The Hellish Life of a Writer, according to Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl

From a very young age I adored Roald Dahl. I devoured all of his books, several of them many times over. I befriended the BFG and Willy Wonka and abhorred the Trunchbull and the Twits. I loved the whimsey of all of the books (except The Witches…never read it…too scary) and appreciated how tangibly, and sometimes grotesquely, Dahl could describe a scene.

I recently reread Boy, Dahl’s childhood memoirs, remembering that I liked it when I was young. I wondered how I differently I would view it as an adult. My first impression was one of shock; most of the book describes in gruesome detail the school whippings Dahl and his friends endured. I had no memory of so much child abuse in that book. Dahl seems to be part of a club of authors, along with Lewis, Orwell and, I’m sure, many others, who never forgot the injustices of boarding school discipline. Apart from the descriptions of little boys’ striped bottoms, I am glad to have read Boy again. My second impression affirmed my liking of Roald Dahl in the first place. His pacing of storytelling is excellent. I got swept up in the flow and dearly wanted to hear the end of each of his anecdotes. His details are wonderful; I can see the whole scene in front of me from the twitching orange mustaches to the gnarled cracked knuckles of the dirty hand reaching into the candy jar. There is so much to emulate in Roald Dahl’s style.

But the most impactful take-away from this second reading comes from a passage at the end of Boy in which Dahl takes a sudden tangent from his story to bemoan the life of a writer:

“The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze… a person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.” (BOY, 171-172)

According to Dahl, the writer lifestyle does not sound very nice. As with any creative profession, the task of creating on cue weighs very heavily on the writer. It demands focus and drive and persistence. There is no structure, as with other professions, on which a writer can rely. He or she must create it alone. They risk the alienating consequences of going to imaginary places during the work day. But, is it just me, or is there an undertone of grim satisfaction? There is something enticing about this description. At least for me, he fails to warn me away from writing as a profession. I feel, instead, a (masochistic?) attraction to what he says. Being drained doesn’t scare me if it means I created a new world or lived through the lens of a new character. As a creative, I already live in a world of fear–fear of disappointing myself and others, fear of coming up short–this is nothing new to me. Am I such a fool? Absolute freedom. I’ll take that. Thank you, Mr. Dahl.

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Filed under Inspiration and Creativity, Questions, Running Commentary on whatever tickles the fancy

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