What Roald Dahl Taught Me About Life and Writing

Image remixed via Materialscientist

Today, I want to talk about heroes.

Heroes can teach us how to accomplish our dreams and overcome setbacks.

We can also look to their lives and their work when our own is faltering and we need new ways of overcoming troubling impasses.

So, who was your first hero?

Mine was Roald Dahl.

I first came across him when I was seven through books like the BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach.

He was the first author who showed me what’s possible with the written word, and he inspired me to write.

Today, some twenty five years after I read him for the first time, I still take lessons from his life and use them for writing, marketing and for becoming more creative and productive.

A Lesson For Writing

Dahl was more than a writer.

As a young man, he worked for Shell in Kenya and Tanzania and spent his free time hunting. During World War II, Dahl became a decorated fighter ace and intelligence officer.

He shot down at least two enemy Ju-88 planes, took part in the Battle Of Athens and was one of the last pilots to withdraw from Greece during the German invasion.

When he became a writer, Dahl wasn’t afraid to draw on his old life for his new creative one. He wrote several short stories about his time as a fighter pilot and drew extensively on his previous careers in his novels and short stories.

For example, in James and the Giant Peach, the seagulls (or fighter airplanes) attack the airborne giant peach, a talking centipede falls (or parachutes) off the giant peach, and the end of the book references air raids and heroes returning home (from the war).

Then, in Going Solo, Dahl writes:

“I was already beginning to realize that the only way to conduct oneself in a situation where bombs rained down and bullets whizzed past, was to accept the dangers and all the consequences as calmly as possible. Fretting and sweating about it all was not going to help.”

Lesson: You can use past experiences and previous careers to bring an authenticity to your writings.

A Lesson For Marketing

Roald Dahl understood that the best way to market and then sell books is to write a second, and a third, and a forth. He also increased his appeal by crossing genres.

Even though he first became famous as the author of children’s books like The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he refused to be pigeon-holed into one genre or towards catering for a particular audience.

He wrote poetry, published screenplays and became a successful adult short-story writer.

During his writing career, Dahl wrote over 17 stories for children alongside two novels and series of short-story collections. He accepted numerous awards for his work including the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Dahl also reportedly turned down the Order of the British Empire because he wanted a knighthood instead.

Lesson: Ship and ship often, and when you do, don’t be afraid to promote your work and accept recognition.

A Lesson For Becoming More Productive

Dahl was a disciplined professional who turned up everyday and worked. He wrote for two hours each morning and evening in a 6ft x 7ft shed at the back of his orchard in Buckinghamshire, in the United Kingdom.

In his shed or “litte nest”, Dahl kept a comfortable chair, a lamp, a system for storing his files, a wooden desk and various writing utensils.

Each day after he wrote, Dahl ate a bar of chocolate and crunched the wrappers up into a ball (a ritual that makes its way into (Charlie and Chocolate Factory). He also covered the walls with pictures of his family, ideas for stories and other personal momentos.

Lesson: Dahl was at his most productive in a small but intensely personal space. Do the same by claiming a space for your work and your work alone.

A Lesson For Becoming More Creative

One day, Dahl found himself stuck in traffic. Suddenly, he thought of a breakthrough for a story he was working on. Having no notepad or pen, he grew afraid he’d forget his idea before getting home.

So, Dahl got out of the car and with his finger, he wrote the word “chocolate” into the dirt on his vehicle. This was enough for Dahl to remember his idea, and later it became Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

He later said about his ideas:

“You work it out and play around with it. You doodle… you make notes… it grows, it grows…”.

Dahl’s remarkably imaginative output shows how important it is that creative people get ideas out of their head and onto the page, the canvas or even the dirt on your car.

Lesson: Never pass on an idea. Keep a portable notebook for recording ideas on the go. Whatever your choice, it should become an extension of yourself.

I Served with Roald Dahl. I Knew Roald Dahl. And You Sir Are No Roald Dahl!

There’s just one problem with heroes.

Their achievements are so lofty and so unachievable, that it can hurt to wander through Dream Country for too long.

When this happens to you, put down your hero’s work. Start creating something of your own, make your mistakes, move past them and keep at it until you finish.

Cultivate a habit of shipping, promoting and starting again.

You are your own golden ticket.

Want more? Please visit my post on Lifehack: 12 Lessons From Roald Dahl That Will Inspire You. Or you can let me know here about your first hero.

You can also subscribe to the BecomeAWriterToday Insider list, you can reach me on Twitter or we can connect on Google+.

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1 thought on “What Roald Dahl Taught Me About Life and Writing”

  1. Is ‘the dinosaur keeper’ (allegedly by Tarquin MacPherson) secretly a Roald Dahl novel? The similarities and even the authors name hint at this. If not the estate should sue. Brazen

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