Real stories for real teens
Author and educator Kevin McDermott workshopped his new novel in Dublin schools
Kevin McDermott: “If you speak about things that really matter, every single person can be expressive. No exceptions”
How do you write authentically for teens while also taking advantage of decades’ worth of writing experience? How do you tell their stories without appropriating them? Heady questions for most of us, but Kevin McDermott, veteran writer, is relatively – as the young people say – “chill” about them.
McDermott is not just an experienced writer but also an experienced educator, whose latest novel, Mary’s Shadow (Little Island/JCSP Libraries) was written as part of a series of residencies in various Dublin secondary schools. It follows on from his previous JCSP (Junior Certificate School Programme – a scheme which aims to support potential early-school-leavers) project, In Pieces, although the process for developing each text as quite different.
“In Pieces was written with eight boys and we focused on Alan, the central character,” McDermott says. “When I went back to the project, I was working with more girls than boys and it seemed natural to think about and talk about Mary. One of the young writers in Margaret Aylward Community College, an all-girls school, asked me a couple of questions about Mary, to which I had no answers (Was she still best friends with Alan? Was Alan her boyfriend? Did she have any brothers or sisters?) and that’s where Mary’s Shadow began.”
Mary’s voice was partly inspired by the young writers McDermott worked with. In the workshops, he notes, “I spoke as one writer speaking with another. And I enjoyed the freedom of being a writer, rather than a teacher, working with the young writers.” The Mary’s Shadow workshops involved 11 secondary schools, mostly with self-selecting groups. “I visited each school once a week for two terms, so there was a lot of contact. Not every group was keen to work on Mary’s Shadow, but those that were really engaged with it. Basically, I would show up and read something I had written and get feedback from the group. The recurring question was, ‘Does this sound real?’ And then I’d sketch out where I thought I might go next and we’d chat it out.”
McDermott notes that his female students, in particular, responded to prompts about vulnerability vs safety. During free-writing exercises he explored this further. “Some terrific pieces emerged,” he recalls. When he begins teaching a group, he too offers up vulnerability, asking students “to tell me something about themselves that I could not reasonably be expected to know about them” but then adding his own take to this.
“I was offered a trial to play professional football when I was 15, but turned it down because I knew that I wasn’t good enough. Or I had a brother who died in infancy, a year before I was born. Up to the age of seven or eight, he was my imaginary friend, a kind of ghostly twin, but as real to me as my other brothers and sisters. Nearly everything I have written has a twin in it or a ghostly element.”
This ability to share his own experience leads to young writers trusting him, and signals to them “that the things they know, the important things, are the sources of writing. I told them we would speak our writing into existence. As far as I am concerned, once something is said, it is composed. Sometimes, I envisage writing groups as theatre ensembles: we generated scripts through talking. I love when a young writer gets excited and speaks with energy and animation. I often jot down phrases and read them back to them, or use them as prompts. Literacy does not come into it for me. If you speak about things that really matter, every single person can be expressive. No exceptions.”
McDermott views schools, particularly JCSP libraries, as “potentiating spaces”. Despite occasional timetable changes and other snafus, he “tended to glide in and out, unnoticed except by the librarian or the teacher with whom I was working.” He did insist on the teacher or librarian present to participate, and notes that “a real pleasure of the residency was the encouragement it offered to our adult participants. And I was fortunate in the librarians and teachers who worked with me. Quite a few of them were writers in their own right (Sarah Purcell, Teresa Hudson and Deirdre Leahy, for example) so we formed a conspiracy of writers.”
The realism of Mary’s Shadow partly emerged from the realisation that the young writers in these workshops spoke up about all kinds of topics – McDermott notes the inclusion of “families, (marriages, separations); insecurities; having a laugh; figuring out who you are or might become; navigating school and friendship groups and cliques and teachers who like or don’t like you; wanting more freedom than parents are prepared to give; hopes and fears; relationships; the pressures of being a girl; the burden of not adding to existing burdens in your family. Loneliness. I think young writers grapple with the big existential questions like every thinking person and all good writers.”
As a text that embraces a conversational Dublin dialect, it risks being undermined but McDermott hopes that “good writing will be recognised for what it is, whether it is written in a working class or a ‘posh’ voice. The New Junior Cycle English syllabus hammers away at the idea of writers understanding the purpose and context of what they write and shaping the text accordingly. On those criteria, Mary’s Shadow deserves an A+! (But my goodness, do we haveto use such dull language in curricular documents? It is a crime against language and imagination to describe the most exciting subject on the curriculum in terms borrowed from a business model of education. Gradgrind lives! The OECD has a lot to answer for.)”
Kevin’s daughter Roe (also McDermott) is both an academic and a writer and spoke at the launch of this book; she complimented the writers but also looked towards the future, noting that protagonist Mary “is a modern girl. She isn’t some Disney princess; she’s not waiting around for a guy on a white horse to save her – she’s strong and brave enough to save herself, and others too. But Mary also shows us that being brave doesn’t always mean what we think it does. It’s not always about saving the day. Being brave can mean telling someone you love them. Or telling someone you’re scared. Or speaking up about what you believe is right. Being brave can just mean being yourself and using your voice – even when that seems like the most terrifying thing in the world.
“We need stories like Mary’s, because they’re the stories of young people. Because these students were brave enough to share their stories, their voices, young readers will now be able to read this book, and feel represented. Feel seen. Feel understood. Maybe even feel a bit braver themselves.”
This emphasis on bravery speaks to the difficulty of writing as a young person, as well as the difficulty of working with young writers. Kevin McDermott’s capacity to empathise with teenagers should be admired as much as his writing skill; there are few projects out there that can speak to the powerful collaboration between artist and audience as Mary’s Shadow.
Claire Hennessy is a YA author and commentator