Advice from the mastermind behind The Twilight Zone
Rod Serling was undoubtedly way ahead of his time. For a writer to be tackling themes revolving around social issues that proved to be controversial in the era he inhabited; primarily the 1950s, he was constantly subject to fascination and interrogation by his peers. His position was always delivered in a thorough manner: his belief in the human mind’s limitless potential.
Among others, he was the creator of classic sci-fi and fantastical television series such as The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, as well as the movie franchise Planet of the Apes; all of which have accumulated immense success for their tendency to escape the scope of reality and speculate the possibilities that may be true beyond what is seen with the naked eye. He had seen and attested to the potential of television as a storytelling device, which has proven true in recent years.
A couple of days ago, I came across an interview of his with Mike Wallace that took place in 1959. Watching the clip instilled within me a number of impressions. I could not help but view Serling as the embodiment of every aspiring writer’s vision; a vision of transforming the seemingly endless selection of worlds floating through their minds into words on paper.
From the start of the interview, where Wallace asked Serling about his intention behind leaving his steady job for a career as a freelance television writer, I knew this was going to be an interesting take on a much larger question that every creative will encounter at some point in their lives. Why exchange a comfortable present for an uncertain future? Who is to say our years of effort to transfer inspirational content will do anything more than stir a momentary discourse? After all, we all come and leave from this world, unnoticed in the stream of generations that pass by. Or are we?
Today, almost 41 years following his passing away, his work remains as one of the most distinguished set of pieces from which immense cinematic reboots and derivations have been tempered with throughout the years; with the only catch being: he never intended to achieve such recognition to begin with.
From being a staff writer at a Cincinnati television station (a role which he referred to as dreamless given its main focus on superficial commercials) to one of the most recognized screenwriters worldwide, Serling can be attributed as a mind to draw some writer’s wisdom from.
- 1. Owning Your Voice
One of the most characteristic takeaways from Serling’s interview was how he continuously praised the notion of standing up for what we believe to be right in our hearts. If we are to write something, we must be certain that it is what we wish to express from the deepest depths of ourselves, and not something digestible that is written purely with sought-after money or acknowledgement. Most noteworthy works, including some of the primary productions of Serling himself, did not meet wide appreciation straight away. As he mentions, he felt proud to have had the chance to ignore any invitations that would pave his path towards fame and fortune; instead choosing to pursue the projects he felt he was born to develop and distribute. Above all things, a writer, he says, should never feel ashamed of anything they have penned.
The following line precisely encapsulates his perspective:
“In eleven or twelve years of writing, Mike [Mike Wallace, CBS News], I can lay claim to at least this: I have never written beneath myself. I have never written anything that I didn’t want my name attached to. I have probed deeper in some scripts and I’ve been more successful in some than others. But all of them that have been on, you know, I’ll take my lick. They’re mine and that’s the way I wanted them.” — Rod Serling
- 2. Rebelling against the Norm
Serling was a writer at a time when television was at its birthing stages and prone to close monitoring by studios who preferred to refrain from dealing with subjects deemed as taboo. What Serling had to respond to Wallace’s query of the manner in which he felt about this, and what can serve as an example to an ever-evolving society with shifting standards on censorship, is this:
Drama (interpreted as a form of art), is a medium through which reactions to circumstances affecting society should be expressed. He also stated the fact of the matter which is that a writer; a television writer in his case, is placed in a battlefield. To see their vision realize onto the screen, it must comply with the expectations of the studios or sponsors, or the audience to which they cater to; scrapping controversy, in order to guarantee a guaranteed source of support. But that is not a battle a writer should fight; he stated. In fact, he got tired of fighting it. Instead of settling for second best, he realized his potential to claim the final product of what he had spent time creating; products that no writer should, by any means, stop chasing until they are realized.
- 3. A Consistent Workload
Upon being asked about the time he devotes to working as a writer (and simultaneously a producer), he answered without hesitation: 12–14 hours a day; a surplus of what is considered to be the current standard of a 9–5 office job.
Other than implying that creativity demands an input that exceeds the amount of time imposed for most tasks, Serling proposed the sentiment that the more time a writer spends on writing, the more their role as an artist is developed. The craft of writing is not merely to come up with one or two ideas, but countless ideas stemming from the same drive that prompted us to write the first few.
- 4. Modesty
In witnessing any of the interactions with Serling, it is clear to notice one thing. He has never praised himself. As intrinsic and novel as his ideas were, he has always spoken of himself as a writer who simply acknowledged the duties that come along with being one.
Writers, among other creators, might fall into the trap of perceiving themselves as something superior; and whilst we all come with our unique packages, we should ensure that we don’t let the power of greed or status take over us — elements which, as Serling implied, tend to divert a writer’s attention from their underlying purpose.
Serling has proven to be insightful and motivating when it came to depicting his stance as a writer. He has offered this message: A genuine writer who has a passion for meaningful storytelling will not settle for anything less than that — meaningful storytelling. If that is accompanied by a source of income, then that, like any other individual who has embarked on a creative career will tell you — is nothing more than a plus.
- 5. Quality over Quantity
As previously mentioned, Serling was a mind of great talent that did not escape the attention of studios and other parties within the film industry. Seeking to acquire profit, their natural instinct was to consult him on potential projects that he could take on, but never felt inclined to. Why, you may ask? Why give up the dream, or what is perceived as the dream of a writer who aspires to share his stories with the world? There is only one answer to that.
In understanding his lack of will to write anything he did not feel passionate about, he could not bear the thought of being viewed as the creator of content that meant nothing to him, but meant everything to the distributors merely abiding by the code of consumerism. If we, as writers, have the voice to transfer hints of meaning, emotion, and entertainment, shouldn’t we value what it has to say? At the end of the day, voices exist to speak, and the fact that each of ours has something to say should be respected and adhered to. As he summed it up best himself:
“Being like everybody is the same as being nobody.” — Rod Serling
Below is the Mike Wallace Interview with Rod Serling (1959) which inspired this article: