Saturday, 12 August 2017

A Good Old Rant – Ruth Hatfield

Last month I was invited to my old Sixth Form College, Hills Road in Cambridge, to talk to their creative writing group and the shortlisted authors in a short story competition they’d been running. I also had to judge the shortlist and select a winner, which was a job that sounded great on paper but was a bit overwhelming when it came to actually doing it – being responsible for raining on all the non-winning parades was a bit brutal. But the main dilemma I faced was that I don’t really talk much to older teenagers – my published books so far are all middle grade, and although I’ve written stuff for older readers it’s all now safely buried under tons of earth in the back garden making the worms happy.

The usual stuff about heroes and villains wasn’t going to cut it –sixteen year olds know a good about nuance and subversion, and have to face up to plenty of it in their everyday lives. And I know that teenagers’ lives have changed a lot in the last twenty years, so I suspect I don’t know much about what it’s like to actually be one, these days. What could I say that was relevant?

I floundered for a bit, then seized on it – this was actually brilliant! I could have a proper, emotional, political rant – the kind that usually only comes out after a beer or several. I’m terrified of being political in schools when talking to a younger audience, but the dark doubts of an author are often all-consuming, and at home I do tend to answer mine with the absolute conviction that creative writing is both personally helpful and of huge political importance.

It was easy to start and much harder to stop after that, and it felt so good to be able to talk about the things I really feel strongly about: the fact that art is so undervalued in terms of educational achievement (mainly because it’s hard to assess and mark, I guess); the fact that art is misunderstood, threatened, dismissed and discounted by authorities of all sorts; most of all, my own perception of the sad political situation we’re in now, where a hopeful ideology of any kind from any part of the political spectrum seems entirely absent. And the desperate need we have to counter this by remembering the value of new ideas, of imagination and of creativity.

I won’t replicate the entire rant here, mainly because I think in retrospect I could have said it much more succinctly by using those words of Emily Dickinson’s: “Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul/ And sings the tune without the words…” And just added: creative writing puts that tune into words. Words spread.

To those awful, unimaginative people who currently seem to make up the ruling establishment and hold our lives firmly by the throats, trying to tell us that the past was better, the best response can only be to keep writing about the beautiful future yet to come, to keep exploring and explaining our humanity to each other, in the certain conviction that we’ll be proved right in the end, even if we aren’t here to see it.

It was really, really great to be able to say that sort of thing not just to friends in the pub, but to an audience of strangers. Definitely another moment of feeling privileged to be a writer. I just have to work out how to say the same to year 6s now…


Lynne Benton said...

Good on you, Ruth! Without hope, what is the point of anything? It sounds as though you gave the Sixth form plenty to think about, which can't be bad.

Helen Larder said...

Thanks, Ruth. We need more rants like this! xxxx

Penny Dolan said...

Well ranted, Ruth! And good for the students to hear a rant about something that matters, rather than the kind of language I'd call "assembly talk" - or worse, ie Govespeak.