THE MYTH OF “WRITING TO SELL”

I was doing all sorts of things to avoid writing.  I scrolled through emails and Facebook. I made some phone calls.  I picked up a few books that were laying around with bookmarks indicating where I had stopped the last time I picked them up.  The next book I picked up was actually a set.  Four books in a box.  They were written by A.A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard, and they are Winnie the Pooh books.  I paid, I think, around fifty dollars for the little box of little books.  And I had seen a movie  called “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which piqued my interest in the author.

So then I had to know about the man.  There are all sorts of amazing tidbits about this author on Wikipedia, anyone can look him up.  But the fact that stood out for me was this:

Looking back on this period (in 1926), Milne observed that when he told his agent that he was going to write a detective story, he was told that what the country wanted from a “Punch humorist” was a humorous story; when two years later he said he was writing nursery rhymes, his agent and publisher were convinced he should write another detective story; and after another two years, he was being told that writing a detective story would be in the worst of taste given the demand for children’s books. He concluded that “the only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything is that I want to write it.”

And so he wrote some stories for his son and his wife.  The dedication in Winnie-the-Pooh reads, “Hand in hand we come/Christopher Robin and I/To lay this book in your lap. / Say you’re surprised? /Say you like it? /Say it’s just what you wanted?/Because it’s yours -/Because we love you.” Any writer can relate to the trepidation revealed in that dedication – who would buy a little book about Milne’s son and his stuffed bear?  He had no way of knowing what a behemoth of a property the Winnie the Pooh character(s) and stories would become.  No one knew.  It’s like the William Goldman quote, “Nobody knows anything.” So says the author of “The Princess Bride,” “The President’s Men,” “Marathon Man,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and the book “Adventures in the Screen Trade” from whence that quote came.  If anyone should know what has the potential to be successful in writing, publishing, and Hollywood, it would be Goldman. But he was right, no one knows if anything is going to be successful. 

         So the current reverse-engineering thinking in Hollywood that you have to write “something that is currently selling,” is crap.  My agent has scolded me about that through the years, every time I write a period piece or a romantic drama unlike any other TV show.  I know the subtext is, “Make it a slam-dunk for me to sell your script.” AA Milne’s agent told him the same thing in 1925 and here we are, almost a hundred years later, chasing the same theory, a theory proven by Milne and practically every other successful writer, not to be true.  Hence, the aphorism, “Write what you know,” which is the same thing as Milne’s (paraphrasing here) “I write it because I want to.”

         And yet, as has often been posited, you don’t have to kill someone to write a murder novel.  You can use your imagination.  Said Albert Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination circles the world.” So all the sci-fi books and screenplays that portray the future used imagination.  All the historical novels.  All novels, period. All screenplays, period.  They all come from the writer’s imagination. And no one EVER knows if it will be successful, even if it’s a Star Wars or Star Trek spinoff.  It has to work, it has to be a story that stands alone in all its glory, the glory of the writer’s imagination.

         And every writer questions the merit of the piece as they’re making it.  Here’s something David Bayles and Ted Orland point out in Art and Fear; Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking:

         “At some point the need for acceptance may well collide head-on with the need to do your own work…It’s the ballad of the cowboy and the mountain man, the myth of artistic integrity and Sesame Street: sing the song of your heart, and sooner or later the world will accept and reward the authentic voice.”  We all hope for that, despite what the buyers and brokers say.  Standing in J.K. Rowling’s shoes for a moment, one wonders how she felt after eight publishers had rejected her first Harry Potter book. Did she still believe she had an authentic voice? Did she still believe that her authentic voice would be recognized and become successful? Her agent was saying, “I don’t know… we’ve been turned down eight times…”  But she didn’t let the agent quit.  And then Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sold 500 million copies. I imagine it was much easier to sell Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and all the other sequels after that.  A sequel comes with a pre-informed audience, one who has invested much in previous incarnations.  It’s harder to convince anyone that a new idea has merit until it’s proven that it does. Mark Twain said it better: “The man with the new idea is a crank – until the idea succeeds.”

         So there are four books about Winnie the Pooh.  Four books that A.A. Milne wrote.  And then, there are:

         6 plays

         5 theatrical shorts

         6 features

         5 TV shows

         4 holiday specials

         9 direct to video features

         19 video games

I’m quite sure that A.A. Milne never imagined that his new idea would succeed so well. But because he sold his rights to the property in 1930, he must have been satisfied with his creation.  It was the Disney organization that took advantage of Milne’s imagination, just as Warner Brothers made millions after Rowling sold the rights.  But every big success requires the initial idea however, the one born of a writer’s imagination.

         And so… I will sit down to write. Something original. Something authentic.  I shall not worry about selling it, I will focus on my imagination and tell a story.  Tomorrow.  I will sit down to write tomorrow.