Roald Dahl – My Word Hero: Musings from an inspired writer
By Ame Vanorio © 12/23/2018
Roald Dahl was a wildly creative author who wrote books that were fun, inspiring and thought-provoking. He integrated two of my favorite topics into his writing. Human nature (psychology) and the natural world (biology).
His human characters often exemplified the extremes of worldly emotions such as greed and selfishness. And his animal characters displayed cunning and thoughtfulness.
Who Was Roald Dahl?
You may not recognize his name but you surely know his characters. Charlie Bucket of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James of James and the Giant Peach. Both of them were made into movies which delighted children around the world.
But movies do not tell the story of the author. Roald Dahl was a fascinating character himself. He mingled with movie stars and even married one (Patricia Neal) but often stated he was happiest writing in his “Hut” or walking in the woods behind his home.
Roald was born in 1916 in Wales, UK to Norwegian immigrants. He had a typical middle-class childhood of the day; attending British boarding school which he found cruel and demeaning and spending delightful summers in Norway.
Dahl was a prolific letter writer. He had an intimate relationship with words and began writing to his family at the age of nine when he was away at boarding school. These early letters showed an unusual preoccupation and appreciation for how words work.
After school, he worked for Shell Oil in the undeveloped region of Southwest Asia and later became a fighter pilot in WWII. This was a time for observation. Dahl gathered stories, ideas and took pictures of his experiences.
Word usage is a fun game for any writer and Dahl was no different. Can words be whizzpopping? In fact, several of the invented words he used have entered the Oxford English Dictionary.
I often say new and interesting words, however, most people just look at me as if my mouth and my brain are not connected. I think I am just playing with words looking for new connections. After all, we have a word – portmanteau – which means the combination of words. For instance – brunch combines the words breakfast and lunch.
Dahl's use of words can teach us a great deal. We often take words very seriously, but he injects a playfulness into his language which makes his stories fun to read and keeps the reader engaged. We see modern day children’s author JK Rowling doing the same thing in the Harry Potter books. Seriously, is writing a blog post or product description that much different than writing fiction?
Connection to the Natural World
Dahl had an unusual connection to the natural world. He had enjoyed his time in Southeast Asia and Africa and promoted the protection of many species. Dahl struggled with his personal faith and was extremely upset when told by the Archbishop of Canterbury, after the death of his daughter, that she was in paradise but her beloved dog would never join her there.
I feel that connection with him. As a teenager at Lexington Catholic High School, I spent much of tenth-grade Religion class sitting in a desk in the hallway. Why? Because I argued nonstop with FR. Reinersman on the issue of animals having souls. I, of course, felt they did.
When we look at many of Dahl's books we see the backlash he felt. Specifically, he wrote The Magic Finger which plays role reversal with a hunting happy family. Thanks to the girl next door the murderous Gregg family is turned into ducks and a human-sized family of ducks invades their home.
This type of natural role reversal is common and prevalent in the top seller (and my personal favorite) Fantastic Mr. Fox. We see the greed of the humans and their willingness to destroy their environment, property, and lives in order to kill Mr. Fox.
Dahl wrote in a brick garden shed in his backyard. I totally identify with this writing hut and wish I could say that’s the sole reason I write in the barn. (I actually have an office in the barn loft because that is where the best internet connection is on my rural Kentucky farm). But in my heart, I am just like Dahl.
Dahl's office was an organized mess. He had mementos of his travels, works in progress and sat in a sleeping bag on cold mornings. That is so me! I’m currently at a small desk in my reptile room with all the heat lamps turned on – for the turtles and snake of course – surrounded by things I love.
Why Dahls Writing Works
Dahl rewrote endlessly and believed the story should be ‘short and clear and clean and easily understood’. This is great advice for those of us who are bloggers and website writers. I think it's easy to add gloppity glock to our writing and muddy the water.
I think as content writers we are often in a hurry. Dahl took the time to write and rewrite. His end product was so much more insightful. In the age of laptops and the internet, we can easily take the time to rewrite (or in many cases update) our posts so that we continue to work towards that insightful piece.