Last fall, I wrote enthusiastically about novelist Kevin M. McIntosh’s book Class Dismissed, terming it a “revealing, gripping, and highly readable volume.” Well, McIntosh and I wound up corresponding a bit after the review, and I was fascinated by his experience as a 30-year veteran educator and Pushcart Prize-nominated author. Having interviewed thousands of teachers and school leaders over the years, many with fascinating stories to tell, I was especially interested in McIntosh’s journey into writing. Anyway, we wound up having a revealing exchange about his inspiration, process, and advice for would-be writers. Here’s what he had to say.
Rick: You taught for 30 years. During that time, you became a writer. Can you talk a bit about how that happened?
Kevin: My career as a fiction writer began 25 years ago when I was teaching “The Lottery” and one of my 8th grade students smirked and asked, “Have you ever written a short story, Mr. McIntosh?” That was a gauntlet I had to take up. I began writing and, eventually, publishing short stories. As a writing teacher, I decided I could use some more instruction myself. I was accepted at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont and won my own personal lottery when I was assigned to Jennifer Egan’s class. She proved as gifted an editor as she is a writer, seeing elements in my short story draft I’d completely missed. I was stunned by her final comment: There’s more here than you think. That story, “Special Needs,” about the conflict between a teacher and his bright but learning-disabled student, evolved, over the course of a decade, into my novel Class Dismissed.
Rick: What’s the interplay between your teaching and your writing?
Kevin: My novel wouldn’t exist without the particular experiences I’ve had in the classroom, teaching in urban Oakland and N.Y.C. and suburban greater Boston. Those experiences give Class Dismissed texture and a lived-in feeling. Like my protagonist, Patrick Lynch, I am a Midwesterner who always felt like an outsider teaching on the coasts. I hope the novel benefits from that tension, being intimately involved in the lives of your students yet with an observer’s distance. That said, all my characters are fictional. And I’m happy to report that the most traumatic events in my novel are not autobiographical. Mr. Lynch really takes it on the chin.
Rick: Can you describe your writing process? What are a few practical tips for aspiring authors?
Kevin: I write five mornings a week and try to have my rear end planted at my desk by 9 a.m. As I’d tell my students, “The Muse has to know where to find you.” I keep a pad and pen by my bed because sometimes the Muse finds you while you’re sleeping. As for tips, begin with character and conflict: the heart of every good story. If we don’t care about your protagonist, it’s game over. Treat writing like a job, especially if your day job isn’t writing. Don’t let getting published be your reason for writing; even if you write the Great American Novel, there are no guarantees agents and publishers will recognize your genius. But, if you do crave publication, don’t take no for a final answer.
Rick: Did you always know you wanted to write? Did being a teacher help facilitate your writing or has the time and energy teaching requires made it harder to write?
Kevin: I think I’ve always been a writer. I was raised in Oak Park, Illinois, and delivered the Chicago American to the old Hemingway home. Later, I became a devotee of the master’s virile, lean style and tried—like many—to emulate it. Just out of Carleton College, I was the youngest playwright-in-residence at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, and they workshopped the musical I had written for my senior thesis alongside a work-in-progress from the then-undiscovered August Wilson. So, I had some great models to learn from! Being a teacher was both a help and hindrance to my writing career. Eighth graders are endless sources of drama and story material. But teaching (and raising) children took every ounce of time and energy, so I shoehorned writing time into vacations—the educator’s primary job perk.
Rick: How do you find people to critique or edit your work?
Kevin: I have a couple of novelist friends who are both very fine writers and brilliant critics. And kind. They have been indispensable in helping me craft my work in its earlier stages. And, since much of my work revolves around the world of education, I have a small group of trusted teachers and administrators who read my later drafts before I send them into the world. I also belong to a book club—gentlemen of varied backgrounds, all very well read—who discussed a late draft of my novel, giving me invaluable feedback.
Rick: What are you writing now?
Kevin: I am always working on several things at once. I recently retired from middle school teaching and have been publishing personal narratives on my adventures and misadventures during 30 years in the classroom. I’m also tinkering with a short story—drawing on my life in 1980s Minneapolis—about a young man’s encounter with the artist formerly known as Prince. Most of my writing energy is going into the very early stages of a sequel to Class Dismissed, following Patrick Lynch into middle age and fatherhood as he struggles with teaching in upscale Twin Cities suburbia—parrying the demands of entitled parents, coping with the double-edged sword of technology in the classroom, and asking himself the question many teachers are asking now: Do I stay in a profession that gets harder every day?
Rick: You’ve written short stories and a novel, publishing in various magazines and in book form. How do you find outlets for your work? Any wisdom from all of that to share?
Kevin: When I first began sending stories out, I was rather indiscriminate and naïve. I sent pieces to magazines that I liked without considering whether my writing was what they were publishing. I remember being so frustrated when rejections came. Once I started researching editors’ backgrounds and close reading the pieces in the magazines I coveted, I began getting acceptances. You can waste a lot of time and money pursuing places that will never publish you. Also, some journals are clubby; you will never get published without the right connections or MFA pedigree. Check the writers’ bios at the back of the magazine to get some guidance. Platforms like Duotrope, Newpages, and Poets & Writers can provide valuable information on which venues publish what kind of work and what the odds of success are.
Rick: What’s one or two pieces of advice you’d give to folks looking to write education novels?
Kevin: Write the education novel you’ve never read, that you’ve always wanted to read. I had read white-teacher-rescues-inner-city-kids novels and stories about preppies choking on their privilege, but I’d never read a novel that reflected my experience as a teacher, educating both the poorest and richest children in our nation, sometimes in the same classroom. And get political, sure—education is political—but never reduce your story to agitprop. Nobody wants to read agitprop. Ask yourself: What is the teacher story only I can tell? The education novel is a well-trodden road. Strive to make it new!
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.