Friday, 30 July 2010

Doing it for the Kids

Who will inspire the next generation of writers? That seemed to be the unspoken question that hung over the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Buckinghamshire when I visited last weekend. And the answer? Well, it's us.

The museum is, in many ways, a celebration of the writer as great British eccentric, of a life spent amassing experience and somehow transmuting that into story. For all of its focus on the remarkable Dahl, the Story Centre finds room for the voices of other notable children's writers - Jacqueline Wilson, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Anthony Horowitz etc. Great pains are taken to show the accessibility of writing - the children are given a story book to fill in as they enter, and encouraged to mix and match ideas with abandon. We are invited to walk around a replica of Roald's writing hut and think of it as inspirational - rather than a rickety old shed that should probably be condemned!

As an adult and writer, I found it fascinating in other ways. There is a shamanic feeling to the descriptions of Dahl's rituals - the carefully selected materials (yellow lined A4 pads and 6 carefully sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga pencils) and the way he described going into a trance as he wrote, his carefully allotted two hours passing "as if they were minutes". Time and again, writers are portrayed as helpless vessels for the all-consuming power of story. I'm not saying this isn't true - we all get carried away by the force of our imagination sometimes - just a tad fanciful.

The stationery fetishes of writers are well documented - Stephen Poliakoff once threatened to stop writing because the only kind of paper he could use was discontinued and Miriam Halahmy's recent post on the Scattered Author's Society blog attracted a whole slew of stationery related comments (yes, including mine). This all seems neurotic - which it is - but it also serves a deeper purpose, the achievement of that trance-like state. Writing is all about tricking our conscious mind, using familiar cues (environmental, musical or tactile) to descend into a subconscious state that's very close to meditation.

I spent some time away from writing recently, and it was only when I returned to it that I realised what I'd missed. I think it really does fulfil a very strong subconscious need for me, a way of finding focus and precision in a turbulent and uncertain world. Ultimately, we need to show today's children that sitting quietly in a room - either reading a book or writing one - is a noble and rewarding enterprise. From what I saw of the children's reaction, the Roald Dahl Museum was doing a pretty good job of that.



  1. Absolutely right, Nick. I used to love a classroom full of children all writing silently and with great absorption when I was teaching. Children do like quiet times and we need to demonstrate how important that is for everyone. That is how we will nurture the next generation of writers. Thanks for the link to my blogpost, some of the comments have been wondrous.

  2. Thanks, Nick. Still looking forward to going some time soon...

    J Clare Bell