On Roald Dahl, the Right Audience, and Writer’s Mindset

Recently a dear friend sent me a big fat collection of Roald Dahl’s short stories. I ripped into them with glee, because I knew just what to expect. Sinister, twisted, and hilarious, Dahl’s stories simultaneously horrify and enchant me. Of course, I’m talking about Dahl’s stories for adults. Yes, I came to Dahl’s work like most people, through reading books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach when I was a kid. But because I loved his writing so much I started actively looking for anything else he had written when I got older. That was how I discovered his darker, sick-humor, very adult side. And I fell in love all over again.

This prompted me to learn a little more about Mr. Dahl, and as I researched him I became increasingly intrigued by what I found. He was a fighter pilot with the RAF in WWII for one thing; he flew in the Middle East, Africa, and Greece. He met the writer C.S. Forester during this time and it was Forester who encouraged him to become a writer. He also married an American actress, Patricia Neal, and wrote screenplays for Hollywood—the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are two famous examples of his work.

But the thing that fascinated me the most was that Roald Dahl didn’t start writing children’s books on purpose and he never really took pride in the fact that he did. He said that when he was writing James and the Giant Peach he constantly thought to himself, “What kind of nonsense am I writing?” And he wondered if his publisher at the time, Alfred A. Knopf, would think, “What kind of nonsense am I reading?” when he submitted the manuscript. Like most writers, Dahl wanted to be taken seriously and so he never embraced his unexpected detour into kidlit.

This got me thinking. I talk to so many writers who are working on the first draft of something and they’re scared to death because they don’t have any idea what it is or who might want to read it. Because they’re hard pressed to solidly fit it into an accepted genre, or it’s not what they pictured themselves writing in their own vision for their work, the first instinct is to say that it’s not very good or that it doesn’t have a future. This can happen to any of us. We have an expected idea of how we should be or how things should turn out, and when we find that the Universe has other plans for us, we pretty much freak out like a spooked horse and refuse to go any further.

Or at the very least, like Roald Dahl, we never fully own who we are and what we’ve accomplished.

In the personal development world this is what’s seen as the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A person with a fixed mindset has very set ideas about what they identify with, what they’re capable of, and how the world will work for them. In the case of Roald Dahl, his fixed idea was that only writers who produce work for adults are taken seriously and actually matter. Because of his fixed mindset he missed out on a lot of extremely cool stuff. Like that he was ROALD DAHL and that he was the author of James and the Freakin’ Giant Peach for Pete’s sake. If I wrote anything nearly as magical and wonderful as that book I would be satisfied with myself as a writer for life.

When writers make the choice to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, limitless possibilities open up before them. Instead of asking what kind of nonsense we’re writing, suddenly we say to ourselves, “I don’t know what I’m writing, but it’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time.” Instead of worrying about how others will react, we carry that tiny bright flame of a story around with us all day, and smile a secret writer smile to ourselves when we think about it.

A growth mindset allows us to expand in all directions. Since it’s not focused on the personality we think we are, we don’t waste time trying to meet our needs by constantly searching for things that will reinforce who we think we should be. With a growth mindset in place, our needs are met easily and without any fuss. It’s not important if we belong to any certain group or get approval from any one person in particular anymore. Our mind and soul are striving for growth above all else, and so we’re content to wander down the strange path of the unknown to see what unexpected happiness we might find there.

Writers who shift into a growth mindset level up their skills in a host of other valuable areas as well. They become more resilient and more persistent. They learn how to be flexible and they adapt to setbacks relatively quickly and with a minimum of wasted energy. A growth mindset is ready for the uncut version of life—with every season, every storm, and every ray of sunshine included. The writer with a growth mindset looks forward to all of it, even if some parts of the road are rockier than others.

If Roald Dahl had never written James and the Giant Peach I would never have discovered his stories for adults and I wouldn’t be having as much fun with them as I am today. But more importantly, I would never have had that magical, beautiful experience as an 8-year-old, listening to my teacher read James’ story to me and 30 other kids who fell utterly in love with giant Centipede, Miss Spider and The Old Green Grasshopper. I would have missed out on the story of a little boy whose whole world is transformed by magic, and perhaps I would have missed out on a bit of my own magic too.

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