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Roald Dahl. More than mere talent


I've always been interested in creative people. Why they do what they do. Where their ideas come from. What makes them tick. Today, for no other reason than I want to, I thought I'd write something about a true legend and a prince among men: Roald Dahl.

For many creative people Roald Dahl is a particularly intriguing character. Here was a guy with a talent that went far beyond his writing. 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 artistic ambition, his life was destined to be dull and insignificant. Then things took a very dramatic change when the Second World War came along.

You may remember that Roald joined the RAF and signed up as a fighter pilot. The story goes that one time he was forced to crash-land his fighter plane and at that very moment he came face to face with death. Flying over the Middle East, his plane came down and seconds later it caught fire. He was forced to make a crash landing. When the plane hit the ground he tried to get out of the cockpit but his overalls were ablaze. Somehow he managed to crawl away from the wreckage and put himself out by rolling in the sand.

As he lay there, half unconscious, the crippled aircraft's machine guns started firing live rounds directly around his body. But Roald, having come through the rigours of the crash, just lay there exhausted and dozed off. The next day, when he was found by a patrol, his overalls were so burnt and his face so disfigured that he was almost unrecognisable as an RAF officer.

He was carried back to the underground Army Field Ambulance Station in Mersah. Here, 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 helpless. During all this darkness and isolation, something happened in Dahl's brain and his imagination ran wild. His thinking changed from that of a corporate businessman to a man bristling with new and highly original ideas.

In fact, from 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's all so unnecessary. So, one by one, while still in his twenties, he had every tooth pulled out and wore dentures for the rest of his life. Even in old age, he continued recommending false teeth to all 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 3,000 children. It even saved the life of his agent's son.

And of course, he was also one of the world's most gifted writers. Yet he approached his writing exactly the same way, every day.

He only wrote in the hut in his garden and he always worked the same times. 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.'

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 that 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 ran 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 like this, '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!'

Ok. That's it. Thanks for reading my little tribute to Roald. I'm off to do something else.

John Fountain is a freelance copywriter

follow @fountainjohn



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