This morning on Facebook, Roz Morris posted about her friend Jamie Thompson being nominated for the prestigious Roald Dahl Funny Prize (Roz also had a hand in the perfection of several other nominees). This got my outlaw attitude kicked into high gear because books written for children, if they’re kick-butt fantastic, always live outside the rules.
Especially when it comes to Roald Dahl. I spent a lovely morning re-reading Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and seeing it with a new set of eyes. A writer’s eyes. The eyes of a creative. I read the book for fun and remembrance of phenomenal imagination, but my intent was to just enjoy myself before posting about Roald Dahl’s life lived with a stuff-it attitude when it came to the does and don’ts of life. He kicked the butts of those rules and changed medical history. Most of what we know about neuroplasticity and the other neuro- this and thats started with Mr. Dahl.
But first to his outrageous book Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
Dahl’s protagonist, Charlie Bucket, is a loveable little guy from an eccentric and lovable family. Their circumstances are dire and we feel for them without the unendurable feeling of pity. There’s a world these people live in where something other than food fills them up, making us think he’s quite the lucky kid.
Charlie loves chocolate so much that he stops by the chocolate factory every morning on his way to school, holds still and smells the fragrance. He’s the best we hope to be–wanting something desperately but happy with what we’ve got.
The magic and wonder of the story are subtle but present on every page. Dahl swiftly establishes a tragi-magical, darkly comic world that’s believable and inviting. The use of language in this book is straight forward when that’s what’s needed, but most of it is musical, and not just in the songs of the Oompa-Loompas. I slowed down in many places and read the prose out loud. Dahl broke a lot of rules making his manipulation of language musical, hypnotic, and alluring.
But where’s the holy ghost of conflict?
Well, Charlie and his family are starving and there’s not much money coming in. There’s a conflict. Charlie has only one chance at winning the treasured gold ticket into the chocolate factory and a lifetime supply of candy. That’s some conflict for you. And when Charlie finds a dollar bill in the gutter during a cold and snowy day, he breaks the rules of the Perfect Little Boy when he splurges and buys a candy bar to ease his own hunger first. Then he does it again, leaving just $0.80 to feed his starving family. It’s tempting at this point to feel a little disappointed in the boy who’s the hero of this book, but that second breaking of the Perfect Boy Rules wins him the gold ticket that will feed his family for life. We forgive him without hesitation.
End of conflict. Story over because we’ve all had it hammered into our heads that a story is only as good as the conflict is strong and insurmountable.
Hey, Dahl, whatt’re you doin’, dude?
He’s breaking the rules in a big bad way by throwing the conflict out of the book and into the reader’s lap. It stays there through the rest of the story, grinding away at us and tempting us towards the worst that we can be.
We dig it when each of the obnoxious children is tortured and most likely dead.
We’re cheering because a kid got killed? Sure, the kid was fat/spoiled/lazy/rude but a kid’s a kid. We’re hard-wired to reach out and save them, love them, protect them. What the hell’s wrong with us? What kind of person am I? This sucks, but I don’t care. Just let me keep reading so I can watch another kid bite the dust. A child with redemption stretching out in front of them is gonna get killed. Bring it!
Wow. I must be a sicko.
And there’s the conflict. And it’s a doozie.
And I hope one day I’ll write so damned good I can pull off the same nifty, dirty trick.
That’s enough of Charlie. On to Roald Dahl.
His own family was put in the path of tragedy. While in his pram, his first-born son was hit by a taxi, thrown 50 ft. into the air and sent crashing to the ground. His head was badly damaged. Surgery after surgery failed to keep the fluid from accumulating on his brain and compromising its function, so Dahl took over, stepping beyond the boundaries assigned to a man of letters. With the help of two other men, one a toymaker, he designed a shunt valve that could be installed in his son’s head and keep the drainage tube from blocking. To this day it’s called the Dahl-Wade-Till (DWT) valve and has saved countless lives of children.
Shortly after, his daughter died from measles encephalitis. He grieved, but he also became a champion of childhood vaccinations. Your kid won’t get measles because Roald Dahl stepped outside his assigned role in life. Babies won’t be born deformed because mothers-to-be are tested and vaccinated against the disease. (I know, there’s controversy as to whether or not vaccinations cause Autism, but the point here is that Dahl did something about the tragic; he acted outside of his restricted realm.)
The most dramatic change Dahl introduced into this world was the recovery of his wife, actress Patricia Neal, from three massive strokes, suffered one right after the other. This was back in the 1960s when the only prognosis for cerebral hemorrhage of such severity was a vegetative state, or at best, a conscious shell of who the person used to be.
Right. As if Dahl would follow the rules and let that happen to his wife. No way in hell. On his own, and with nothing to back up his original thoughts about the brain and how it could function, he fought against and for his wife, convinced the human brain could be reprogrammed. He refused to believe healthy parts of the brain could not take over for damaged parts.
He didn’t give up. He pushed Patricia to do it, to walk, to talk, to brush her hair, to get out of her bed and back to work as an actress. To those looking on, his “treatment” looked like abuse of the worst kind–he was badgering an invalid. But he kept on badgering, giving a hearty one-finger salute to everything known at the time about medicine and the brain. Dahl was a celebrated writer, a war hero, the inventor of a device that saved the lives of children. Any other man “abusing” his invalid wife in such a way would have been arrested and thrown behind bars.
I was a little kid when Patricia Neal made her first public appearance after her strokes. I was laying on my belly in front of the TV as my family watched the Academy Awards. She walked on stage and stood still as the audience jumped to its feet and applauded for far too long in my opinion. The cameras zoomed in, catching the tears of many in the audience as they smacked their hands together for this stately woman who did nothing more than stand there. On her own.
“What’s going on, Mommy? Why are they clap–”
“Shusssh!” my mother shot back. “I want to watch this. It’s a miracle.”
“Like in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory?”
“I said shussh!”
My mother’s tone was dangerous, so I shut up and watched. This woman everyone was applauding didn’t seem to be doing much of anything, except maybe walking a little funny as if her girdle were too tight. When she spoke, her voice was husky and halting, which seemed pretty cool to me, but not such a big deal that people had to kept interrupting her with applause.
It seemed a little screwy to me at the time, but I was still young enough to not yet know the rules and be satisfied watching and making my own sense of the world, then acting accordingly.
The next day I got my Little Kid Outlaw butt whipped for parading through the house with a stride suggesting my girdle was too tight and lowering my voice as deep as it would go, speaking in sputters and stops.
“It’s not nice making fun of the handicapped. What’s wrong with you?”
It was my grandmother this time. I was the only person in our entire family she liked, and I was the only one in the family who loved her. (That’s another story for another day.) If she was smacking my fanny, then something big wasn’t right. And I loved her enough to act in a way that pleased her, made her happy.
So I stopped.
Picasso once said he could draw like Raphael at the age of eight, but it took him a lifetime to see as a child.
I’m heading back towards that untamed child who mimics the unusual, the rule breakers, the thought smashers, the outlaws of imagination in all things creative.
I’m heading back because now I get it.
Creating is a miracle, it’s a risk that flips off those horrified by our mistakes (especially our inner critic), our darkness we know will turn to light, our sputters, stutters, our stops, and our headlong rush into madness, wearing a girdle a little too tight.
We do a lap dance on the rules, grinding and seducing them into a melted puddle at our feet, ours to sculpt as we please to please others on a dimension they don’t dare allow themselves to see.
We get our butt whipped, recoil, behave for a time, but sooner or later come back and do it again. We have no choice.
Great good luck to those nominated for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. Good luck to those rule breakers smashing through to the untamed imagination of a child.
You are the miracles we mimic.