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Roald Dahl & the Writing Shed

When I was a kid, Roald Dahl was my favorite author. I loved “James and the Giant Peach,” and thought of it every time we flew to England to visit my grandparents. I looked for cities in the clouds, for the people who painted and hung rainbows. I imagined the BFG gathering dreams, though I couldn’t picture him coming to my rural Minnesota farmhouse to blow them into my bedroom; but in England on narrow streets between small brick houses, it seemed he was real.

When I watched “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” I felt betrayed— how could Roald Dahl have made Charlie and his grandpa behave so badly? It didn’t feel like his other stories— and sure enough, when I re-read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” I discovered my hunch was right: Charlie was the only child who didn’t act selfishly (and Willy Wonka wasn’t creepy).

Maybe because I had British grandparents I read more BritLit as a child, or maybe that was just what was good. (“The Chronicles of Narnia,” everything by Enid Blyton, the many adventures of “Dr. Doolittle”). I felt drawn to Roald Dahl not just because his stories were so fantastical— a grandmother who smoked cigars! a girl who stood up to her horrible principal! a giraffe with a telescoping neck!— but also because he and my grandad blended together in my mind. My grandad wrote me airmail letters on thin blue paper, always with a fountain pen in all capital letters because otherwise, he said, I wouldn’t be able to read his “poor penmanship.”

Getting a book by Roald Dahl was like getting to be with my grandad, though I don’t recall him ever reading any of them to me.

When I was about nine I told my mom I couldn’t wait for his next book (I’d read everything for kids by then). “When do you think it will come out?” She had to tell me that he’d died a few years ago. In my memory, that was around the same time as other blows: my parents’ divorce, my grandad dying suddenly of a brain tumor (and us not flying over for the funeral).

Roald Dahl was an adult, but he wasn’t like any adult I knew. He was wicked and weird, and he had gone to boarding school in England (worse, even than going to my small town school and not really feeling I fit in).

As an adult he is still one of my most favorite writers. I aim to write books that could be the children of his and Astrid Lindgren’s work. I’ve read his adult short stories. I’ve read his twelve month memoir of a year, and I’ve thought off and on about how he had a little writing shed on his property, and the marvelously odd assortment of things he kept on his desk (including the head of his own femur after he had it replaced!).

But it had never occurred to me, a child of the era when tvs still had clunky knobs that turned with a chunk chunk, that I could search for videos of Roald Dahl on the internet.

… They exist! He only died in the ‘80s, so there are BBC clips and whole documentaries! I watched a short one today in which he walked us out to his shed! It was cluttered and the plaster was peeling in a way very reminiscent of when my studio was bare sheetrock with so many black screw heads they made a constellation! He sat down in his armchair, put a long packing tube across the arm rest, laid a large writing board on that at an angle, sharpened six pencils (“always six”), and began to write. In a voice over, he described what he was doing and how the whole process went, which was, of course, fascinating. But what made me shout with delight and surprise was he said he always sits in a sleeping bag, pulled up to his chest! I was, at that very moment, in my own backyard shed (wearing a big fur coat), with my own sleeping bag pulled up to my chest!

It reminded me of the many times I’ve thought of printing off portraits of writers and others I admire: Roald and Astrid, of course, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Lorna Landvik, comedian Maria Bamford (the newest addition), and marketing and business genius Seth Godin.

There have been days when I lugged Stephen King’s “On Writing” around and then held it to my chest. Or I propped it up on my writing desk next to Anne Lammott’s “Bird by Bird” and Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking.”

Why does this matter? Why does it help?

Though I live in a very creative community with a higher saturation of artists than your typical small town, I am still so alone. I’m alone in that the norm is still to have a Regular Job or a Professional Career— the kind that you don’t have to provide a definition for at parties when someone asks what you do. Even in the arts community I tend to feel alone: it’s not like traditional oral storytelling is part of the Academy Awards and in the public eye. I’m alone because that’s just the general background music in my life— it’s not as tragic as it was in my teen years, and it’s a feeling I expect to have my whole life. How could I not? I’m a pioneer, an explorer gazing West. All the things that interest me require me to go where I’ve never gone before.

Being alone like this is both wonderful (I am an introvert, after all), but also a little crazy. I recently visited my alma mater, an arts high school in the Twin Cities. I was nearly floating off the ground with happiness by the time I left (rather like Charlie and his grandpa in the erroneous film adaptation, before they realize they’re going to be sliced to ribbons by the ceiling fans). Why was I so elated? Because I was reminded that for two years, Monday through Friday, I lived in a community of artists. Everyone was there to explore, to be creative, to learn, to practice a craft, to try weird stuff. And, as my theatre teacher so off-handedly commented, it was an ensemble program; there were no divas or super stars. We did three months of improv before moving on to other subjects. I dream sometimes of what it would be like to be surrounded by other middle grade writers— how much more I would be likely to write if every casual conversation at the coffee shop or grocery store was about word count and trying to figure out just what the protagonist wanted, and how cool but complicated it was to invent a language for pixies.

Seth Godin talks often about marketing as “People like us do things like this.” As in, you speak to your tribe, to your niche, to your tiny, specific, weird corner of the world. And I thought, “But what if there aren’t ‘people like us’ around?” What if I’m not bumping shoulders with 299 other people pursuing a life built on art, because at least in my physical, everyday life, I’m not.

I suppose that’s why I watch actors interviewed on late night shows, or watch the Oscars. It’s why I listen to Seth’s podcast. It’s why I watch Maria Bamford’s comedy. And it’s why I want to put those portraits up in my studio. I want to remind myself, This is where I come from. This is my family tree: Roald and Astrid, Uncle Lewis and his magic wardrobe, the next door neighbor who writes about daemons and parallel worlds, even Stephen, whose books are too creepy for me, because he flies so far past “normal.”

So I was delighted, I felt Roald Dahl was visiting me, having a chat in my garden shed when I came across his interview. I ask myself, “What would Roald do? How would Philip say it? Would Astrid be worried what people think?” I line their pictures up in my mind; I know they would root for me, nod in approval, tell me to keep going, because though it is frightening to step into the unknown, it is also marvelous.


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