Absolute hell

Roald Dahl in 1982By Hans van Dijk / Anefo - Derived from Nationaal Archief, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36726305
Roald Dahl in 1982 by Hans van Dijk / Anefo, derived from Nationaal Archief, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36726305

If Roald Dahl was still alive he’d be approaching his 100th birthday in September 2016. As it is he died in 1990, but not before leaving an extraordinary legacy of books for adults and, of course, children. In 1984 he published a memoir of his early years, Boy: Tales of a Childhood, and towards the end of this he compares the life of the writer that he became with one of his first jobs, working for Shell. “I began to realize how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do,” he writes, one suspects with his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek. “The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman.”

How does he justify this? “The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear.”

I’d never thought of an author as someone who sits trembling at their desk, but it must be true if Dahl is to be believed. “Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not.” A bit like a blogger, I suppose, but at least most bloggers don’t rely on their tippy-tapping for an income. “Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For these two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze.”

I picture the strain it must have imposed on this dazed writer in his mid-seventies. He tells us he is driven to drink, declaring that “it is a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him.” (As an aside, I wonder what women writers drink.) I realise that the reason I’m not a successful writer is that I’m not fond of a tipple or three to give myself, as he puts it, faith, hope and courage.

Dahl’s advice to wouldbe authors is clear. “A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom.” Ah, so no publisher’s advance. Or royalties. Or universal fame. “He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.” Don’t embark on this career fulltime unless you want to be free to express yourself. Perhaps to starve and wither away. Or drown in whisky.

“Absolute hell”? Methinks he doth protest too much. But his musings give me pause. Is this how ‘proper’ writers really feel? Trapped in a hell of their own making, comforted only by the thought that they are masters of their own souls?

I probably lack the soul to be a writer. And the courage …

* Expect a slew of media excitement and Dahl-mania as the year progresses. My contribution will be a review — soon — of that memoir I’ve mentioned, and maybe I’ll even get round to some of his adult fiction and the odd modern children’s classic before the year is out. On a sartorial note, I remember wearing a clash of checked clothing around the 1980s just like Dahl’s, even down to the shirt and sports jacket …


19 thoughts on “Absolute hell

  1. Hmm, well, I sympathise with him to some extent. There is a lot of pressure from being your own boss but the reward of “absolute freedom”(?) is of great value. I have often dreamed of being employed by someone else but the fear of losing my freedom has usually steered me clear of that trap. The dream is really about having a regular income. And of course, these days regular employment is never secure!

    1. Of course you’re right, Alastair, job security may well be a thing of the past, whether you’re an employee or freelance (the “heads you win, tails I lose” syndrome). Previous “jobs for life” (like teaching was for me) are now replaced by short term contracts (as our newly appointed local librarian has found out) and casual work replaced by ‘zero hours’ conditions.

      These are not the ideals we children of the 60s strove for — it’s enough to drive one to drink! No, wait — that’s the life of a writer …

  2. It is now 09:50 and, having just walked my border terrier in glorious sunshine and returned home to feed the birds, make coffee and turn on the PC, I’m about to begin my own working day, proofreading. Clearly I enjoy the sense of freedom that working from home provides. It does haves its downsides and I won’t insult your intelligence by listing them here. You’ll know what they are.

    Part of me would dearly love to live the life of a full-time writer, crafting all day, everyday and earning a modest income along the way. That’s the right side of my brain talking. The left, however, throws up just those same doubts and crushing self analysis that so tortured Roald Dahl. So, on reading the above extracts I instantly related to the man and understood what prompted his confessions.

    In fact, this sense of empathy was similar to that which I felt for another tipple-loving and tortured writer – Jack Torrance, who appears in Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’. Only that one was far more disturbing for me. And having now recalled that it I’d better make another coffee to clear the thought from my mind. Or maybe I’ll have a whisky. Just a small one, you understand.

    1. Well, Steve, with that whisky you’re clearly well on your way to be a bona fide writer, but I hope you don’t suffer the same misfortunes that Jack Torrance did! Mind you, nothing beats being retired and having the leisure time to play at being a writer without the economic imperative of earning a crust or bringing home the bacon. Hang on, that required several decades of putting one’s nose to the grindstone (That’s enough of the metaphors. Ed.) so maybe I need to think that one through …

  3. J.G. Ballard said “A lifetime’s experience urges me to utter a warning cry: do anything else, take someone’s golden retriever for a walk, run away with a saxophone player.” This is a thing writers like to do, bemoan their lot and warn others to avoid the writing life. But they still go on writing.

    1. Do you think it’s a ploy, Gert, to safeguard their own niche in life and prevent it becoming overcrowded? That is, if it was so much fun and so easy to do anyone and everyone could and would do it? Nowadays though anyone who writes a blog may find it’s not the cushy number that they may have imagined, what with deadlines, writer’s block, lukewarm reception and the strident voice of the critic. 🙂

      1. I think it’s the equivalent of “What, this old thing?” Or like parents warning others never to have kids – their kids give them grief but they wouldn’t be without them (and still think they’re the most charming little pets in the classroom).

  4. I can’t resist adding this quote from that very useful book ‘The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failures’:
    spending many hours sitting alone in poorly-heated rooms, seeing little daylight, building up levels of anxiety about the correct deployment of a semi-colon or whether to risk using an adverb is not going to be good for anyone’s health, without even thinking about the common vices of alcohol, tobacco or worse. (Here the BDLF hastens to recognise that, on a global scale, writing is nowhere near as bad for the health as working in an asbestos factory or cobalt mine).

    1. A superbly cynical view! In the spirit of enlightenment I sought out The Devil’s Dictionary but from a cursory view couldn’t find that Ambrose Bierce had anything to say directly about Authors or Writers …

  5. I can understand his pain. At least with a regular job you know what is expected of you, and often you are not responsible for coming up with new policies and procedures on a daily basis. A writer must come up with new ideas everyday and wonder if they are any good. I thought it would be so fun and so easy to write a book about Shakespeare but the stress of being good enough and wanting to please a publisher, makes the task daunting and at times, hell. I try to tell myself I am writing for myself but even that is stressful as I expect a lot from myself. The only reason I keep going is because there is a chance that it will be good enough.

    1. I beg to differ in one respect, Sari: I found to my cost that schoolteaching, though a regular job of sorts, gradually expected different things of me, making me responsible for new policies I didn’t agree with and procedures I was uncomfortable with.

      But enough about me! I really would like to read your Shakespeare study, and I’m sure it would be good enough — don’t feel in any way that the uphill task wouldn’t be worth it if your posts are anything to go by!

    1. You’re so right, Cathy, which is why I think he wasn’t entirely serious when he wrote those words! I shall have some serious words to say about his memoir, though, which isn’t the laugh-a-minute reminiscence one might imagine it to be.

  6. I was hoping some of your female commenters would answer your question about whiskey. My preferred tipple is tequila, straight.
    As for apt quotes about having a career as a writer, Dr. Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
    In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978), Milan Kundera explained “graphomania”, which “inevitably takes on epidemic proportions when a society develops to the point of creating three basic conditions: 1) An elevated level of general well-being, which allows people to devote themselves to useless activities; 2) a high degree of social atomization and, as a consequence, a general isolation of individuals; 3) the absence of dramatic social changes in the nation’s internal life. (From this point of view, it seems to me symptomatic that in France, where practically nothing happens, the percentage of writers is twenty-one times higher than in Israel).”
    These days, I think Kundera’s third condition has been replaced by “the presence of social media, making possible a world-wide instant audience of readers.”

    1. Thanks, Laurie, the review should appear tomorrow, if I manage to schedule it properly! Boy is actually full of hints as to where he got his ideas from — the message being, it seems, that the tougher your upbringing is the more material you will have for your fiction!

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