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Articles/Interviews

"Roald Dahl and the Creative Process:
Writing from Experience"

The following essay was written by Julia Round, an MA student in Cardiff, Wales, in 2000. I hope you all find her paper as interesting and thought-provoking as I did. Standard disclaimer rules apply though: Please DO NOT copy any part of it and claim it as your own. That would be ILLEGAL and both she and I would be very angry. If you'd like to contact her to comment or ask questions, her e–mail address is jround@bournemouth.ac.uk.

If you have an essay that you've written that you'd like to share, send it to me!


Message from the Author:

"I just wanted to write and tell you how much I appreciated the homepage... As interviews etc. with Dahl are really hard to find, and not many people have published work about him, the essays etc. on the website were lifesaving. I'm extremely grateful to you and all the people who contributed their work. So, I enclose MY essay. It's fairly long, but I'd be very happy for you to put it on the website if you want to – it may help someone else like me desperately looking for quotable information on Dahl."


Please do not copy any part of this paper
without the author's written permission.
Thank you.


"Roald Dahl and the Creative Process:
Writing from Experience"

Autobiography would seem to be a recommended starting point for authors. It eases the transition into 'writing' by its very nature – those who are intimidated by the demands of authorship can justify their work as a 'kind of diary'. It also provides wonderful material – our personal history requires no research, it is easily accessible and, most important of all, it is real. It "compels through its authenticity"[1]. But it seems to me that a creative process is still necessary: in the choice of words, of style, of structure. Writing autobiographically can help a writer "find your own distinctive voice"[2]: experience aids our creative process by providing us with material, thereby allowing us to focus on our craft.

For example, Roald Dahl describes the following experience in his second autobiography Going Solo:

Then suddenly, in the sand just a foot or so off the road, I saw a giant scorpion. Jet black she was and fully six inches long, and clinging to her back, like passengers on the top of an open bus, were her babies. I bent a little closer to count them. One, two, three, four, five... there were fourteen of them altogether! At that point she saw me. I am quite sure I was the first human she had ever seen in her life, and she curled her tail up high over her body with the pincers wide open, ready to strike in defence of her family.[3]

A similar passage can be found in 'The Visitor', one of Dahl's adult short stories, published in Switch Bitch:

A gigantic female scorpion, not opisthophthalmus, as I saw immediately, but pandinus, the other large African burrower. And clinging to her back – this was too good to be true! – swarming all over her, were one, two, three, four, five... a total of fourteen tiny babies! The mother was six inches long at least! Her children were the size of small revolver bullets. She had seen me now, the first human she had ever seen in her life, and her pincers were wide open, her tail was curled high over her back like a question mark, ready to strike.[4]

It seems obvious that these two descriptions refer to the same experience from Dahl's life, which is described in Going Solo. The sighting occurred while Dahl was travelling "the long and lonely journey across the Sinai Desert"[5]. During this trip that he "loved"[6], his car's engine decided to "boil over"[7], forcing him to stop. While he waited for it to cool Dahl ate a large watermelon he had brought with him. In his words: "I cut a chunk out of it and flipped away the black seeds with the point of my knife and ate the lovely cool pink flesh standing beside the car in the sun"[8].

The narrator of 'The Visitor' also breaks down while crossing the Sinai desert (a journey which "pleased me"[9]) and is unable to carry on lest his car decides to "boil over"[10]. While waiting with his car, he too eats a watermelon he has brought with him: "I took my knife from its case and cut out a thick section. Then, with the point of the knife, I carefully picked out all the black seeds, using the rest of the melon as a receptacle"[11].

These examples clearly illustrate how Dahl directly transposed incidents from his life, unaltered, into his fiction. In fact, not just incidents: whole contexts. If the narrator in 'The Visitor' had seen his scorpion in a zoo (for example) then we could perceive a fictionalising process at work, but the settings and the chains of events (breakdown; watermelon; scorpion) are identical. Similarly, the tone and structure of the two passages are interchangeable: interesting since the passage from Switch Bitch is narrated by an invented character who otherwise is nothing like Dahl. Although this character's language is more sophisticated than Dahl's – he uses technical names and more similes – he is nonetheless credited with Dahl's excitement and delight.

But there is more to fiction writing than description. The actual story of 'The Visitor' was not lifted from experience; Dahl merely located his plot in a setting that was (a) appropriate (its isolation), and (b) easily described since he had experienced it. In Dahl's mind the scorpion incident may have been intrinsic to the setting (since it was part of his experience), or he could have decided to utilise this memory as a device to add colour and realism. In contrast to my opening hypothesis, Dahl used personal experience as an aid to language and imagery, so he could focus on plot.

However, like fictional plots, our real-life experiences can also require creativity in terms of content. The passage of time is a fictionalising process: we do not remember things impartially and factually, we remember our own perception of events, no matter how warped this may be. Our past is entirely subjective: our subconscious has already fictionalised it for us. The 'raw material' we use has already, to some extent, been invented according to our opinions and personality; the way we saw things. And then we fictionalise it further, in the telling. As Singleton says: "We invent dialogue for ourselves, rearrange chronology, try metaphor and assonance and rhythms to heighten emotion and dramatise, telescope events, eliminate extraneous detail, focus on key moments, images, ad infinitum"[12]. And then, of course, we can always lie consciously – to make ourselves look good, or to avoid offending others involved, for instance.

Therefore, it can be argued that Dahl applied his skill as a fiction writer as much to his autobiographies as to his short stories. John Singleton defines the difference between autobiography and fiction as "the short story does not depend on memory, the recall and accurate description of past times"[13]. But by this definition, Going Solo and Boy are more like stories than autobiographies: Dahl was "extremely selective" and wrote only about those moments which he "considered memorable"[14].

Dahl's autobiographies are not accurate chronological accounts of his life; they are more like short story collections. For example, to convey the homesickness he felt during his first term at St. Peters boarding school, Dahl recounts a single incident when he faked appendicitis in order to be sent home[15]. Similarly, chapters such as "Little Ellis and the boil" use an isolated event to illustrate the brusque attitude that pervaded Dahl's schooling[16]. The use of these entertaining tales, rather than detailed explanations of his past, shows how Dahl fictionalised his own life. He used his experiences only when they had been dramatised – even within his autobiographies.

It is therefore easy to see how all writing, even autobiography, can be said to involve the creative process. It is equally simple to see how our experience – that which makes us the person we are – is inseparable from our own creative process on at least a subconscious level; it affects every choice that we make. And if we write autobiography, then experience is obviously involved on a conscious level. But it is my contention that written fiction must also be derived from life, at least partially: our inspiration must come from a source we have experienced.

In order to access his experience, ritual became a very important aspect of Roald Dahl's creative process, as described in Chris Powling's biography: 'Roald Dahl.' Dahl's writing took place in a shed hidden behind his greenhouse, at the same times every day, with a break for lunch which (he said) "is always the same: Norwegian prawns and half a lettuce"[17]. Once inside, a "grimy plastic curtain"[18] covered the window and his isolation was complete. As Dahl said: "No one goes in there but me"[19]. And the routine began:

He steps into a sleeping bag, pulls it up to his waist and settles himself in a faded wing-backed armchair. His feet he rests on a battered travelling case full of logs. This is roped to the legs of the armchair so it's always at a perfect distance.[20]

Dahl said he wrote with six yellow pencils in a jar beside him – "always six, there must be six"[21] – on American legal paper. A thermos full of coffee and an electric pencil sharpener were also "vital"[22]. There were heaters aimed at his hands in case it got too cold. And then he wrote.

The scene may seem depressing, almost an archetype of sensory deprivation – no view, no natural light, no noise, no interruptions. But it would have been familiar to Dahl: the ritual of writing at the same time every day, in the same seat, in the same room, on the same paper, with the same number of pencils in a jar beside him must have produced a feeling of stability and constancy. The setting seems to have been designed primarily with his contentment in mind – for example, the fixing of his footrest the ideal distance from his chair. Meanwhile, the monotony of the process resulted in minimum distractions.

The presence of stimulus is another important aspect of the routine. American legal paper is larger than A4 and yellow; for this reason to write on it is supposed to be more stimulating. The thermos of coffee is also a stimulant. But I cannot see these items as inspirational to creativity: they do not induce ideas, plots and characters. Stimuli like these must just ease the transition from mind to page.

Dahl's process was obviously very isolated, very banal. Perhaps this sparsity was the real inspiration, forcing him towards his imagination and his memory. Dahl himself emphasised the importance of his hours in his shed, insisting that any story "builds and expands while you are writing it. All the best stuff comes at the desk."[23]. He would start with "the germ of an idea"[24] and build around it. As he said "You work it out and play around with it. You doodle... you make notes... it grows, it grows..."[25].

But what about these germs of ideas, these starting points? Powling says only that they "flit into his [Dahl's] mind"[26]; who knows where they originate? However, Powling also describes some of Dahl's estate: a blue gypsy caravan on the lawn – the setting for Danny the Champion of the World – and Dahl's extravagant car "fits almost exactly"[27] the description of the narrator's new car at the start of the Dahl short story: 'The Hitchhiker'. Considering these things, it is certain that Dahl's experience was vital to his fiction: as motifs (like the scorpion in 'The Visitor'), and maybe as inspiration.

For I am tempted to postulate that the caravan, and the car, while certainly striking images, could also have been the starting points for their stories. I can imagine Dahl gazing at his car one day, then sitting in his shed writing the paragraph describing it, straight from life. What do you do when you get a new car? You drive as fast as you can. If you speed you may get pulled over. This is not a good ending. So how can it be resolved in your favour... how can the story twist? What if there is another passenger – someone we know nothing about for added mystery – a hitchhiker! He could save the day... by having a special skill perhaps... almost magic...

But should writers always consciously use their own experiences in this way, should we write only from what we know? Author Graham Swift is strongly against this:

'I could not agree with anything less. My maxim would be for God's sake write about what you don't know! For how else will you bring your imagination into play? How else will you discover or explore anything?' If we rely on our own experience as material for our stories, what happens, asks Swift, once our limited stock runs out?[28]

I would argue against Swift. His points as they refer to autobiography are fine – I doubt many lives could stretch to more than a few volumes – but he overlooks the huge mileage that can come from one tiny occurrence: a conversation, a view, a setting, a person. As we have seen with Dahl, whole novels can be built around experiences like these; events that set our imagination running. Swift seems to forget the role of imagination in using experience. Writers who begin from their experience can explore the 'what ifs' of a hundred everyday occurrences; they can discover the invented history of any person who sets them thinking.

As an illustration of this, it has often been observed that Dahl's authoritarian characters were inspired by his school life. Without belabouring the point, a few examples may be illuminating. At Llandaff Cathedral School and Repton Dahl often suffered systematic caning and fascistic discipline: one notable figure would be his headmaster at Repton, who administered "the most vicious beatings to the boys under his care"[29] – and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. Dahl saw something deeply wrong with this authority, where sheer cruelty is hidden behind a mask of Christian values, and built many of his characters around the concept. It is enough to simply consider figures like Miss Trunchbull (the headteacher in Matilda), Victor Hazel (the entrepreneur from Danny the Champion of the World), Aunts Spiker and Sponge (from James and the Giant Peach) against almost every teacher and matron from Dahl's schooling (as described in Boy). They are mirrors of cruelty, stupidity and general nastiness.

There was another aspect of Dahl's creative process that was not only derived from his school experiences and frequented his stories, but was mirrored in the process itself. This was the sense of isolation, of the outsider. Dahl's children's stories are famous for always having the underdog as the hero, the outsider as victor. This 'child at the centre' acts as the focus "through whose being everything is seen or felt"[30]. Yet Dahl himself always felt like the outsider, if not the underdog. His own childhood was full of beatings, anarchic tricks and bullying, described in Boy. As an adult he was sacked from a job because he "just didn't fit in"[31]. As further proof (and a result of his own 'loner' temperament) his narrative voice unwaveringly "lines up with the child reader"[32] against the bullying, stupid adults. It seems to me that Dahl's insistence on physical isolation while he wrote also supports this theory.

It seems obvious that Roald Dahl consciously used his experience within his creative process. It provided the inspiration for the events he depicted, the settings he chose, and the plot lines and characters he employed. It presented him with motifs and themes. It was in the physicality and ritualism of the way he wrote. It provided the background for the anarchic-sounding voice he used. Possibly it even affected his choice of genre, as a medium to use this voice and to always skirt around the edges of the macabre, the uncomfortable. It even helped to create his 'ideal reader' in the image of the child he once was. Essentially, Dahl wrote from and to his self.

But what of the subtler effects of experience; of its subconscious intrusions? To quote Dennis Wyatt Harding: "No one now can doubt that an author's work may reveal features of his personality and outlook that he had no intention of expressing... of which he may even be in the strict sense unconscious"[33]. This sort of 'invasion of personality' is a different facet of experience within the creative process.

The intrusion of Dahl's personality can initially be identified in his finished texts. He often used a highly judgemental narrator in his stories – for example, in James and the Giant Peach: "they [James' aunts] were both really horrible people. They were selfish and lazy and cruel"[34]. Although this comment seems rebellious (by insulting grown-ups), it is actually a very adult and moral criticism (Dahl was 45 at the time of writing).

It is actually a very common observation that Dahl's narrator, for all his anarchical appearance, is a closet conservative. Dahl never commented directly upon this, but frequently said that the key to his success was to conspire with children against adults: "It's the path to their affections... Parents and schoolteachers are the enemy"[35]. But this does not seem true: Dahl's jokey narrative hides a serious agenda and moral dictates. Children are warned against watching TV, chewing gum and acting selfishly (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) or are instructed to wash regularly ('Jack and the Beanstalk' in Revolting Rhymes). This dictatorial attitude seems strange when we consider Dahl's use of character to continually mock the tyrannical adults from his youth.

Equally surprising is Dahl's military career, following all the unjust rules and bullying he experienced at public school. However, I would suggest that his strict schooling fostered a need in him for discipline and order, despite his rebellious image, which may also explain his dual narrative. Without venturing too far into psychoanalysis, this can be explained in terms of aggression: "individuals who... submit to authority without complaint would necessarily experience feelings of hostility... directed toward those who violate whatever is conventional"[36]. Dahl's authoritarianism is vented within his narrative voice – where his conservatism lurks behind the anarchic style.

Supporting this view is the evidence of Jeremy Treglown who, in his unauthorized biography of Dahl, states that there is vivid evidence in Dahl's publishers' files of just how heavily he relied upon his editors. As Treglown is a disinterested party, his evidence is significant: far from being a writer subversively conspiring with rebellious children against adults, Dahl used his editors to the point where they became inspired near-collaborators[37]. He would meticulously draft and re-draft his books many times, commonly spending six months on a single short story[38]. In terms of his creative process, Dahl's adult attitudes belied the apparent anarchy of his narrator.

But Dahl's autocracy also seems to belie the way in which he used his experience. I previously considered Graham Swift's recommendation to write what you don't know, in order to "discover" and "explore": a suggestion which seems to reflect Keats' notion of 'negative capability' – the use of writing to pose questions and explore them without striving uselessly for the answers. To wait patiently for knowledge, and accept the mystery of things. Keats uses Shakespeare's characterisation and dramatisation as an example of this concept, believing that Shakespeare gave all points of view equal treatment in his plays by using autonomous characters, not puppets depicting some propagandist statement. But it has been pointed out that this ideal would require writers to know the answers to the questions they pose, in order to co-ordinate their characters[39]. This would seem to make negative capability a half-truth, as in the instance of Dahl, who exerts very tight control over each of his characters, using them to convey his moral dictates.

However, when Norman Schwenk refers to 'Not Knowing' in his recent review of David Hart's poetry, he states that one function of negative capability can be to "grant readers a kind of equality with the writer, giving them the space to read creatively"[40]. While I see how this works, by giving the writer and reader a similar level of unfamiliarity with the work, it seems to me that the concept can also be allied with writers who write using 'what ifs'. For this sort of author is explorative, not omniscient: they have only 'guessed' at the story they wrote. It has become theirs in the telling, but the story belongs to no one. In this way, 'Not Knowing' can be part of the process of writing from experience.

This theory seems to accurately reflect Dahl's process: his writing grows from his experience in an exploratory manner. The control he exerts may simply be a facet of this exploration. And, just as writing what we know can nonetheless allow us to "discover" and "explore" (as Swift suggests), negative capability can still exist when we write from our experience: when we explore the 'what ifs'.

For I do not see the use of experience in fiction as direct self-expression. Fiction stories are rarely thinly-veiled autobiographies; fiction writing is seldom the cathartic 'writing out' of a troubling occurrence in one's life. To use experience in fiction is to grab hold of a starting point and build on it; padding around it with imagination and possibilities. It is using isolated events and random thoughts as aids to realism, or as window dressing to 'pretty it up'. Whatever a story needs our experience can supply. John Braine (author of Writing a Novel) sums this method up: "You must use your experience, direct or indirect, but only as the purposes of the story dictate"[41].

I find it particularly ironic that through considering 'write what you know' we have now arrived at another creative writing clich\E9: 'show, don't tell'. Although I don't have time to examine this too, I hope that my exploration of 'write what you know' has cleared away some of the triteness surrounding the phrase, and perhaps enlivened the concept somewhat. By examining this notion in terms of specific creative processes, it has certainly become more real to me.

For it seems that Roald Dahl's experience invaded his creative process almost entirely and took a strong place in his finished work. It affected his writing in terms of plot, character and motifs, choice of genre and implied reader, original inspiration, attitude and tone, both consciously and unconsciously. This is not a disparagement of Dahl's creativity. And it does not appear to be unusual: experience seems to be intrinsically valuable to the creative process.

It seems obvious to me that writers must use their own experience. We must have ideas, and these must come from somewhere. However, I don't wish to belittle the place of creativity and imagination. I hope that by examining some different aspects of the role of experience I have shown that using our experience isn't at all simple: craft itself is fundamental to any writing. I believe that my examination of Roald Dahl shows us that his experience was essential to his process on all levels, and also contributed to his craft. But I would conclude that experience is only one part of the creative process and can never be all-important to the exclusion of everything else, even within autobiography. As Dahl says: "All the best stuff comes at the desk."

Notes:

  1. Ailsa Cox, 'Writing the Self' in The Creative Writing Handbook, ed. John Singleton and Mary Luckhurst (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1996), p. 78.
  2. Cox, 'Writing the Self' in The Creative Writing Handbook, p. 80.
  3. Roald Dahl, Going Solo, (Middlesex: Puffin Books, 1988), p. 190.
  4. Roald Dahl, Switch Bitch, (London: Penguin Books, 1976), p. 23.
  5. Dahl, Going Solo, p. 188.
  6. Dahl, Going Solo, p. 188.
  7. Dahl, Going Solo, p. 189.
  8. Dahl, Going Solo, p. 189.
  9. Dahl, Switch Bitch, p. 22.
  10. Dahl, Switch Bitch, p. 28
  11. Dahl, Switch Bitch, p. 26.
  12. John Singleton, 'The Short Story' in The Creative Writing Handbook, ed. John Singleton and Mary Luckhurst (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1996), p. 100.
  13. Singleton, 'The Short Story' in The Creative Writing Handbook, p. 100.
  14. Dahl, Going Solo, p. 1.
  15. Roald Dahl, Boy, (Middlesex: Puffin Books, 1986), pp. 93-98.
  16. Dahl, Boy, pp. 123-6.
  17. Chris Powling, Roald Dahl, (Middlesex: Puffin Books, 1985), p. 24
  18. Powling, Roald Dahl, p. 24
  19. Powling, Roald Dahl, p. 23.
  20. Powling, Roald Dahl, p. 24.
  21. Powling, Roald Dahl, p. 24.
  22. Powling, Roald Dahl, p. 25.
  23. Powling, Roald Dahl, p. 67.
  24. Powling, Roald Dahl, p. 66.
  25. Powling, Roald Dahl, p. 67.
  26. Powling, Roald Dahl, p. 67.
  27. Powling, Roald Dahl, p. 22.
  28. Singleton, 'The Short Story' in The Creative Writing Handbook, p. 101.
  29. Dahl, Boy, p. 144.
  30. Aidan Chambers, 'The Reader in the Book', Signal, 23 (1977), 64-87, p. 71.
  31. Powling, Roald Dahl, p. 31.
  32. Charles Sarland, 'The Secret Seven Vs The Twits: Cultural Clash or Cosy Combination?', Signal, 42 (1983), 155-71, p. 162.
  33. Denys Wyatt Harding, Experience Into Words, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974)
  34. Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach, (Middlesex: Puffin Books, 1973), p. 8.
  35. William H. Honan, 'Roald Dahl, Writer, 74, Is Dead: Best Sellers Enchanted Children', The New York Times, 24th November 1990 [WWW] <url: http://www.roalddahlfans.com/articles/obit.php> (Accessed 11 November 1999).
  36. Don Byrne, An Introduction to Personality, (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc, 1974), p. 89.
  37. Ann Hulbert, 'They Won't Grow Up', The New York Times, 12th November 1995 [WWW] <url: http://www.roalddahlfans.com/articles/they.php> (Accessed 11 November 1999).
  38. Honan, 'Roald Dahl, Writer, 74, Is Dead: Best Sellers Enchanted Children'.
  39. Cedric Watts, A Preface to Keats, (London: Longman Group Limited, 1995), p. 34
  40. Norman Schwenk, 'Knowing/Not Knowing', Planet, 137 (1999), p. 113.
  41. Singleton, 'The Short Story' in The Creative Writing Handbook, p. 102.

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