Steve Gardam, director of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, explains the great writer’s working habits and what they teach us about how to be creative and productive.
The American author Gene Fowler once said: 'Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.' This may be (or maybe not!) exaggerated for darkly comic effect, but the difficulty of producing good work is something to which all writers, or artist of any type, can relate.
For anyone making their living through writing, they need to beat the challenge of the blank page. Each wordsmith has to find the method that works best for them against the terrible threat of writer’s block.
Roald Dahl – the world’s number one storyteller, who has sold more than 200 million books, and been translated into 58 languages, and had many major film adaptations and stage shows of his work – was no different. In notes for a speech, he wrote: 'I, like many other writers I know, am always frightened of starting work each morning. The reason for this is that when you have to invent something new to write every day of your life, there is always the fear that your inventiveness will fail you and you won’t be able to think of anything at all.'
Stories are good for you. Roald Dahl’s creative process may not be exactly right for everyone to follow, but it holds powerful clues to puzzling out a method that may work for you.
1. Find or make a special place to work
Possibly sparked by seeing Dylan Thomas’s writing shed on a holiday in Wales, Roald Dahl had his very own 'writing hut' built in the garden of his home in Great Missenden as his place of work. Constructed by a local builder friend – Wally Saunders, a tall, large-eared inspiration for The BFG – the writing hut became Roald Dahl’s 'little nest ... my womb.'
2. Be comfortable
The writing hut was centred on an armchair, into which Roald Dahl cut a hole to make space for his damaged spine, a result of a serious plane crash during the Second World War. He set an old suitcase full of heavy logs as a footrest. When it was cold he put his legs inside an old sleeping bag and pulled a rickety electric heater just close enough to warm his hands. He propped a cloth-covered board up on a roll of cardboard to set the exact angle for writing, taking his time to get it ‘just right’. The interior of the Hut is now preserved at the Roald Dahl Museum, precisely as he left it.
3. Put inspiration in your line of sight ...
In the writing hut, a collection of curious objects and fond images of family built up over the years. Roald Dahl’s vivid memories of his Royal Air Force career are manifested in two model planes. There's a Wade-Dahl-Till valve, a medical innovation for neurosurgeons, which Dahl helped to bring about, and which is a reminder of his belief in practical invention and taking action. There's a dull metal ball weighing some 300 grams, made up from dozens and dozens of foil chocolate wrappers. There are even bits of his own body: the top of his femur and bone shavings from operations on his injured spine.
4. ... but be prepared to shut out the world
In describing his routine, Roald Dahl wrote lyrically of the charming setting for his writing hut: 'Through the window [of the hut] you can see all sorts of creatures if you sit there quietly looking out. There are squirrels in the big apple tree, and blue tits and bullfinches, even a green woodpecker sometimes, and I would be happy to sit watching them all morning long and do no work. So I leave the curtains closed.'
5. Always collect the seed of an idea (it may take time to grow)
Roald Dahl admitted this: 'I use all sorts of tricks to put off for as long as possible the moment when I have to start writing.' He would sharpen six pencils ready to use, first in an electric sharpener, and then by hand. But before using the knife, he had to sharpen the blade! Eventually though, the pencils were ready, and he would have to begin. And thanks to one important habit, he would always have something to work with:
'I have a notebook for plots. It is the same one I’ve had for twenty years. If I get the germ of an idea, I scribble it down in the notebook, one idea to each page. ... Once or twice every year, I leaf through the book ... And then at last, perhaps after three years, perhaps after seven, there comes a time when I look at it and see that it is ripe for writing, and I take it out of the book, and start away.'
Anything could become the start of a story – he would often jot down facts he came across and found fascinating, with no immediate clue what use they might have. But in early drafts of James and the Giant Peach, his notes on earthworms showed how real information helped him develop an imaginary character.
6. Be consistent, be disciplined
Roald Dahl went to his hut for two, two-hour stints each day, taking a long break in between to take lunch and catch up with daily life and news. His experience told him a writer 'should never work for too long at a stretch, because after about two hours you are not at your highest level of concentration, so you have to stop.'
The consistency of going to the writing hut was paramount, even if the words did not easily flow every time. More than this, he said he learned from Ernest Hemingway the importance of stopping writing at the appointed hour, especially when things are going well: it gives something to come back to.
7. ‘Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this ...’
Each working day would begin with re-reading every draft that he had written so far; not just the work of the previous day, but all the way back to the beginning of the piece at hand. Roald Dahl calculated that, by the end of writing a book, the very earliest sections would have been re-read, altered and corrected around 150 times. But this early, intense effort could unlock the rest of the story:
'The first page is written and re-written so often that the process never takes less than three weeks. But during that time, other things are simultaneously happening, the little seed is starting to grow in the mind, the colours are emerging in the story, a kind of momentum is slowly gathering and the fingers that hold the pencil are beginning to twitch. So the book begins.'
13 September 2016 is Roald Dahl's 100th birthday.
The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, welcomes some 80,000 visitors a year with a clear purpose: to show how the work of this incredible author can unlock the stories we all have inside us. Visit the museum in the countryside of the beautiful Chiltern Hills which are the backdrop to so many of Roald Dahl’s stories.
All Roald Dahl quotations are © Roald Dahl Nominee Limited 2016, not to be reproduced without permission. The main source for this article is Roald Dahl Archive reference RD/6/1/1/23 – notes for a speech, date unknown.