Roald Dahl and the power of walking away

I had the pleasure over the holidays of reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to my daughter.  It's a wonderful piece of literature, and a great reminder that movie adaptations of great works generally pale in comparison with the original text.  Roald Dahl was nothing if not a creative genius.

A special bonus for me was the inclusion at the end of the book of this transcript of a converation with Roald Dahl.  It's an exemplary interview, focusing on his process and way of working.  In particular, I found the following passage remarkable:

…I never come back to a blank page; I always finish about halfway through. To be confronted with a blank page is not very nice. But Hemingway, a great American writer, taught me the finest trick when you are doing a long book, which is, he simply said in his own words, “When you are going good, stop writing.” And that means that if everything’s going well and you know exactly where the end of the chapter’s going to go and you know just what the people are going to do, you don’t go on writing and writing until you come to the end of it, because when you do, then you say, well, where am I going to go next? And you get up and you walk away and you don’t want to come back because you don’t know where you want to go. But if you stop when you are going good, as Hemingway said…then you know what you are going to say next. You make yourself stop, put your pencil down and everything, and you walk away. And you can’t wait to get back because you know what you want to say next and that’s lovely and you have to try and do that. Every time, every day all the way through the year. If you stop when you are stuck, the you are in trouble!

His insight flies in the face of common wisdom around this subject, which goes something like "when in flow, keep going".  In other words, stay with the muse lest it float away.  Having the confidence to "stop when you are going good", coupled with the ability to crank it up again the next day, feels like a more mature place to be in terms of one's personal creative process.  I bet it takes practice.  But, if it leads to more sleep, fewer late nights, and more perspective on what matters and what does not, I'd wager that all of us engaged in the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life would be in a better place.

I, for one, am going to start stopping!



1 thought on “Roald Dahl and the power of walking away

  1. Great advice Diego, thanks for sharing it.
    It reminds me of something I read in Karen pryors book: Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training.
    She says that with training dogs (or people)to do something new, you should always stop at a succesfull point. If you continue too long, the training effect will decrease (and the subject will loose interest) making it all the harder to reinforce the new behaviour the next time.

Comments are closed.