Where might your longing lead?
On kink courage
Six years ago, I stood in my tiny, rundown kitchen in Crown Heights, frying bacon and listening to New York Times editor Dan Jones introduce Kate Winslet on the Modern Love podcast. I sat at the counter, totally wrapt, and quietly wept into my Cheerios, moved by the essay. I wished I could write a story like that.
It felt light years away. I’d only just begun writing essays for my newsletter, short entries drawing from lessons I was learning on the road. But I was a songwriter, not an author. Still a college dropout, still juggling four jobs to pay the bills. I knew I wanted to write, though I wasn’t sure how.
It took so much to get me from that tiny kitchen to where I sit today, sharing this with you: This week, the Modern Love podcast published my story, written and narrated by me. The episode features an interview and song from my third record, Hungry Ghost. Listen to the episode here.
I recorded the episode in January at The New York Times office, and the process was nothing short of a dream. Also, I kind of lost my mind. I am sure there are people on this planet who get invited to The Times and act like total pros, like this is all normal and good and just another Tuesday. Then there are people like me, who wander the halls with the restrained awe of a Midwestern tourist at Disney World, snapping selfies and muttering things like jesuschristalmighty is that Michael Barbaro’s mailbox?
The thing is: Had it not been for one terrifying moment, my essay would likely have never been published.
All of this started because I had the insane notion that I might retire from the music industry and go back to college. At 31. I’d dropped out ten years earlier, when my addiction was raging and the mere thought of writing a paper sent me into paralysis. And trust me—looking at my transcripts from those early years, it shows. Facing school in midlife was terrifying; it meant staring down that creeping fear that I was too old or too lazy or too dumb. All because maybe I could be a writer.
I was a few years into my BDSM journey when I decided to go back to school. It completely flipped my perspective. It showed me a world where shame could be confronted head-on. In which conventional expectations could be bucked, manipulated even. It taught me a playful kind of courage: Kink courage. Where I could bypass my near-constant burning fear of what others would think, and instead ask: What is it I really want?
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As it turns out, going back to college after living a whole ass life is what I really, really wanted.
I started that Modern Love essay in my first writing workshop with Candy Schulman at The New School. The day I arrived with a draft of the opening scene, I thought I might vomit. No one—and I mean no one—knew about my private life. But I knew there was something to the story. Professor Schulman agreed, and encouraged me to finish the essay and submit it to the column.
I churned through seven drafts over the course of the fall. While students moved onto new essays, I showed up to class each week with the same story, meticulously refining the narrative. Finally, in December, I emailed it to Modern Love. It was a long shot—the column receives around 8,000 submissions a year and only 52 get published.
Then a classmate mentioned that the editor, Dan Jones, sometimes guest lectured for Susan Shapiro, another professor who was teaching a publishing class in the Spring. I thought: Great. I’ll enroll in Shapiro’s class and if my essay hasn’t been rejected by then, I’ll ask him about it.
In retrospect, it was kind of nuts.
I signed up for Shapiro’s class and waited several agonizing months to see if Jones might visit. Meanwhile, I hadn’t heard a peep about my essay submission. Walking to the train from class one evening, I mentioned to a classmate who was also working on a piece for Modern Love that I’d submitted to the column a few months earlier. You mean you pitched an essay to Dan Jones without letting Professor Shapiro read it first? he said, incredulous. Big mistake.
I laughed and thought: We’ll see.
I’d just about given up hope when Shapiro announced Dan Jones was dropping in. The day he visited our class, I sat square in front, my stomach in knots. Here was the guy who wrote the column I’d read religiously for years. If I was going to say something, now was the time.
Jones wrapped his lecture, then Shapiro invited each student to ask one question. My head was swirling, haunted by that old nagging fear of speaking up. Wouldn’t I seem desperate? I checked the clock, fifteen minutes left. There were at least a dozen other people ahead of me, and time was short. Yes, I might seem desperate. Fuck it. Kink courage.
I raised my hand.
I submitted an essay about BDSM six months ago but never heard back, I said to Jones, my cheeks now visibly red. Have you ever published an essays on resubmission?
Jones answered the question without acknowledging my comment about the essay, and then moved onto the next person. I left the class disappointed, but proud of myself for trying. Oh well. At least I’d spoken up. My essay likely never made it past the intern’s desk, I figured.
I was packing up after class the next afternoon when I got a ping on my phone. It was an email from Jones. Was that you in Shapiro’s class last night? he wrote. Your piece has been sitting in my “maybe” pile. Let’s talk.
Three months and many drafts later, my piece was published in the New York Times Sunday print edition.
Publishing that story was thrilling and terrifying—thrilling, because I’d been a fan of the column for ten years. Terrifying because as much as I talk about courage, I am still a half-Egyptian women from the South, with all cultural baggage that comes with that. I am still afraid of disappointing my family and the people I grew up with. Telling the truth can be liberating, but it’s still hard.
As it turns out, most people didn’t care. Or if they did, they didn’t tell me. My closest friends cheered me on, some other people found it concerning or weird. My mom was a little bit sad at first, and then never mentioned it again. No one else cared to comment. Now, not only had I trusted my gut, I also had nothing to hide. What a fucking relief.
Because in the end, the story isn’t about BDSM. It’s about trusting that we are deserving of love—bruises and all. But we have to find it in ourselves to ask for it. To give ourselves the grace and time to notice that desire even exists. We owe ourselves that much.
Maybe you’ve felt that bright, wistful “what if” inside of you. What might happen if you gave that longing a little bit more time? Where might it take you?
My longing led me to send a message to an anonymous OkCupid profile. That set me off on this wild, incredible journey. From writing, to college, to sitting in a packed classroom and shakily raising my hand.
Where might your kink courage lead you?
PS. Sunday, March 12, I’m hosting Write Thyself, a free, generative memoir writing workshop. If you’ve got a story you’re longing to tell but don’t know where to begin, join me. I’ll share some of the prompts and practices I’ve built over 15 years as a songwriter and storyteller.
Open to writers and “non-writers” of all levels. There are only a few spots left, so if you want to join, register now.
“I raised my hand.” 🙌
Good one. I was that 31 year old dropout except I was 42 going on 62, and instead of Brooklyn I was eating Weetabix in a damp dump in London.
I enjoy your writing. Thanks. Don’t stop.