The Importance of Chronological Continuity in Historical Writing [Part 7 of 12]

How I Organized The Writing of The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Part 7)

[Other posts in this series can be found here.]

A considerable amount of time on the first and second rewrite of The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (TBWD) was taken up by the problem of continuity.

There is so much raw information about Walt Disney and events at the Studio from different points of view that I had to decide: how to use the material available to tell the story; what to keep and what to cut; and how to link everything together in an honest and natural narrative that would make sense to, and be enjoyed by, the reader.

At its root, TBWD is about understanding Walt Disney as a businessman and learning from his heroic story and genius as an entrepreneurial leader so that we can be inspired to pursue our own dreams and aspirations in pursuit of happiness and the good life.

To have my audience understand Walt Disney and his achievements, I had to understand and convey Walt Disney’s thinking, and that meant I had to convey Walt Disney’s values. To understand what motivates a person to act, in this case Walt Disney, you have to understand how Walt Disney put to use his knowledge of the business, his personal experiences with others that resulted in creative breakthroughs and at times caused him great suffering, his rock-solid optimism and self-confidence in his ability to reason and develop innovative solutions, and his unshakeable positive sense-of-life and commitment to Midwestern Judeo-Christian values of hard-work, honesty, and decency.

One also has to understand that each of these aspects of values, capabilities, and ambitions are dynamic, changing over time as opportunities present themselves and new constraints arise.

An ongoing shifting of time and improper converging of disparate events can be confusing and unfair to the reader. Ensuring the reader is not confused is the responsibility of the writer.

Unfortunately, there are writers of Disney biographies who don’t take this into consideration. An author telling a story, fiction or non-fiction, already knows the story and the ending. The story must be told with a presumption that the reader is unknowledgeable about events that have not yet been told. In the understanding and telling of history, future events and their implications can not be brought to bear on the understanding of earlier events in the way that past events can be connected to future events. For example, you can’t use an analysis of Walt Disney’s Cinderella (1950) to help explain decisions made in the making of Pinocchio (1940).

In helping the reader understand a progression of events, it is imperative that the author stays focused rather than engaging in a stream of consciousness connection of disparate times and events of which the reader has not yet been properly informed.

Consider one author who begins to tell the story of Walt’s thinking about the need to create a feature length animated feature to sustain his Studio, and his ambition to execute a multi-year plan to develop the artistic abilities of his animators and build an organization with the discipline to sustain an expensive multi-year project. In just a few pages the author seems to have rather randomly tossed together not just a hash of important events that occurred in the time-frame leading up to the completion of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but also writes about and brings into consideration a number of events that have not yet occurred in the biographical timeline. This includes: unspecified changes in animation techniques in Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), Peter Pan (1953), and Sleeping Beauty (1959); that animation lessons attended by animation staff was the precursor to Disney nature documentaries under the True Life Adventures banner starting in 1949; the opening of the new Disney Burbank studio in 1940; the animator strike in 1941; and Walt’s desire and attempts to improve the organizational structure and define senior roles and responsibilities post Snow White in 1938. From a reader’s perspective, it’s as if the author has shaken his head filled with Disney knowledge and this is the stuff that randomly fell out. It might be interesting to read, but there is neither coherence nor chronological continuity to what appears to be an arbitrary narrative.

For his first 30 years of operation in California, the Disney Studio operated in a position of financial stress. It was important for me to see the Disney Studio story from Walt’s perspective and to related that perspective coherently. There are places in the book where I spend considerable time juxtaposing the perspective of employees interested in doing good work for a salary and without the risk of entrepreneurship, with the responsibilities that were uniquely Walt’s as an owner and investor of the business and as the guiding intelligence over the organization.

There are at least two sides to every story, and many times the story looks different when seen from a business point of view and having an understanding of the pressures faced by Walt to keep the business moving forward, that regular workers knew nothing about and didn’t have to take into consideration. I go into most detail in this regard in the post-Snow White years that lead up to the 1941 studio strike, and juxtapose some of these different perspectives pertaining to levels of accountability later in the book where I present the Nine Principles of Walt Disney’s success.

Part of the key to writing the book the way I wanted to write it, and what makes it unique amongst the existing biographies, is that I tried to unwind the threads of each broad event around which the various stories are told in the existing biographies, and lay them out side-by-side so that the reader can appreciate that major story events in Walt’s life occurred simultaneously and not in isolation, and that what did occur happened because Walt envisioned it and directed it.

Keeping one’s eyes on the simultaneous undertakings that Walt was responsible for managing and bringing to a satisfactory conclusion under difficult circumstances and how events are interconnected in time helps to provide the reader with a better and more accurate sense of continuity and complexity Walt was required, and able, to juggle. Other people employed by Walt who bought into and shared his vision made huge contributions and innovations that benefited Walt and the studio’s success, but they were able to do so because they engaged their intellect under Walt’s approval and support.

© 2019, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved. 

Barry Linetsky is the author of the acclaimed book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press), and an Honorary Disney History Institute Historian. Barry is a writer, photographer, researcher, and business strategy enabler.

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