How My Modern Love Essay Saved My Memoir
November 14, 2022 § 9 Comments
By Mary Alice Hostetter
A gentle question from a member of my writing group is how it all started. “Don’t you think you might include your coming to terms with being a lesbian in your memoir’s arc?”
“I do not want to be the poster child for Mennonite lesbians,” I responded, perhaps more forcefully than her innocent question warranted.
I thought I was finished with the first draft of my memoir, a quiet story about growing up in a Mennonite farm family in Pennsylvania. It was a tale of trying to fit into the Mennonite community, my teenage rebellion against the rigid rules, and escaping to fit into the bigger world. Introducing the lesbian theme, I worried, would change the whole focus. After all, I didn’t even know what a lesbian was until I was an adult.
“Did you ever come out to your parents?” another member of the writing group asked.
“Interesting you should ask,” I said. “I wrote an essay about that a few years ago, and it tells the whole story.”
I had written the essay about how my gay brother and I made the decision to write “coming out letters” to my ninety-five-year-old father, a bit fearful of how he might take the news, but needing to do it nonetheless. We delighted in his surprisingly accepting response, “Well, that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that should tear families apart.”
I shared my essay with the group, and the instructor said, “You should submit this to Modern Love.”
I knew about Modern Love essays, read them from time to time, but not religiously, and most certainly did not know that for nonfiction writers getting a Modern Love essay published was like finding the literary holy grail. Articles were written on how to write the perfect Modern Love essay. Who knew it was a thing? If I had known that, I may have found the prospect of submitting too daunting, but I naively thought, “Why not?” and went about shortening my piece to comply with the submission guidelines.
Imagine my shock when a few weeks later I got the email from Daniel Jones, the Modern Love editor. He wanted to publish my essay. Me in the New York Times? And then I thought about the implications. It’s not that I was closeted exactly, but coming out as lesbian in the Times was a higher level of coming out than I had ever imagined. I took a deep breath, feeling already a bit exposed and vulnerable, but the idea of it also felt freeing. The notion of being fully out to family, friends, and all those readers was strangely liberating.
The essay, “Dear Dad: We’ve Been Gay for a Very Long Time,” was published, and the responses, mostly positive, started coming in from all over. Daniel Jones forwarded one to me from a young Mennonite girl in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. The church was then in a bitter dispute about whether they would allow gay members, and a self-righteous intolerance was splitting both the church and families apart. Her note expressed gratitude for my essay and ended with, “Your essay gave me reason to hope in very dark times.”
I was working on what I thought were final revisions of my memoir, sticking with a variation on what I had planned as my original arc, continuing to skirt around any explicit mention of coming to terms with being a lesbian. It was as if my story ended with an acceptance of being happily single, what my mother chose to call “an unclaimed blessing,” finding the term spinster derogatory.
However, after coming out to the hundreds of thousands of NYT readers, I realized that keeping the lesbian piece out of my memoir didn’t make any sense. And, if including it had the potential of “giving hope in dark times,” if only for a few, omitting it seemed an act of callous cowardice. A thoughtful reader would certainly sense important information was being held back and suspect that what was on the page, though not dishonest, was incomplete.
I began rewriting the memoir, keeping a new and more honest ending in sight, discovering markers along the way I had not previously noticed and digging deeper to explore those. I knew an introverted writer may not be poster child material, no matter the cause, but I could feel in my bones the new ending was where my story needed to go, an ending that might never have happened had the essay I wrote, mainly for myself, not been published in Modern Love.
Mary Alice Hostetter grew up the tenth of twelve children in a Mennonite farm family. She had a career in education and human services before devoting more time to her writing. Among her publications are The New York Times (Modern Love), Gettysburg Review, Hippocampus, Prime Number, Appalachian Review, storySouth and HuffPost Personal. Her debut memoir is Plain: A Memoir of Mennonite Girlhood (University of Wisconsin Press, December, 2022). She lives with her wife in Charlottesville, Virginia. For more information, visit her website.