Writing

5 Writing Tips from A. A. Milne and the Men of ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’

Domhnall Gleeson as A.A. Milne in ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’/Image © 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures

If one truly aims to elucidate the differences between the British and Americans, it is perhaps best to start with something as base as our respective Poohs. On the one hand, there is the very British hyphenate – Winnie-the-Pooh – who first appears in author A. A. Milne’s work in 1924 and is finally given his own volume of prose in 1926. Pooh is a quite sentient, social animal driven by the push/pull of his desire for snacks running in conflict with the impolitesse of asking for them too directly.

Cut to 1961. Two women, both surviving their husbands, license the bashful bear to The Walt Disney Company. Disney promptly loses the hyphens and take to heart Milne’s quote, “I am a bear of very little brain, and long words bother me,” loosing upon the world an ursine idiot with the single-minded pursuit of “hunny,” even if it means diving into the pot leaving his nether regions exposed to predation. There is an intercession in 1930 by which an American purchases the “rights” to Pooh and practically creates the modern licensing industry, but that is perhaps a story best saved for another time.

Right now, I’ve got British screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan on the horn from the UK with, by proxy, a writer they’ve spent the better part of a decade trying to wrestle to the ground, the aforementioned A. A. Milne. They each have some very unique ideas about writing. Boyce’s have inspired manifest-like, bullet-pointed lists over the years and Milne summed many of his up in his excellent 1939 autobiography, It’s Too Late Now: The Autobiography of a Writer. Vaughan, who’s been tinkering with the writer’s life since 2010 for the upcoming biopic “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” is also game to comment.

And so it is without further ado that we give you a build-a-bear workshop of sorts wherein two living writers and one gone some sixty years on tussle over five points concerning the very act of writing, which, just like Hundred Acre Wood, “will always be there … and anybody who is friendly with bears can find it.”

It’s The Gig Economy, Stupid
“Never accept a job at a paper,” Milne’s mentor H. G. Wells suggested. “Remain freelance instead.” Despite a love/hate relationship with the British humor magazine Punch, which first hung its shingle in 1941, Milne did just that. Boyce has summed up this advice before as Write a play instead, pointing out that almost any film takes years. Milne took this advice as well, banging out eighteen plays before Pooh ever reared his head. Boyce traces a BBC project that was twenty years in the offing. “A lot of times you’re taught to preplan a lot,” he says. “Draw the diagram first, draw the blueprint, and then join the dots. And those techniques are great as diagnostics afterward, but your first draft has to be like a first date, you have to be really open to what happens to it. If you get an idea, you should let yourself bounce around for a little while and find out where it takes you. You know, Milne had ideas about himself as a polemicist and a West End writer, but had no idea that what was really going to change the world was this little bear.”

Start at the Beginning
For all parties involved, this means the title. For Milne, in 1926, this meant titling his children’s book, simply, Winnie-the-Pooh. For Vaughan, his title “Goodbye Christopher Robin” remains unchanged from the first day he started working on the script in 2010. “There was never any hesitation for me once I found the idea,” Vaughan adds. “It never came up and it never got debated. It just always felt like the right title.” Calling something what it was lead to some frustration for Milne, who had to witness Dorothy Parker reviewing his creations in The New Yorker by employing the slur “Kwistopher Wobin,” causing the author to finally crack, “No writer of children’s books says gaily to his publisher, ‘Don’t bother about the children, Mrs. Parker will love it.’” Boyce adds, “Your title is like your flag, and you follow it into battle.”

Read It Aloud
This is the first major departure between the painfully shy Milne and his latter-day chroniclers. Boyce stresses how easy it is to fool yourself on the page, when reading aloud you can scan for telltale signs like an audience checking its watch or even parts you are tempted to omit. But the whole process just felt too overwhelming for Milne, who wrote, “I may be unique in not wanting to say anything aloud at any time.” He backs into a story about reading a speech on the radio and one of his East Sussex neighbors telling him they heard the broadcast on a recent trip to Honolulu. “Good,” his wife informed him. “I’m glad they heard you somewhere.”

Does Your Hero Really Need to Go Up And Down That Tree?
We’ve posed this one as a question because Milne and Boyce are in such opposition over the point, with Vaughan hugging the middle ground, but anyone who’s ever seriously considered the craft of writing will have at one point or another found themselves face-to-face with Robert McKee and his “Story Seminar.” For those of you convinced that’s the way to go, Mr. McKee is on the continent next month and a weekend will set you back £665 or 1,200€ before airfare and hotel depending on your choice of London or Paris. Still here? Okay then, when it comes to breaking your screenplay out into three acts, know that Boyce interprets this as simply having a beginning, middle, and end, but he is a firm believer in the episodic structure that he admires in everything from Chaucer to the “Godfather” saga. Milne? Not so much. When asked about “the present conventional form of play structure and the physical limitations of the stage hindering the dramatist,” he cheekily replies, “Certainly. One is also hindered by the conventional form of the sonnet. How much more freely and fully Wordsworth might have expressed himself about Westminster Bridge if he had been writing a guide book?” He even goes so far as to attribute “this passion for freedom untrammeled by form” to “the evil influences of Bolshevism.”

Don’t Go Chasing Lightning Bolts
This final point on inspiration is one that finds Milne and his present-day collaborators again on opposite sides of the line, with Milne focused on the ten percent perspiration while Boyce and Vaughan stress not waiting on the ninety percent inspiration. Despite his prodigious output, Milne details “weeks of anguish during which I am nobody’s friend” followed by bouts of, “It’s no good, I shall never write again.” His old friend H. G. Wells characterized these fits as being “in the basket again” and Milne jokes that “no one ever said to their wife, ‘If I am not inspired by eleven o’clock, dear, I shall want the car.’” Boyce adds that when Milne worked at Punch, from joining the staff in 1906 to trying to flee after drawing a salary for most of WWI, he didn’t have such a luxury. “At Punch there was a lunch every week,” Cottrell Boyce says, “and everyone threw out ideas very much like I imagine the writers room at ‘The Simpsons.’” Vaughan laughs. “I went a long way down the Punch road,” he remembers, “writing scenes that I don’t think were even there by the time you got involved, Frank. I got thoroughly intoxicated in what that world must have been like, but then I’m a TV producer. This is the first and only time I sat down to write a script, but I really didn’t approach it from any academic point of view. I just found the story. One day I went for a walk with my son in the London Zoo and there was that statue of the bear.”