I’m Not That Smart
by Patricia Dunn
When people say to me, “It was so smart of you to have written a young adult book. They are so popular.” I smile and think to myself, “I’m not that smart.”
When I started Rebels By Accident, originally titled Misidentified Persons and then True Weirdo and several other titles in between, I didn’t know that I was beginning the long hard journey of writing a novel. I enrolled in a writing class to take my mind off of another novel I had written. It was out in the world looking for an agent and after years of working on that book, it was time to start something new.
Cassandra Medley, at Sarah Lawrence College, was teaching a course called the Writer’s Gym. She’s an amazing teacher and playwright, so I figured even if I didn’t get much writing done, it would be great to be in a class with someone whose work I admired.
One of the first writing prompts Cassandra asked us to do was to write about a hand. It’s structure and texture, whatever came to mind, and before I knew it, the voice of Mariam started to come through. A fifteen-year old teenage girl who had a story she needed to tell. As I read the first free-write out loud, one of the other student’s in the class said, “It sounds like you’re channeling her.” I must have been. There was no way I wanted to write a teenager’s story. I taught teens writing in the summer and their in-your-face honesty, though admirable, scared the heck out of me. Teens are too smart, too sensitive, too everything. Mariam was no different. She had her share, maybe more than others, of teen angst to work out. I wasn’t ready to go there with her. At forty-one I still hadn’t fully recovered from my own adolescent years. I believe we never graduate from high school, emotionally that is. As an adult I could pretend otherwise. But if I were to take on a fifteen year-old narrator there would be no hiding from the truth. There I would be standing in the middle of my high school cafeteria, naked. Raw and vulnerable was not the writing experience I was ready to live. But the harder I tried to ditch her, the stronger Mariam held on. Clinging to my pen and my keyboard every time I tried to write from the point of view of an adult narrator. Eventually, she wore me out, and I accepted Mariam as my narrator. Like many teenagers, she was opinionated and certain of exactly the story she wanted to tell, until, of course, she wasn’t. And so, her story changed again and again, but with each revision, Mariam’s voice grew stronger. Until one day she and I were clear as to the exact story, we wanted to tell. The journey of an Egyptian-Muslim-American teen who in our post 9-11 world, is very disconnected from her culture, and how she finally figures out what it means to be Egyptian and American. She also wanted to tell a love story. This I resisted at first, until she showed me she wanted it to be not just a girl meets boy story, but a story that also includes falling in love with a place and a people, and friends and family. Most importantly, a story that includes falling in love with one’s self.
I didn’t set out to write a young adult story. Like I said, I’m not that smart. I’m just grateful that the protagonist of my novel is.
Thanks Patricia, for stopping by today. I loved hearing about how you channeled Mariam, I’m glad she held on!