Love from a Box (Not of Chocolates)

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What is modern love? That’s a question that The New York Times seeks to address in its weekly column. Though a specific, yet generalizable answer remains elusive; modern love takes on a different shape for everyone. It’s not always romantic. Sometimes it’s transactional. And sometimes it’s about seeking the love that one never had before but wishes they could find–or create for oneself–in the future. 

This was the type of love that Heather Sellers, author of The Practice of Creative Writing and Professor of Creative Writing at University of South Florida, grapples with in her 2013 submission to the Modern Love column. With the title “Do Not Adjust Your Screen Or Sound,” the reader immediately wonders what type of love story this could be. A long-distance relationship between a couple overwhelmingly in love with one another? One of scandal and heartbreak caused by infidelity? Within the first two paragraphs, the reader learns that it is neither.

Rather, it is a story about a daughter and her father. A story about reconnection and forgiveness–and whether or not it’s possible to forgive. It’s also a story that redefines what love can become when it is contained to a box–a desktop computer screen. 

For this year’s Valentine’s Day, we asked Heather to reflect on both her essay from ten years ago and the more recent Modern Love podcast episode in which she was asked to read excerpts from her essay and provide commentary. Keep in mind that there may be spoilers in our interview with Heather, so we encourage you to read her essay and check out the podcast first. 

Heather Sellers, Professor of Creative Writing, University of South FloridaHeather Sellers, Professor of Creative Writing, University of South FloridaIn your Modern Love essay, you’re searching for a kind of love with your father. In doing so, I couldn’t help but feel that in searching for love–that almost fantasy perfect parent-child love that we all recognize in books and movies–you were also redefining what “love” could mean. You even describe yourself as finally feeling like a “normal daughter” through the process of reconnecting with your father. Could you talk about what it was like to strive for this ideal type of love that children desire from their parents? 

I wanted, very much, to have a relationship with my father, even though it was pretty clear not much was available. I wanted to be able to feel I loved my dad. And she had a father. I was under no illusions this would look anything like a fairy tale. I just wanted to feel, before he died, that we had connected in some authentic way, that we had known each other, and maybe, in spite of enormous difficulty, that there was some mutual cherishing.

That striving for connection with the parent is hardwired in. I don’t think there was any way I could escape that longing–no matter how awful things were. And they were awful, much more awful than I could permit myself to acknowledge, for a very long time. I needed to protect him. But more importantly, I needed to protect myself.

How is your understanding of “love” different after not only writing this essay, but also reflecting on it 10 years later? 

What I’ve learned in working with the truly amazing team at The New York Times is that it’s so crucial to keep looking at our relationships, to keep turning them over, and examining every nook and cranny for meaning. My understanding of “love” is much more nuanced and complex now than it was when I was a younger woman, craving some kind of healing in that family.

So, I’m sorting out, in the essay and in the subsequent process via the podcast, how to sort out the longing for love with love itself. (Aren’t we all?) In the end, there’s this: I showed up for my dad. He was not able to do that for me. I showed up anyway. I’m gobsmacked by how much fantasy I had to construct in order to pull that off (much more fantasy than I understood at the time, at the end of his life). But I have no regrets about showing up, and telling myself it all went much, much better than it actually did. I have a lot of compassion for the woman who did that–tried to make us look like good, loving people. She wanted that fantasy so badly!

Could you tell us more about decisions made when writing the original essay? In the podcast, you laugh about what you wrote 10 years prior and admit to the host “That’s not true” about certain scenes in the essay. Yet, the essay remains quite true and reflective of what you were feeling at that time. Is it fair to say that this essay captures what happened, while simultaneously depicting how you wish things would have been different? 

I haven’t listened to the podcast, and I can’t imagine doing so. I laughed? Wow. That must be a laugh of…shock.  

I hadn’t reread the piece since I wrote it 10 years ago. They asked me to wait, and to read it cold, on the air. I was crying when I came upon those tender, tender words written by that younger self, that daughter who so desperately wanted to have a beautiful ending with her dad. That laugh–it’s a gasp, that kind of defended laughing we do when we’re feeling caught, perhaps. 

Nothing I said in the essay is false, exactly. It’s not true though, the way it’s framed–that we talked, over a period of days, in a loving and connected way. My dad did not have that capacity. Not at the end of life, not ever. It was super hard for me to let go of the notion I could enforce a meaningful relationship.

I imagine that you must encourage your students to pursue similar experiments in their creative writing. How do the two–memories and lived experiences combined with wishes and desires–marry in the creative writing process? 

In my classes at University of South Florida, the work is to train students to observe the external world, and to carefully observe their internal worlds–to work the muscles of paying closer attention, on a daily basis. It’s such hard work and so much practice is required just to be semi-proficient. (This is what my textbook is about!) The mind is always wanting to get in there, and to pull in emotion and judgment. All my assignments come from this objective.

But I think I know what you mean–the writer has to work to portray those disjunctures, where one thing is happening before us, and a very different reality is playing out internally. Your question makes me want to write an assignment sequence based on this premise–it’s so smart. On it!

I want to briefly discuss the “desktop-sized box” in your essay to which your father is effectively contained. You write “Here, in a box, was a man I could love.” This was, of course, during a time before the pandemic and the boom of video communication as we know it today. How do you see these boxes (our computers, cellular phones, etc.) changing the way we both communicate with and love one another moving forward? 

It’s so wonderful to be able to see our people, in real time, in this way. It’s been life changing! I have severe face blindness, a neurological disability that prevents me from reliably recognizing people, even my closest associates. So to be able to always know who I am with, at all times–I can’t even begin to tell you how transformative this has been for me. So in terms of access, and ability, and thinking about what we know about connectedness as being critical for not just mental health, but physical health, I’m thrilled we have these visual, real time communication tools. Life changing.

Lastly, I have to ask because it continues to be a topic on everyone’s mind. The box itself now has a mind of its own with the emergence of artificial intelligence. Could you please share a little bit about how you are incorporating AI in your teaching and perhaps in your own writing? 

As a creative, I’m always going to be a fan of disruption and the AI disruption, which has been around for some time, is exciting. Because of ChatGPT thundering onto the scene, this past summer, I retooled every assignment in my courses. Every assignment. My old ways of working to assess student learning are no longer remotely relevant. Labor intensive, but I loved getting to think intently about what it is I’m teaching, and how students are learning, and how our conversations can be productively shaped and advanced because of AI.

I use AI as a tool all the time–to help me create our annual program review (so helpful), to write recommendation letters, and to generate content for all kinds of writing situations at work. 

In the classroom, we are called to teach a new set of skills to our students, helping them shape the material generated by AI tools, and to learn about the suite of tools that is available. These skills are ones we have always been teaching in our revision modules–the shift for us is only a slight one, but it’s a crucial one. Creative writing students are capable of all kinds of interesting and complex projects, and part of my work is giving the students agency to come up with AI uses in the creative writing classroom that will deepen our connection to language, and to each other. I begin class with a poem written by AI, so we can talk about all the things that humans can do, and must do. It’s an exciting time.

As a teacher, I’m super interested in a conversation that keeps at the fore all the ways in which English and writing studies programs can remain a vibrant, core part of every learner’s development as a thinker and a creator.