Roald Dahl books sell at the rate of twelve a minute.
Every day of the year.
He is perhaps the most imaginative writer of all time. Yet, as a young man he had no recognisable creative ability at all.
As a budding corporate businessman working for Shell and without any particular creative ambition, his life was destined to be dull, academic and insignificant. Then things took a very dramatic change. The Second World War came along.
You may remember that Roald joined the RAF and signed up as a fighter pilot. After just a few hours of action he was forced to crash-land his fighter plane in the desert and seconds later it caught fire. Somehow he managed to release the canopy, tumble out of the wreckage and extinguish his burning overalls by rolling in the sand.
Having survived that ordeal – along came another. Next the crippled aircraft’s machine guns caught alight and started firing live rounds directly around his body. 8 Browning .303 machine guns (4 in each wing) opened up, pounding the sand just inches from his body. The next day, when he was found by an RAF patrol, his overalls were so burnt and his face so disfigured that he was almost unrecognisable as an RAF officer.
At the underground Army Field Ambulance Station in Mersah, he was patched up, sedated, and sent by train to the Anglo-Swiss Hospital in Alexandria where he was treated for burns, severe concussion and spinal trauma.
Initially, his face was so swollen that he could not open his eyes and it was impossible to assess whether the accident had blinded him. The doctors did not know whether he would ever see again. For almost a month he inhabited a hazy world of total darkness, uncertain of time or surroundings. Concussed, blind and isolated from family and friends, he was disoriented and totally alone.
Remarkably, all this isolation and darkness had a positive impact. Something happened inside Dahl’s brain that electrified his imagination. His thinking changed from that of a corporate businessman to a man bristling with thoughts, ideas and weird stories. His brain became supercharged. And from the darkness and the confines of his hospital bed, he went on to develop a completely different way of looking at life.
Like having all his teeth removed.
He reasoned that natural teeth are just too much trouble. All the cleaning, the regular dentistry, the aches and pains, it was all unnecessary. So, one by one, while still in his twenties, he decided to have every tooth pulled out and wore dentures for the rest of his life. Even in old age, he continued recommending false teeth to everyone he met.
When his ex-wife, the actress Patricia Neal, suffered a series of massive strokes that left her paralysed, unable to walk, partially blind and with severely impaired speech, Dahl devised a brutal recovery regime. He had no experience with treating stroke victims yet his tough approach is now standard therapy for stroke victims. Against all expectations, she returned to the screen to win a further Oscar nomination and worldwide admiration.
When his son Theo had a skull injury, Dahl found a toymaker who constructed a new valve to his own design. The design that Dahl came up with went on to be used on over 3,000 other children. It even saved the life of his agent’s son.
And when it came to his work, his approach to putting pen to paper was so disciplined and methodical that he abided by the same process every day – without fail.
He only wrote in the hut in his garden and he always worked the same hours of the day. And for usually no more than two hours. “Two hours of writing fiction leaves this writer completely drained. For those two hours he has been in a different place with totally different people.”
He wrote every day including weekends and Christmas.
His lunch was always the same: Norwegian prawns and half a lettuce.
He wrote with six yellow pencils in a jar beside him – “Always six, there must be six”.
He always wrote upon American legal paper, which he had imported as it was slightly larger than the UK size. He had a thermos full of coffee and an electric pencil sharpener next to him. And while seated in the same armchair, looking out of the same, small, grimy window, his mind was then free to create masterpieces of fiction.
And when the time came that he could feel a story starting to come together, and the words falling into place. At that very moment when he knew he was onto something great, he would stop.
Get up from his desk.
And do something else.
He explains his thinking thus; “Hemingway, a great American writer, taught me the finest trick when you are doing a long book, which is, he simply said in his own words, “When you are going good, stop writing.” And that means that if everything’s going well and you know exactly where the end of the chapter’s going to go and you know just what the people are going to do, you don’t go on writing and writing until you come to the end of it, because when you do, then you say, well, where am I going to go next? And you get up and you walk away and you don’t want to come back because you don’t know where you want to go. But if you stop when you are going good, as Hemingway said…then you know what you are going to say next. You make yourself stop, put your pencil down and everything, and you walk away. And you can’t wait to get back because you know what you want to say next and that’s lovely and you have to try and do that. Every time, every day, all the way through the year.
If you stop when you are stuck, then you are in trouble!”