As we start making plans for the new year, aspiring writers of all ages might like to take some inspiration from Roald Dahl.
Here in the archive at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, we have the drafts of many speeches that Roald gave during his time as a writer, and they provide a wealth of fascinating information about his writing process, as well as clues about the early ideas behind some of his books.
Roald gave talks to many different groups: publishers’ sales reps, nurses, teachers and librarians. He spoke about his life, his writing and his views on books and literature, especially children’s books. He also gave talks to schools, and it is clear from the scribbled annotations in the drafts of these speeches that he took great care in wording and delivering these talks to children.
One speech in particular from 1975, simply titled ‘For Children’, gives some incredibly useful advice for budding writers, as well as some fascinating insights.
Roald starts by explaining his ‘ordinary’ appearance as a writer: “You mustn’t expect to see someone terrifically unusual or exciting with fiery eyes and a green moustache and ink all over his clothes…Look at me! I’m no different from anyone else.”
He also talked about his Writing Hut, the brick shed in his garden where he wrote his stories. He described some of the fascinating items he kept in the Hut for inspiration, that he had collected throughout his life. He explained his daily routine of getting comfortable and ready to write: sharpening pencils, sitting in his sleeping bag to keep warm in the winter and sipping his coffee from a thermos flask.
Above: Roald Dahl in his Writing Hut, copyright Jan Baldwin
In Roald’s view, he had been lucky enough to be given the gift of a ‘really good imagination’ which enabled him to think of ‘crazy happenings and crazy people’. He described the process of thinking up his stories as having ‘hundreds of tiny tentacles’ searching out for ideas that he could use for a story. Like all writers, though, it didn’t always go well – sometimes the tiny tentacles would come back with no ideas at all. But the next day, he would go back to his desk, try again, and slowly the ideas would come and he would be able to start building a story.
From this speech, we also get a sense of the effort involved in his writing. It was a painstaking process of writing and rewriting, rubbing out words he didn’t like to make the story ‘short and clear and clean and easily understood’. He said that it took him at least three weeks, working for four hours a day, to get the first page of any story right: ‘It’s a long business, and you have to be patient, and above all you have to stick at it.”
But what if we’re not gifted as writers or don’t have many-tentacled imaginations? Again, Roald Dahl has some words of encouragement: “some people have given to them the gift of being able to draw well or play the piano or do brilliantly at maths…or are good at games. All of you are a bit gifted in some way or another. It might simply be the gift of being able to make friends or have people love you.”
This seems like a helpful thought to bear in mind when we’re making New Year’s resolutions - that we all have strengths and gifts – as long as we work at them!