I’m currently reading a biography of Roald Dahl, the children’s author who brought to life those sweet gems of books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda, plus countless others. As the second part of our three part series on the Touch of Magic in the creative process, I was interested in understanding more about his.
The creative process takes time. While we wish things would always just flow smoothly, it often isn’t the case. The same seemed true for Mr. Dahl. While he was arguably one of the most creative writers of his time, as it turns out, it didn’t always just flow for him. He put a routine and structure to his writing. He created a space to let the creative process come to life, on its own time.
Dahl’s writing took place in a shed hidden behind his greenhouse. He had a tiny shed that was just big enough for himself, a chair, a small table, and other photos and things. It was here where the creative genius produced his greatest work. The writing hut was centered around his armchair and 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’. He was very routine about his process. He would go to his hut about 10AM every day and would sharpen 6 pencils with a pencil sharpener. He would write for two hours, go back to the house for a light lunch, a nap, and then head back to the hut for two more hours in the afternoon. 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.'
At the same time and same place every day, he would go to his writing hut. The consistency of going to his writing hut was paramount, even if the Touch of Magic of the words did not flow easily. The hut had no view, no natural sunlight, no noise, and no interruptions. 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 birds, 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.'
But it was very familiar and comforting to the author: the ritual of writing at the same time every day, in the same seat, in the same room, on the same yellow paper, with the same number of pencils in the jar beside him gave a sense of stability and constancy. The monotony of the creative process was how he tapped into his Touch of Magic.
But like all things, this doesn’t always happen on our timeline. Dahl’s 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.'
Dahl’s stories seem to be inspired from his own life. He takes ordinary things that happened to him or that he experienced and added a Touch of Magic. He also had one important habit that helped him tap into ideas '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.'
His books are famous for always having the underdog be the hero. The outsider is the victor. Dahl himself experienced this – as a kid growing up he was bullied, beaten, and as an adult was sacked from a job because he just didn’t fit in.
It isn’t always obvious when and how the Touch of Magic begins. But if we use our own creativity, imaginations, and are open to taking our experiences and exploring them to a different level, we can tap into a side invaluable to the creative process. For Dahl, 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.'
Roald Dahl shows us that his experience was essential to his process on all levels, and also contributed to his craft. That combined with a certain level of discipline and routine, we can ignite that Touch of Magic. As Dahl says: “All the best stuff comes at the desk.”