If The Hat Fits
Lucy Cuthew is the author of more than thirty books for children including picture books and non-fiction. Her debut novel, Blood Moon (Walker Books), was shortlisted for the Bath Children's Novel Award and Highly Commended in the Bath Spa/United Agents Prize. Since being published, Blood Moon has been nominated for the Carnegie Prize, shortlisted for the Amazing Book Awards 2021, listed in the Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2020, The Reading Agency’s Best Books of the Year, selected for National Poetry Day, and on the USBBY 2021 Outstanding International Books List. Lucy regularly speaks on the BBC about children’s books and current affairs and runs creative writing workshops in secondary schools.
She shares with us her graduation speech about silly hats and what it means to be a writer.
I was asked by the lovely anthology editors of this year’s Bath Spa MA in Writing for Young People to write something for their blog. I started writing some advice and as I did, I remembered the speech that I gave at my own graduation ceremony in 2019, and I can think of nothing more apt to share with the graduates.
It should be noted that graduation hats are almightily absurd and I did some comical gesticulating with mine when I gave this speech as valedictorian. Also, and this is sad, I was immediately preceded by Jeremy Irons when I gave this speech, and I had a bit of banter with him at the handover. I wish I could remember exactly what that was, but I can't. What I do remember is that my sister was near the front and already crying and so I gave most of the speech on the brink of blubbing. I hope this helps as you move on to the next step in your journey as a writer.
Valediction Speech, given on 6th February 2019, 10AM
Good morning ladies, gentlemen, esteemed guests, proud family members, children and friends. And good morning fellow people who have just spent a year or two of your life birthing a novel, a script, or a film, to get to this jubilant day. This wonderful celebration of all our hard work. Where we finally get to wear this very silly hat. A year of late nights, early mornings, long days hunched over laptops, sacrificing our social lives, our sleep, and our box set game, for the chance to wear this hat. But it was worth it, wasn’t it? (Every single one of the £50 it cost to hire.)
And to the rest of you, we know you are jealous, because we’re all rocking this look. But if you think we feel self-conscious, you are mistaken. We are writers. Most of us have been metaphorically wearing a silly hat since we were children. Wearing it inside us, in secret, after dark or after work, wearing it in the in-between spaces. And taking these MAs, has been the chance to come out of the dark and wear that hat publicly. To declare what we have always known inside, in private, though to varying degrees of self-consciousness. The metaphorical hat is the knowledge that we are writers.
And what a tricky hat that is to wear. It feels presumptuous to wear it, outrageous even, almightily pretentious. Worse still, no one awards it to you, tells you you’re allowed to wear it, that it’s yours by rights, you earned it. Instead, it gradually becomes apparent, until it’s impossible to hide. We sneak it out under sentences like ‘I’m sort of writing this thing’, or ‘I’ve maybe got this kind of novel idea’. Eventually we write a short story, a script, a film, a novel, something, and still we aren’t sure we can really call ourselves writers. What does it take?
Getting an agent? Getting something published? A three book deal, a rave review in the Guardian and a place on a star-studded panel at Hay festival (to name but a few of my latent daydreams). No.
We become writers by writing. And that’s what these incredibly difficult, incredibly challenging, incredibly fun MAs have made us do.
What I want to say to you all today is that you already are a writer. You were before you came here, and if you were still in any doubt whatsoever this morning, this hat that you are wearing now is the proof you’ve been waiting for.
It’s unfortunate for my metaphor that these hats are hired, but when we leave today and take these off (and do return it, because otherwise there is a hefty fine), I want you to imagine that you are putting on another hat, and you get to keep that forever. Conjure one with your prodigious mind, and wear it all the time. That hat is the right to call yourself a writer. Break into white space with words conjured from your own inner wildness. Make sense of the chaos. Do the deed which demands to be done. Tell the tale that tugs at you. Write the truth. And do it well. Because that is what you owe your hat.
Before I move on from this slightly stretched hat business, I just want to remind myself, if not you, not to be tempted to compare your hat to anyone else’s. Their hat might have a bigger bobble, seem more sophisticated, celebrated, venerated, be funnier, furrier, flashier. But remember that you conjured yours yourself. You wear it best, because you are the only you there will ever be. No one wears that hat better. No one can write like you.
What remains to be said, is probably the most important thing I’ve ever been given the platform to say, and that is a sincere and heartfelt thanks from all of us in silly hats, to the few of you in sillier hats. (Even those of you not actually wearing them today.) [At this stage, I addressed all the professors etc on the stage behind me.]
We are all here graduating today, because of the hard work, academic dedication and intellectual insight of a small handful of extraordinary individuals. The work of the academics who create, teach and fight for these courses; their thought; their wisdom; their willingness to engage in meaningful, intellectual debate, is what makes these MAs worth their weight in weirdness. Much of what they do goes unseen, unappreciated and uncredited, but because of them, we leave here today richer, fuller and better. Because of their time, their work and their commitment to the academic process, we have learned to trust our stories, to have faith in our fantasies, to dream big, and dream it better. So thank you. We take our hats off to you.