January 10th, 2023
Steve and I think you will be as great as Walt Disney but you need to know all the big WORDS! We hope this will help. Be creative?”
– Inscription from a thesaurus I received in the early 90’s, from my Aunt Jan and Uncle Steve
My obsession with Walt Disney has, clearly, never been a secret.
I think some people, upon learning this, made a fair assumption: I was a kid who liked Disney movies a lot. But that wasn’t it. I actually wanted to be Walt Disney.
I wanted to be an animator. I wanted to start my own studio. I wanted a television channel. I wanted my own theme park(s). I wanted everybody to know who I was.
Over the years, I identified the thing that drove both him and me:
“Of all the things I’ve ever done,” said Walt, “I’d like to be remembered as a storyteller.”
I finally read The Triumph of American Imagination, an acclaimed, 900+ page biography by Neal Gabler. It’s been on my radar for years, but it is, to be completely honest, daunting. Book is heavy.
But it’s also everything I ever wanted.
I found a lot of myself, and learned (or was reminded) a lot about what I don’t want to do or be, between its covers.
Some of the similarities were just strange and particular; for example, Walt named his first daughter Diane Marie, which is my mother’s full name.
Others revealed to me that there is a shared matter in creative types.
His life of trial and error. Of not being scared to experiment, of not even being afraid to fail, which he did countless times. The thing that separated him was that he never gave up; sometimes he learned from his perceived failures, and sometimes he let those experiences warp him.
(An aside: until this book, I never realized how essential his brother, Roy, was to the entire Disney enterprise. He was arguably as important as Walt.)
Walt was dead serious about art without taking himself too seriously, which was a part of his mass appeal. He knew that popular entertainment can and should be art: something that moves you, fulfills you, and doesn’t leave you as soon as you finish the story.
One of my guiding lights as a writer and artist is evident through his life: art should be accessible to everyone, without being stupid or talking down to anybody; art can enrich any life.
I’m happy to report that as far as the racist and antisemitic claims are concerned, they don’t seem to be supported by much evidence. Walt Disney was absolutely a jerk sometimes, though.
People try to put larger-than-life figures in a box, by once and for all declaring whether they are a good or a bad person.
Any human worth their salt knows that everything is gray, and good and bad are not mutually exclusive traits.
Walt was something greater than a great man and more layered than a terrible one; he was interesting. He was a complicated genius who presented himself as plain as the kid who never graduated high school, which he was.
While often accused of “playing God,” by imagining his own reality, outside our own, that he could control, Walt got something wrong: the purpose of God is not to control, but to create.
In that regard, Walt was very much just a regular, flawed human being. Which is something I relate to, too.
As I figure out my next steps, and the new goals I want to achieve (yes, I still want my theme park, shut up), I could not have read this book at a more essential time.
Seeing his whole life from my vantage point let me relive my own past, revise my present, and reimagine my future.
“Scholars are fortunate that Walt, who practically from childhood had an inflated sense of his own importance, seemed to keep everything, even a postcard he drew for his mother when he was a boy.” Boy, that hits home.
We all carry spirits from the past forward, and if we’re smart, we lose and add some things along the way, plussing that feeling.
His spirit tells me to never grow old, and to never give up.
This is the spirit that keeps me going.