Jen Michalski: How I Wrote My Way Out of the Closet
Writing fiction was an emotional test kitchen for my emerging sexuality.
Posted Nov 19, 2013
“I hope you’re not trying to tell me something,” my mother said, handing back my latest short story. Growing up, I didn’t have many friends, so I’d often ask her to read my work. Although she didn’t give much feedback—she preferred the romances of Danielle Steele over whatever tortured angst I wrote longhand on college-ruled notepaper—knowing that someone was reading my work validated me as a person and a writer.
Writing fiction was my emotional test kitchen. Maybe I was trying to tell my mother something, but at that point, I hadn’t even been able to tell myself. Drawn to strong, older women, mostly teachers who I’d often viewed as mentors, I told myself that my “crushes” on other women were normal, were expected, that I’d find the boy who “got” me when I went to college, away from the small Eastern Shore town where no one had yet heard of the band The Cure and definitely not The Smiths. A boy who read outside of school, for fun⎯real books, not the Cliff Notes versions⎯because he was curious about the world and hungry for answers.
At least as hungry as me. Growing up, I often looked to books for advice in my own life. As a child, I loved Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, in which 11-year-old Harriet M. Welsch fancies herself a spy and keeps a route in her Upper East Side neighborhood, documenting the goings-on of her neighbors in a marble-covered composition notebook. She also keeps tabs on her friends and schoolmates, and when her honest, sometimes hurtful, observations are discovered by her classmates, she has a long road back to climb back to their trust and friendship. One could take away from the book that being honest with yourself and others is a dangerous proposition. But one also could take away that sometimes it’s easier to manage your emotions if you have an outlet for them. Like your own notebook.
I’d always felt a great affinity toward brash, smart, tomboyish Harriet, and it did not surprise me years later to find out that Louise Fitzhugh herself was a lesbian. Although as a YA author in the 1950s, she explicitly didn’t write about gay characters, she wrote about the real pains of childhood, well before Judy Blume, and it didn’t hurt that Harriet’s nanny, Ole Golly, was a stern, sexually ambiguous but matronly woman (at least before she got married)⎯the kind of woman to whom I was drawn.
Others, like Patricia Highsmith, author of such thrillers as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, did write about the perils of being gay in more closeted times, albeit under a pseudonym. Unlike many gay stories published during the 1950s, Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (which she wrote as Claire Morgan) was rare in that it featured a happy ending—young Therese and the older Carol—continue their relationship despite the many painful obstacles Carol must endure as married, soon-to-be-divorced, woman with child. And even though she did not claim ownership of it until years later, what was important to me was that Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt, felt compelled to tell the story of Therese and Carol, despite the peril it placed on her career as a “straight” novelist, on her life.
Unfortunately, I did not discover The Price of Salt until after I graduated college, after I had come out and discovered it at the now-defunct Lambda Rising Bookstore in Baltimore. My teen years, aka the mid-80s, pre-Internet, after the fallout of AIDS and the Reagan administration, weren’t yet a time of ubiquitous gay culture. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the first lesbian kiss occurred on television (LA Law), and that was between a straight woman and a gay one who is never seen again. Gay literature, with the exception of Oscar Wilde and Truman Capote and the biography of Martina Navratilova, in our public library was unheard of, and the big, hardbound medical encyclopedias under our coffee table spoke primarily of men in the brief entry under homosexuality. Were women who loved other women normal, I wondered? Did they shop together at the store, vacation together, raise children?
And how could I find out? In high school, particularly my high school, located in a small farming town on the Delmarva Peninsula (my graduating class was 80 students), being gay or otherwise different was the worst thing imaginable. It was hard to be invisible in such a small group, but I sure tried. I didn’t go out for sports because I was afraid of showering with girls, or go to slumber parties, afraid that they’d sense I was different from them, that in an unguarded moment of sleep, my mouth would open and some terrible secret would emerge, that my father was an alcoholic who stopped going to work or that my mother was in the hospital or that I thought about girls well more than I thought about boys.
It didn’t matter. Girls still came up to me in the locker room and asked whether I was a lesbian, saying that they wanted to move their locker if I was. They still snickered and talked about me in the lunch line, did not want to room with me on overnight field trips.
Friendless and confused, I did the only thing I knew how to do: I wrote. Every night and on weekends, I sat in my bed with a spiral notebook and I wrote. I invented friends, Amanda and Claire, and friends for them. I invented boyfriends for them and also girlfriends. I created huge soap operatic love triangles and family illnesses. Amanda and Claire got summer jobs and went to prom or didn’t. They went to the mall, but they also traveled. People close to them committed suicide (one boyfriend) or became ill (a sister). They went to college, the mythical happily-ever-after land I couldn’t wait to enter. They lived the lives I couldn’t, at school or at home. They also gave me hope⎯if I could create them , they could possibly exist in real life, outside of my high school and small town.
I did not keep that box of spiral notebooks I stored in my closet during my teens, but if I did you’d find several novels, tens of short stories with Amanda and Claire and others, most of which I’d never shown anyone. In many stories, Amanda and/or Claire are gay. In some stories, particularly the early ones, they are self-hating, mad that they are gay, jerks toward the women who dared to fall in love with them, toward the siblings who sympathized.
But an evolution occurs. Amanda and Claire declare their love for each other, but circumstances beyond their control (death, distance, illness) keep them apart. Toward the bottom of the box, stories I wrote when I was in my late teens, Amanda and Claire emerge victorious in the war of their forbidden love.
“Let’s do this.” I remember Amanda saying, by then a sophomore in college, to Claire, in that novel I worked on during breaks in college. Yes, I thought to myself, to the girl in cute glasses I’d seen walking to class that semester on my campus. Let’s do this. Before I called my mother during my junior year to tell her about Jessie, the smart, quirky, beautiful girl who later broke my young heart, I wrote down exactly what I wanted to say to my mom and how I thought she’d respond. The conversation was one of the hardest of my life and didn’t go the way I’d written it, but somehow, seeing the words on the page was comforting—they were solid, firm, ready to back me up should I waver. I had written them, and they could never be erased.
People, mostly nonwriters, are always surprised when I tell them I wrote so much growing up. They’re incredulous that I would write such a large volume of work, entire novels, and never submit them, or at least rework them (as if all of it wasn’t incredibly sophomoric, amateur⎯as if it wasn’t written by a 14-year-old). But those words, I want to tell them, weren’t written for anyone else⎯the audience who needed to see them and the audience for whom they were written was me.
These days, if you’re young and gay, finding answers to your questions in fiction is no harder than going to the Barnes & Noble. At the end of last summer, Knopf Books for Young Readers released David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing, the true story of two 17-year-old boys, Harry and Craig, who try to set a Guinness World Record by kissing for 32 hours straight. I wonder, if I was a teen today, whether I would need to keep a whole box of stories in the top of my closet riddled with gay characters, what I might write about. Probably subjects just as taboo.
These days, I’m still nervous when my mother reads my work, but for different reasons. Earlier this year, Dzanc Books released my couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now—one, “May-September,” deals with the May-December relationship of two women, Alice and Sandra, and the other, “I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner,” recounts in first person the story of Jimmy Dembrowski, a mentally challenged 14-year-old boy who accidentally kills a girl on whom he has a crush and runs away. Not exactly bedtime reading for anyone, much less my mother, who prefers the literary company of Debbie Macomber these days. In fact, even at readings, I choose to read passages from “May-September,” the former novella. It seems, somehow, safe, old hat, for as we have slowly but enthusiastically accepted gay characters in literature and real life, we’re still a little skittish about mentally challenged children who turn out to be murderers and the pedophiles who offer them asylum.
And it doesn’t surprise me that, although I still write about gay characters, I write about them much less frequently. I’m more drawn to the other, whether it be psychologically damaged, fringe characters or magical realist work that stretches the bounds of reality. I’m interested in the difficulties of communication, of connecting with others, and fortunately, being gay is no longer a roadblock in my emotional health.
“I was going to call you yesterday,” my mother said recently. “But I was crying and it was 2 o’clock in the morning.”
“Why?” A coldness ran down my back. Had someone died? Was my mother sick?
“Because I’d just finished Could You Be With Her Now. The stories were so sad. And it was like I was eating an ice cream cone—I was afraid if I stopped licking, stopped reading, it’d melt all over my hand before I’d finished it. The relationship of Sandra and Alice was so beautiful and sad.”
Finally, almost thirty years later, my mother got exactly what I was trying to say.
Jen Michalski was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of "50 Women to Watch" by The Baltimore Sun, and "Best Writer" by Baltimore Magazine Her novel The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press, 2013) was the winner of the Big Moose Prize, and she's also written two short story collection. Jen is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, host of the monthly reading series The 510 Readings in Baltimore, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown.