‘I write stories to force adults to think about horrible topics’

16-year-old Amy Cahill – author of the story My Mammy Lives in a Box – on writing about suicide

Amy Cahill: ‘Sometimes teachers jump to criticise something written by a student, instead of appreciating it.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw, for The Irish Times

Amy Cahill: ‘Sometimes teachers jump to criticise something written by a student, instead of appreciating it.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw, for The Irish Times

 

When Amy Cahill’s powerful and painful story My Mammy Lives in a Box was published in The Irish Times, “I had messages from people on Facebook, sending condolences, saying they were sorry for my loss.”

The short story was published in the paper’s Fighting Words supplement on May 7th, of writing by young people who have taken part in the innovative creative writing workshops. Cahill’s story is told from the point of view of a very small child, whose Mammy is asleep on the bathroom floor.

“Mammy must be very tired. She won’t wake up, no matter what I do. I poke her sometimes, but it doesn’t work. Her skin feels all funny now, kinda like cold play-dough. I’ve tried talking to her, but it’s like she can’t hear me. I hope mammy gets up soon.”

It’s a heartbreaking story, and a difficult topic. But, despite its emotional effectiveness which led to the messages of condolence, it comes entirely from Amy Cahill’s imagination.

Amy Cahill, aged16 and just finished Transition Year (TY) at Gorey Community School, writes “quite a bit. It’s what I want to do when I’m older”. During TY she’s had time to write more, and her class for the optional TY module in creative writing has travelled to Fighting Words workshops in Glencree, which has been wonderful, says Cahill.

She’s attracted to writing about difficult topics, including cancer, homelessness, suicide, bullying, but from a child’s perspective. “They are all topics that adults know are horrible, things that are having an effect on children, even if adults might not want to feel that they affect children too.

“Adults don’t want to think about that, and I write the stories to force them to think about it. They have the power and should be doing something to change things. They have to do something to help.”

She’s upfront about wanting her writing to have a purpose. “I hope adults will read the story, because they’re the ones with the power to change things for children.” This story was about suicide and its impact on a very small child, “and our mental health facilities are very poor. Homelessness affects many children too,” and she has also written about that experience from a child’s perspective.

She writes through the eyes of younger children, below 10 generally, “because children view things differently. Once they hit teenage years, they are bordering on adulthood. And smaller children can describe things in a more abstract way. I quite like the idea of an unreliable narrative: someone says something but you don’t know if it’s true. The child doesn’t know Mammy is dead.”

“Mammy told me I could have anything I wanted for dinner. I said ice-cream with jelly, so we both drove to the shop to buy me some..... I think Mammy must have been very sick because she ate a lot of pills from the medicine box. She got sleepy half way through eating them. .... I was too scared to sleep in my room all alone, so I slept beside her that night. She didn’t feel all soft and warm like she usually did.

Cahill’s story took shape at one of the workshops run by Fighting Words, which was founded by Roddy Doyle and Seán Love in 2009 to nurture young writers around Ireland. It is now in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Mayo, Wicklow, Galway, Donegal, Kerry, Wexford and Kildare.

Amy Cahill lives in Gorey Co Wexford, with her parents and her brother Conor, now 13. The workshops were “a really good experience” for her writing, because of “their acceptance of children’s creativity, instead of criticising straight away.

“At school sometimes teachers jump to criticise something written by a student, instead of appreciating it for what it is. Sometimes they want to fit students in a box, and they have a bias towards what they think a story should be – that it must have conflict, or a happy ending. We shouldn’t have to conform. Some of the best books have an abstract quality to them.”

That said, Cahill had “an inspirational English teacher, Siobhán Cullen, for three years in Gorey Community School She was brilliant, and really energised you.”

Her own favourite writers include Sarah Webb, Markus Zusak and Madeline Miller. Her favourite subjects at school are English and classical studies, because she loves history.

There’s no writing background in her family. Where did her interest in writing come from? “My parents, Elaine and Jason Cahill, always encouraged me to read as a child.”

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