Roald Dahl was not a nice person. In fact, he was a real BFG. (The F does not stand for “friendly.”)
The legendary Bob Gottlieb was Dahl’s American editor at one point. When Dahl threw a fuss about pencils—we’ll get to Dahl and his pencils in a minute—Gottlieb reached his breaking point:
You have behaved to us in a way I can honestly say is unmatched in my experience for overbearingness and utter lack of civility. Lately you’ve began addressing others here—who are less well placed to answer you back—with the same degree of abusiveness. For a while I put your behavior down to the physical pain you were in and so managed to excuse it. Now I’ve come to believe that you’re just enjoying a prolonged tantrum and are bullying us.
I’ve worked with the occasional Difficult Author. One lost his temper and yelled at me over the phone. The next day, I received a styrofoam cooler filled with dry ice. Nestled inside, six pints of Ben and Jerry’s—his flavor. I’ve never enjoyed an amends so arrogant yet so delicious.
Dahl was a giant something, but it wasn’t a peach. That said, he could write; if we can learn from him, peachy. Like Larry David, I have no problem whistling Wagner.
So what can Dahl teach us?
When I went out on my own a few years ago, I got a standing desk. Because health! But my productivity ground to a halt. Crossfit-crazy VCs might be able to fire off a day’s worth of Slack messages from a wobble board, but as a writer I was getting nowhere. Eventually, anxiety about deadlines was doing far more damage to my cardiovascular health than prolonged sitting ever could.
Then I saw this video of Roald Dahl in his writing hut:
I’ve taken a great deal of trouble with the actual chair I sit in, and the place I put my feet, which is tied to the legs of the chair, so I don’t shove it away when I press my feet against it. Also, I get into a sleeping bag, and that’s right up to my chest.
Clearly, Dahl has given his writing environment a good deal of thought. This is the kind of lifehacking I can get behind. Dahl made himself cozy as hell before going to work. He also prepped his tools with care.
I always use six pencils. And they always have to be sharpened before I start.
Writing is hard. It calls on absolutely everything you’ve got—or it should, but you don’t have everything to give if you’re simultaneously fiddling with a new app or hunting down a lost file. You want to get comfortable. You want everything in its place. If you’re lucky enough to get into a groove, you don’t want to disturb it under any circumstances.
Finally, you get settled. You get into a sort of nest. You get really comfortable. And then you’re away.
Today, I write comfortable. The only upgrade I could imagine to the luxurious ensconscement I currently enjoy would be one of those shiatsu chairs they have at airports. (Come to think of it, that would be spectacular.) Are you comfortable when you write? If not, are you creating work in the quantity and of the quality you’d prefer?
Why do we take this masochistic attitude? Work is work. It’s already hard.
Next time you’re facing a blank document, take a cue from Dahl. Get comfy. Toss another cushion on there. Climb into a sleeping bag. Ensconce! No amount of comfort and familiarity is too much when it comes to doing your best work.
I’m reminded of David Lynch’s tantrum about time constraints on Twin Peaks: The Return:
Somebody arbitrarily says you gotta do it in two days. That fucking really pisses me off. It really does. We’re always up against the fucking—I’m not working like this again. Ever. This is absolutely horrible. We never get any extra shots. We never get any time to experiment. We never get to go dreamy or anything…I could have spent a week in the Fireman’s, I love that place, and dream up all kinds of stuff. It’s sick, this kind of fucking way to do it. You don’t get a chance to sink into anything. It’s not a way to work.
To write, you need to be able to “go dreamy,” to “sink into” it. You’re not going to do that while balancing on one leg.
Once Dahl was settled in his nest, he too would go dreamy:
The pencil doesn’t very often touch the paper. It’s looking and musing and correcting and then, then you do a little writing. In the end, you get something done, but your concentration is fairly intense. You’re lost.
When you’re really writing, you go someplace else. Where? Maybe the Firemans’s. It’s dreamy there.