Above image: C. S. Lewis (top row, right, highlighted) with his class of undergraduate students, University College, Oxford University, in the Trinity Term 1917.
Late 2021 through early 2022 was a busy time in my life. I had books under contract, and I had an eye surgery in October and back surgery in February (both surgeries were life-changingly successful). During that time I worked on two exciting projects. One was the revised and updated edition of Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There if You Know Where to Look(a much-expanded edition of the hugely successful 2017 original). The other was a new book called Your Writing Mentor C. S. Lewis.
As I studied the lives of both Walt Disney and C. S. Lewis, I was struck by the parallels between these two creative, influential men. C. S. Lewis (known to his friends as Jack) and Walt Disney lived lives that were almost exactly contemporaneous with each other. Lewis was born in November 1898, Walt in December 1901. Lewis died in 1963 at age sixty-four; Walt died in 1966 at age sixty-five. Walt and Jack both had very close and loving mothers (coincidentally, both mothers were named Flora). Walt and Jack both had emotionally distant fathers who didn’t give them understanding or approval.
Walt and Jack both grew up living in fantasy worlds of their own creation. As children, Walt and Jack both enjoyed drawing pictures of animals and making up stories about them. Both grew up reading fairy tales and fantasy stories, and were influenced by the charming “talking animal” stories of Beatrix Potter. Both enjoyed science fiction (and both were fans of Jules Verne and, later, Ray Bradbury).
Walt and Jack both had happy early childhoods, followed by miserable later childhoods. Both were nostalgic for the lost joys of their early childhood days. Walt’s happy childhood ended when his family moved from Marceline to Kansas City. Jack’s happy childhood ended at age nine when his mother died and his father bundled him off to an abusive boarding school in England.
Walt Disney and C. S. Lewis both created enduring works of children’s fantasy. And each created a famous talking mouse—Walt invented Mickey Mouse and Lewis created Reepicheep, the sword-fighting mouse of Narnia.
Walt and Jack both relied on their older brothers’ help for their success. Lewis’s brother Warnie was an ace two-fingered typist and typed all of Jack’s handwritten manuscripts. And Walt’s older brother Roy became Walt’s indispensable financier and business partner.
Both Walt and Jack were deeply patriotic men. Lewis volunteered to fight for King and Country in World War I. Walt altered his ID in an attempt to join the fight in World War I. (Walt’s transport ship arrived just after the war ended, but he served as a Red Cross ambulance driver in post-war France.)
You might think that, with all that C. S. Lewis and Walt Disney had in common, they might have been mutual admirers—but that was not the case.
Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted in the United States in 1937 and in the United Kingdom in 1938. Lewis and his brother Warren went to see it soon after its U.K. release. A few months later, Lewis went to see it again, this time with his good friend (and fellow Oxford professor) J. R. R. Tolkien.
Coincidentally, Tolkien’s first novel The Hobbit had been published in September 1937, just three months before the American debut of Snow White. Both The Hobbit and Snow White dealt extensively with creatures from Germanic folklore known as dwarves (or, in Disney parlance, dwarfs). According to Germanic mythology, dwarves are short, stout human-like creatures who live and work in mountain caves. Dwarves have a talent for mining and fabricating objects out of precious metals and jewels.
Until Tolkien introduced dwarves in The Hobbit and Disney introduced dwarfs in Snow White, these creatures from Germanic folklore were almost unknown in popular culture. Suddenly in 1937, both the literary world and the movie-going world became intensely aware of these stout, gruff little men who spent their lives mining for gems and gold—and occasionally battling dragons and witches.
C. S. Lewis would also use dwarves in the supporting cast of his Narnia tales, and he (like Tolkien) based his dwarves on ancient Germanic sources. In the tales of Tolkien and Lewis, dwarves were fierce, grim, and stoic—though they occasionally displayed a hint of whimsy. Disney’s dwarfs, by contrast, are anything but grim. They are jolly (with the exception of Grumpy) and play a largely comic role in Snow White. When Lewis and Tolkien watched the Disney version of Snow White, it was primarily the dwarfs themselves they hated. In their view, Disney had failed to capture the mythic nobility of the dwarves from Germanic folklore.
On January 11, 1939, Lewis wrote a letter to A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, a friend from his undergrad days at Oxford. In that letter, Lewis offered his impressions of Disney’s Snow White:
What did you think of Snowwhite and the vii Dwarfs? I saw it at Malvern last week. . . . Leaving out the tiresome question of whether it is suitable for children (which I don’t know and don’t care) I thought it almost inconceivably good and bad—I mean, I didn’t know one human being could be so good and bad. The worst thing of all was the vulgarity of the winking dove at the beginning, and the next worst the faces of the dwarfs. Dwarfs ought to be ugly of course, but not in that way. And the dwarfs’ jazz party was pretty bad. I suppose it never occurred to the poor boob that you could give them any other kind of music. But all the terrifying bits were good, and the animals really most moving: and the use of shadows (of dwarfs and vultures) was real genius. What might not have come of it if this man had been educated—or even brought up in a decent society?
Note that one of Lewis’s prime objections was to what he called “the dwarfs’ jazz party.” He was referring to the sequence where the dwarfs sing “The Yodel Song” (also known as “The Silly Song”), written for the film by Frank Churchill. During the song, the dwarfs take turns dancing with Snow White.
Is the song really “jazz”? No. The music has more of a Bavarian “oompah” sound, occasionally interrupted by a drum-and-cymbals crash from Dopey’s drum kit or a silly riff from Grumpy’s pump organ. I’ve listened to a lot of jazz, but never any jazz with yodeling. Lewis undoubtedly based his mistaken “jazz” impression on Dopey’s drumming.
In October 1954, Jane Douglass, a woman from America, visited Lewis at Magdalen College, Oxford. She asked Lewis about the possibility of adapting his Narnia novels to other media, such as radio, television, and film. Lewis found the idea objectionable, saying, “Plays should be plays, poems, poems, novels, novels, stories, stories.” He considered the possibility of his Narnia tales receiving the Disney treatment absolutely horrifying, adding, “Too bad we didn’t know Walt Disney before he was spoiled, isn’t it?”
Though C. S. Lewis didn’t have a very high opinion of Walt, he was an avid fan of Walt’s friend, Ray Bradbury. In 1953, after reading Bradbury’s first two novels, The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, Lewis praised Bradbury as a writer of “real invention.”
If Lewis and Tolkien could have sat down with Walt for a long talk, I think they might have found they had a lot more in common than they realized.
“Walt Disney was more important than all the politicians we’ve ever had. They pretended optimism. He was optimism. He has done more to change the world for the good than almost any politician who ever lived.” —Ray Bradbury
Most people think of Walt Disney as a businessman who founded a company and hired other people to do all the creative work. Not true.
I have written three books on Walt Disney — How to Be like Waltand Lead Like Walt, both co-written with Orlando Magic exec Pat Williams, and my own book Walt’s Disneyland. While researching these books, I discovered that the most creative person in the Disney organization was Walt himself. He was a fountain of ideas and imagination — yet he rarely gets the credit he deserves for his creativity.
The reason Walt is thought of as a businessman rather than a creative genius is that he expressed his creativity through the medium of people — writers, artists, songwriters, directors, and Imagineers. Most of the cartoons and feature films produced by the Disney studio began in the mind and soul of Walt himself — then he communicated his creative vision to his artists, and they carried it out.
The same is true of Disneyland. All the original attractions, as well as the hub-and-spoke layout of Disneyland, were fully formed in Walt’s imagination long before he told anyone about his dream.
During the weekend of September 26 and 27, 1953, Walt huddled with artist Herb Ryman at the Burbank studio. The two men worked for forty-eight hours without sleep. Walt described his vision of Disneyland, and Ryman translated Walt’s words into a map, three feet tall and five feet wide, that the Disney Company used to pitch the Disneyland TV show to the networks. (To learn more about the history of that map, read “Walt, a Man Named Grenade, and the First Map of Disneyland.”)
The map Herb Ryman drew under Walt’s direction was amazingly close to the actual design of Disneyland when it opened on July 17, 1955. The only major difference was that the map showed Adventureland to the east of Main Street instead of the west. Disneyland was a fully-formed kingdom in Walt’s imagination long before Herb Ryman inked a single pen-stroke.
The most popular attractions in the Park were all conceived by Walt —the Disneyland Railroad, the Mark Twain riverboat, the Jungle Cruise, Sleeping Beauty Castle, all of Fantasyland, the Monorail, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Pirates of the Caribbean, and so much more. Walt was a creative genius — and as I studied his creative process, I uncovered insights that have made me a better writer. I think they’ll change the way you write as well:
Insight No. 1: Mine Your Life Experiences
Walt owed much of his creativity to his warm childhood memories — and his bitter memories as well. Walt had two very different childhoods, one idyllic and happy, the other painful and harsh. He spent his first childhood — his happy childhood — on a farm outside of Marceline, Missouri, from ages four through nine.
He once told The Marceline News, “More things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since — or are likely to in the future. Things, I mean, like seeing my first circus parade, attending my first school, seeing my first motion picture.”
As a filmmaker and theme park creator, Walt drew upon his Marceline years for inspiration. His early cartoons, his feature films, and Disneyland itself are rich in idealized images of life in rural and small-town America. Many scenes from Walt’s early life appear in his films. For example, the enraged bull that chases Bobby Driscoll in Song of the South reenacts the time young Walt and his sister Ruth were chased across a field by a bull.
Walt’s happy childhood ended when his father, Elias Disney, became ill and was forced to sell the Marceline farm. Walt thought of the farm animals as his friends, and he wept as they were auctioned off. That’s when his unhappy childhood began.
The Disneys moved to Kansas City, where Elias bought a newspaper distributorship. He put Walt and his brother Roy to work delivering papers without pay. Walt and Roy arose at 3:30 in the morning, and sometimes waded through waist-high snowdrifts to make their deliveries. Walt arrived at school completely exhausted, and often slept in class. After school, he worked at a candy store.
You won’t find references in Walt’s movies to his unhappy Kansas City boyhood — yet Disneyland represents one of the few bright spots in Walt’s Kansas City years. He grew up fifteen minutes away (by streetcar) from Electric Park, a huge amusement park that featured band concerts, a carousel, boat rides on a lagoon, a wooden roller coaster and other thrill rides. A steam train ran around the park, and a fireworks show lit up the nights.
If that sounds a lot like Disneyland, there’s good reason for that. Walt later said that Disneyland “has that thing — the imagination and the feeling of happy excitement — I knew when I was a kid.”
Disneyland’s Main Street USA at night. Below: Electric Park, circa 1915.
Walt couldn’t afford the price of admission (ten cents), but he and his sister Ruth often sneaked into the park. Walt also visited Electric Park in the early 1920s (this time as a paying customer), when he owned the Laugh-O-gram animation studio in Kansas City. His studio was just two miles from Electric Park, and he and his animators often went there to unwind.
Disneyland not only re-creates the world of Walt’s nostalgic memories. It captures Walt’s boyhood obsessions. Fantasyland transforms the fairy tales of Walt’s childhood into a fully immersive fantasy experience. Tom Sawyer Island and the riverboat bring to life the fondly-remembered Mark Twain tales he loved. Tomorrowland is the realization of Walt’s boyhood fascination with the futuristic novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
Walt teaches us that our lives are a gold mine to be dredged for memories, emotions, and ideas. The lesson of his life is that we, as writers, should regularly ask ourselves:
What were the turning points in my life?
What are the most important lessons my life has taught me?
What am I nostalgic about? What are the experiences that hurt me? Frightened me? Thrilled me? Comforted me?
What were the stories, ideas, and places that captured my young imagination?
These are the things we must write about.
These experiences make us unique and creative: joys and sorrows, fears and fascinations, hard realities and flights of imagination. Walt didn’t merely tap into his memories and experiences. He plunged into his youthful obsessions: the Peter Pan stage show he saw as a boy, and the books he loved, from Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island.
So peer deeply into the gold mine of your life. Pick up and examine every shiny nugget of your past. Remember all the stories you read and objects you collected and places you explored in childhood. Remember the joys — and the pain. Seize the inspiration that’s there for the taking — then start building your own Disneyland out of words and memories.
Insight No. 2: Become an Actor
Walt Disney had the soul of an actor.
As a boy, he amused his classmates with impressions of Charlie Chaplin. He once came to school in a shawl, stovepipe hat, and fake beard, and delivered the Gettysburg Address as President Lincoln. He also donned his mother’s dress, hat, and wig, then rang the doorbell and carried on a conversation with his mother, pretending to be a neighbor lady. They talked for several minutes before his mother realized the “lady” was her own prankster son.
Walt loved to perform. One night in early 1934, Walt assembled his artists in a darkened soundstage at the Burbank studio. He stepped into the spotlight and told them they were going to make a fully animated feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Then he proceeded to act out the entire film. He performed each character, from Snow White to the evil Queen to each of the seven dwarfs. He became the characters, speaking in their voices, gesturing with their mannerisms. It was a three-hour bravura performance.
As Walt finished, his animators broke out in applause. Years later, one of the animators who was there that night told interviewer Robert De Roos, “That one performance lasted us three years. Whenever we’d get stuck, we’d remember how Walt did it on that night.”
To be creative like Walt, become an actor. When you write, act out your character’s voice and gestures. This works best, of course, when you write using voice dictation instead of a keyboard. But if you write by typing, then simply act out your scene before you type.
Get out of your chair, walk around the room, and become your characters. Act out the scene and experience the emotions of your characters. Then sit down and immediately write the scene. You’ll find added power and energy in your writing, and it will transform your creative process.
Insight No. 3: Write Your Obsessions
In Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket sings that when we wish upon a star, our dreams come true. That’s a pretty sentiment — but wishing on a star didn’t build the Disney studio in Burbank or Disneyland in Anaheim. Walt Disney’s legacy of success was built on a foundation of courageous vision, bold risk-taking, intense focus, and an unwavering obsession with his goals. And, of course, it was built on hard work.
Walt was never content with the status quo. He was determined to keep challenging himself and leading his studio in new directions. He was always eager to attempt what had never been done before. He followed Snow White with Pinocchio, then Fantasia, then Dumbo, then Bambi — each film a radical departure from anything he had ever done before. That’s why Salvador Dali declared him one of the great Surrealist artists of the time.
When Pat Williams and I were writing How to Be like Walt, director Ken Annakin (Swiss Family Robinson) told us that the key to Walt’s creativity was his obsession with his dreams. Annakin said, “I doubt whether one person in fifty million is capable of the obsessive focus with which Walt lived each day of his life. His grand obsession was simply to bring happiness to others. It made him who he was.”
Walt shows his Disneyland blueprints to Orange County officials in December 1954. Photo: Orange County Archives
And media critic Neal Gabler told us, “Walt Disney was an obsessive man. That obsessive quality made him passionate and kept him focused on his dreams. Of all the successful people I have ever studied, Walt was the most intensely focused on his goals. His ideas possessed him.”
One of Walt’s obsessions was a magically eccentric governess named Mary Poppins. But Walt had a problem: The creator of the Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers, refused to sell him the movie rights. In fact, Walt spent more than two decades, from 1938 to 1961, trying to convince her to part with the rights. He made overtures, sent her gifts, and engaged in on-again-off-again negotiations —but she was convinced that no film studio could do justice to Mary Poppins.
Finally, persistence paid off and Walt persuaded Ms. Travers to grant him the rights. But once the film went into production, she battled Walt over every detail. She fought him over the script, the music, the dialogue, the casting, the animation, and on and on. She was tough — but Walt was determined. Ultimately, he got the film made his way.
Walt once explained the importance of maintaining an obsessive focus on your goals in order to achieve success: “A person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and talent to getting there. With enough effort, he may achieve it. Or he may find something that is even more rewarding. But in the end, no matter what the outcome, he will know he has been alive.”
Writing is challenging work. It takes time and focus — and you’ll face opposition and even ridicule from the very people who ought to be in your corner. Learn from Walt. Never give up. Write your obsessions, and be obsessed with your dreams — and one day, your books and stories will bring happiness to the world.
Insight No. 4: Synergize with Fellow Writers
I define synergy as a process by which people work creatively together so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Synergy is a way to get more energy out of a system than you put into it. I think Walt Disney must have invented synergy. He assembled teams of talented people to turn his dreams into reality, and the result was always greater than the sum of the parts. Walt carefully selected the best people for every project. He’d mix skills, talents, and personalities like paints on an artist’s palette.
When I co-wrote How to Be like Walt with Pat Williams, artist and songwriter X Atencio told us, “Walt had an uncanny knack for discovering talent. He’d see talent in people that they didn’t even see in themselves. I had been an animator all those years. One day Walt said, ‘I want you to write the script for Pirates of the Caribbean. There’ll be scenes with pirates and townspeople and so forth, and I want you to write all the dialogue.’”
Walt even assigned X to write the Pirates theme song — and the result was the unforgettable tune, “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me.” It’s hard to believe X had never written a song before.
The essence of synergy is valuing the differences of other people. You and I don’t think alike, and we don’t have the same interests, talents, or experiences. This means you can supply what I lack, and I can supply what you lack, and together we can be far more creative than we could ever be alone. This means setting aside our own egos. It means opening ourselves to new ideas and different perspectives. It means accepting criticism and advice from editors and fellow writers.
A friend of mine is part of a group of professional novelists who regularly gather for a weekend of mutual encouragement and inspiration. They write in different genres — romance, thriller, mystery, fantasy — yet they always find that their differences turn out to be strengths. They critique each other’s work, they provide solutions for each other’s writing problems, and they motivate each other to keep reaching for their goals.
How do you find a writers group? Here are some suggestions:
Google your city and the search term “writers group” (in quotes) and some groups or meetings in your area should pop up.
Professional writers’ associations often have local chapters where you can meet fellow writers: Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Horror Writers Association, Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, and so forth. Some of these associations have member directories so that you can find fellow writers in your area.