When I came across Roald Dahl’s books I was 7 years old. A week after I started reading Mathilda, a neighbor saw me carrying the book around and told me that Dahl had passed away a week before. As a kid, I felt like he was the first author to connect with me, and even at that young age, he influenced me as a writer.
When I came across this interview with him from 1982, I was thrilled. I never knew him as a living author, and I could watch the sort of interview I missed out on as a kid. It ends with this question:
Interviewer: When you die is there a particular way you want to be remembered, say, by a child who turns into an adult?
Dahl: [Pauses]. You can quote Oscar Wilde and say, “When I am gone I hope it will be said that my sins were scarlet but my books were read.”
I puzzled over Dahl’s answer and his reaction to the question. Dahl breaks eye contact with the interviewer and looks away, as if the question is distasteful to him. Rather than give a direct answer, he responds with a quote, leaving the audience to interpret his meaning.
I was an adult before I learned that in real life Roald Dahl was an insufferable asshole. He wrote amazing books and was a total son of a bitch.
Both of these things can be true. One does not cancel out the other. His extraordinary work doesn’t excuse his behavior, and his behavior doesn’t make his work any less extraordinary.
I doubt that my 7 year-old-self could have grasped that moral ambiguity. But as a 34 year-old-adult with a few fuck-ups of my own, I get it. The guy may be a writer, but he’s no hero. He’s just a dude, who, like anyone else, did the best he could with what he had.
Wilde’s quote explained that in words that Dahl couldn’t. Maybe Dahl knew what a giant prick he was. Maybe he was asking his readers not to judge him by his deeds but by the merit of his work.
So should we not judge writers by their deeds? How should we look to them as role models?
I considered this question after a recent exchange with a friend of mine. I sent him feedback on his writing, and this is what he said.
Now, when people use the comparison “like Hemingway” it’s meant to be used broadly as a name that everyone recognizes. Hemingway lived an adventurous life, wrote prolifically, and was celebrated in his time and well after his death. Nothing to shake a stick at.
But this exchange got me thinking, does anybody really want to be like Hemingway? He was shitty to the people around him, was married four times, and drank way too much. Who wants that? Maybe he was a fantastic writer, but he was a real son of a bitch.
But that doesn’t mean he owes us anything. He owes us nothing at all.
Being a good person is not a prerequisite for being a writer. Like Dahl, Hemingway’s shittiness doesn’t diminish his incredible work, and his incredible work is not an excuse for his shittiness. Both of those can be true at the same time.
Yet, as a writer I cringe at the idea of being “like Hemingway”, simply because his personal life was a hot mess. Hemingway’s work deserves all the accolades it gets, but why would you want to be like him, when you can be like other writers who lived with more integrity?
If I’m going to be “like” anybody, I want to be like J.K. Rowling. She was a billionaire until she lost that status, in part to giving her wealth to charitable causes. The books that made her famous will stand the test of time, and she still keeps writing.
If you’re not keen on that, then you can be like Wallace Stevens. He is a great American poet, and that guy was just a dude who worked at an insurance company his whole life. Hard to say whether or not he lived with integrity, but he did live with humility.
Writers are human. Maybe they create amazing work, but they fuck up just like everyone else. They get divorced. They drink too much and alienate friends and loved ones. They are addicts and alcoholics and a little insane.
And they are boring. They live in the same house for decades. They have 9-5 jobs. They have the same mundane lives as anyone else.
It is not writer’s responsibility to be a role model. It’s our responsibility not to idolize them.
The problem arises when we put them on pedestals and mistake their shitty behavior for “being an artist”.
You know who doesn’t give a damn about their art? The poor souls who had to put up with them.
My relationships are as important as my art. I do my very best to be good to the people around me. I’m not perfect, and I have some things to work on, but I make the effort.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Hemingway to go through three divorces and get any work done or to have any clear or creative thoughts with his pickled brain. And I wonder what he might have created – what great works never came to life – had his personal life been more stable and functional.
In my experience boring is good. Boring means no drama and no pointless distractions. Boring means I study my craft and get work done. Boring means I can use my creative energy for writing stories and making art.
Don’t put us on pedestals. We are human. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we fuck it up.
When you choose who you want to “be like”, don’t limit yourself. There are many artists who live stable, functional, and, yes, boring lives and create extraordinary works of art.
And remember that the people around you are your biggest supporters. Sometimes they make sacrifices so that you can make your art. Be good to them.
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