endings and gripped onto the fact that unlikely did not mean impossible.
Fall break came and went and when we returned to campus, there were whispers in the hallways about who had received feedback and what exactly was said. Word got around that Dan had chosen one essay from our class to publish (read it, it’s amazing) and so the rest of us went back to reading Faulkner and attending agent mixers.
Weeks later, when Dan’s name popped up in my inbox, I was excited to see whether or not he liked what I’d written. While the majority of the class (and the majority of modern love essays) focused on romantic relationships, I thought I would dig deeper into my past and write about the first love of my life, my brother. It was not a sweet story. It was not a happily ever after. There was death and trauma and a lot of silence that needed to be filled in.
“This is a real contender for the column,” he wrote. He asked if I would be open to cutting it down by a few hundred words and working together on revisions and I must have said yes, though I was in an excitement blackout.
I was months away from graduating and nowhere near finishing my book, I was in no hurry to publish. This turned out to be my greatest asset. Our back and forth went on for weeks and then months, it took so long for us to set up that first phone call that Dan changed the subject line of our email to Patience.
But when we finally got on the phone, it all happened very quickly. Edits. Revisions. Fact checking. Copy editing. “How do you want your bio to read?” he asked. It was an easy question that I’d never thought about. Was I a student? Was I a Colombian writer? What did I want people to know about me? We settled on:
Jessica Ciencin Henriquez, a writer in New York City, is working on a memoir.
When the essay went live online, I was in Montauk with my family. I had intentionally taken the weekend to disconnect because when your life is about to change, you can feel the chaos brewing and there’s something very beautiful about taking a deep breath before everything explodes.
And explode it did. When I finally opened up my inbox, what awaited me was what every writer daydreams about. Dozens of emails from agents and editors and film producers. “I would love to purchase the U.S. rights to your book,” one Random House editor wrote. I thought, great! What are rights? And also…what book? I was nowhere near finished with it. This was all wonderful, though, every single second of it.
But what I never once considered was what the readers might say. I’d published personal essays before and survived by vowing to never look at the comments. But Dan had closed the comments section on my story and still, somehow readers found their way to me.
Hundreds of emails poured in over the next month, people from all over the world who had read the column through tears, who had shared it with their spouse, with their friends. Strangers messaged me daily to say: this happened to me too, I was just like you, or I was just like your brother, or I was just like the driver. These strangers shared with me their own stories of pain and sibling-hood and trauma and healing—I had opened up my heart to millions of readers about my family’s silence and in return, they matched my vulnerability.
I read each word they wrote. I cried over their losses, over their bravery and their shame. And months later, when the messages had slowed to a trickle, my motivations had changed. I wanted to help these people tell their own stories, I wanted to teach them how to dissect their own memories to find the truth and share it with the world.
The book is almost done; the film will likely take years to come; the opportunities from publishing that essay continue to surprise me, but nothing has surprised me more than finding this desire inside of me to teach, to lead, to guide.
Jessica Ciencin Henriquez is a Colombian-American writer and editor. Her personal essays and narrative journalism have appeared in the New York Times’ Modern Love column, Self Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, Marie Claire, among others. Her essays have also been featured in multiple anthologies, most recently: Oprah's Little Guide to The Big Questions. Jessica holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA in elementary education/child studies from East Carolina University. Her forthcoming memoir is If You Loved Me You Would Know.