I just finished Roald Dahl’s short autobiography Boy: Tales of Childhood, which was a fine gift from Russ Ramsey last time I saw him. I closed the book with a greater belief than ever in the work God has given me. In the last chapter, after Dahl tells the story of his funny, delightful, and often painful childhood, he says that he worked for a few years as a businessman.
“I enjoyed it, I really did. I began to realize how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do. The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer.”
I wasn’t expecting to read a paragraph that encouraging when I started this book. I suspect a businessman would read that paragraph and wonder what all the fuss is about. It might sound awfully like complaining. But it isn’t. I sighed a weary, happy sigh because Dahl assured me I’m not as crazy or as wimpy as I’m afraid I am. The same can be said for songwriting too. God has arranged the process (for me, at least) in such a way that after every song is complete, I get amnesia. I think, in the fast-fading thrill of having written a song, that I’ve finally unlocked the secret formula, discovered the missing number, solved the timeless mystery of how to write a song. I have answered for myself the question of whether the music or the lyrics come first! And the answer is–er, wait, I had it a second ago. What was it again? And it’s gone. Even as the last note fades to silence, amnesia sets in. I can’t remember how it works. So the next time I pick up the guitar or open the notebook, I do so with fear and trembling, unsure how to proceed. It’s a wonder anything ever gets written.
It made me wonder, why did he write at all? Dahl confesses a disbelief in God based mostly on his abuse at the hands of several wicked men of the Church–and it’s hard to blame him. It’s struggle enough to believe, even without a priest beating you with a cane. Then why did he suffer the long toil of the written word? Where did that urge come from? That he wrote books for children makes me think that the suffering of his own youth softened his heart toward the young. Perhaps he hoped to give them some light, some escape, some comfort in their own fear. He was beaten by wretched men at boarding schools, made to bleed, made to grab his ankles and weep while they hit him, sometimes while the Headmaster quoted Scripture. It’s fascinating that this poor boy grew into a tough man who would work to spin fantastical stories for children. I’ve never been a big fan of his stories, though I do appreciate his whimsy.
But in this book especially his descriptions of people and of the beauties and horrors of his childhood were vivid. Dahl remembered what it was like to be a little boy. And he remembered that it is terrifying. It reminded me how vital it is that Christians bend low and speak tenderly to the children in our lives. These boys and girls at our churches, in our schools, down the street, are living a harrowing adventure. Every one of them falls into one of two categories: wounded, or soon-to-be-wounded. The depth and nature of those wounds will vary, but they’re all malleable souls in a world clanging with hammer blows. The bigger they get, the easier the target. I get a lump in my throat every night I sing “After the Last Tear Falls” (which I co-wrote with Andrew Osenga), when I get to his line, “After the last young girl’s innocence is stolen…there is love.” It’s because I’m certain there are people in the audience for whom that line must bring a terrible memory. I sing the final chorus with all the ache I can muster because I want them to believe that love outlives all the pain that ever was.
Those of us who write, who sing, who paint, must remember that to a child a song may glow like a nightlight in a scary bedroom. It may be the only thing holding back the monsters. That story may be the only beautiful, true thing that makes it through all the ugliness of a little girl’s world to rest in her secret heart. May we take that seriously. It is our job, it is our ministry, it is the sword we swing in the Kingdom, to remind children that the good guys win, that the stories are true, and that a fool’s hope may be the best kind.
Andrew Peterson is a singer-songwriter and author. Andrew has released more than ten records over the past twenty years, earning him a reputation for songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. As an author, Andrew’s books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga, released in collectible hardcover editions through Random House in 2020, and his creative memoir, Adorning the Dark, released in 2019 through B&H Publishing.