Sunday, March 22, 2015

The story of Rod Serling is the story of all writers whether they are aware of it or not.

I worked as a pizza delivery driver years ago in a small, sleepy California beach town.  Ours was the only pizza place open until the wee hours.  Resultantly, I commanded every tip and order in town unavailable to other pizza delivery drivers after 11 p.m.

While serving a small, exclusive entertainment enclave community, I was able to meet many household name stars, up and coming acts working their way to the top of the industry in their respective artistic disciplines and many more who were, like me, aspiring young creators.

While I do not intend to dish and divulge many of the great and significant personal interactions I had with the rich and famous, famous to be and famous only in their own minds, one experience of my own mirrors a step along the path many aspiring writers will, have or are encountering now.

I was a dedicated entertainment writer.  And it should be said no matter where you are or what you write (perhaps with some exception academic or technical writing), every writer who is in the creative stage of writing for themselves or writing for an audience of one type or another - all of us are in the entertainment business. 

I studied the film and entertainment industries and writing in places like The American Film Institute, the Writer's Guild archives and the Director's Guild of America as a journalist for Actor's Weekly covering 'the biz', as I call it.   

I remember the advice given to me by Michael Douglas, who said to me, "You want to be a writer?  You'd better study everything else.  Otherwise, people will tell you you don't know what the fuck you are talking about."

I became so steeped in the mindset, worldview and personality types of the entertainment industry I came to that place everyone can and ought to get to where you know the breed when you see it.

One night, on my last delivery taking me well past two in the morning, the door was opened by a tall gentleman who was clearly the customer.  I knew this was going to be a good tip.  While my instincts served me well in knowing the breed when I see it, my predilection for opening my mouth and speaking my mind did not.

"You're a director," I said immediately.  The man looked at me weirdly, like I was a psychic.  He paused, collected himself and recovered by asking with some wariness, "How'd do guess that?"  

"I'm a screenwriter.  I know the breed," I confidently replied with my trademark big horse grin.  

We talked film and writing for a few brief minutes after his guard came down and Ross ended up being my first script writing assignment.

Guidelines are notoriously flexible in this business, but I had to ask him what kind of story he was looking for. 

Given the lateness of the hour, the fact we were both tired and a long, specific conversation would have detracted from the freshness and temperature of the pizza - my purpose for the visit anyway - he replied, "I'm looking for something sci-fi and something Serling."

I'd been writing science fiction for a long time, but didn't know outside of the provincial view (the thorniest view one can have) what 'something Serling' meant, but I agreed to write for him and set a quick three week deadline to provide him with a first draft.

I went to work researching Rod Serling's life, writing and creative experience.  I read all of the autobiographies on him I could over the next six days.

A week after that, I was able to adapt both worldviews into one story, and my first script, "Monkeys on the Moon" was born.

It was a great first step in my writing career.  Ross passed on directing a second script I'd written, but he me did the professional courtesy of reading it thoroughly and considering it thoughtfully.  

And so I began entertainment writing, and repeat again, for the most part, all writers are in the entertainment business.  

Whether one believes this or not may be proven by the simple question, "How are you going to get the reader to turn to the next page and keep reading?"   Technique and style are easy answers.  Being entertaining is the right answer.  And audience will forgive technique and style challenges if they are entertained anyway.

That is how tickets are sold, my friends.  And copies if you are writing in a reading format.

Even a dry textbook writer needs to utilize style, technique and approach to make the manuscript engaging to their target audience to the best of their ability, but at a certain point, they have to consider what is going to keep the reader on the page.  Required reading is not always the best guarantee of attention or for that matter, qualitative execution of the manuscript when only expertise is required for editorial review.  

While most creators have only a general idea who they are writing (or producing in another medium) for to greater or lesser degree, it is good advice to write for yourself no matter what stage of your career you are at; though this is not necessitate in all narratives.

At a certain point, your writing and creative faculty matures.  You begin to work on less personal themes (though this is not exclusively so) and begin to treat with your story's worldview (something you could and in my opinion, should develop for works in pre-production scripting phase) looking at larger scale worldviews and subjects. 

These less personalized and more objective scope manuscripts can run the gamut from the family as the social unit such as in Death of a Salesman, written by the great Arthur Miller, or Cat on A Hot Tin Roof by the great Tennessee Williams.

At the other end of the manuscript worldview context are large scale views such as Star Wars by George Lucas or War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  

At any worldview scale, forces defining conflict at the heart of most stories are described to greater or lesser degrees depending on their position in the narrative hierarchy required for exposition creating clear understanding of the scale and types of forces affecting your principle characters, circumstance and goal(s). 

Each character has their own worldview (or as the old screenwriting axiom states, "What's at stake?") affecting speech, actions (protagonistic or antagonistic) and relationships to other characters and/or the story world.

At a certain point, reconciliation of each of these views can be mandatory or not, depending on the fate cast by the author for each element described in a consistent, cohesive story world.  I like to have all the loose ends tied up in my manuscripts when possible, but each creator is unique.

Which brings me to the case in point regarding Rod Serling. 

Let me background you a little here by turning back the hands of time to the days of the television drama, a popular medium just after the days when radio was no longer the predominant media of the times.

Television drama was consumed by American television audiences rabidly.  Many writers from the radio era successfully made the transition to writing for the small screen.  Those of you not familiar with the medium and message reasoning so brilliantly presented by Marshall McLuhan would be wise to read and understand Understanding Media, his seminal work, and not only getting it but become adept at putting it to use. 

These television writers, many of whom went on to successful film writing and directing careers, among them Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet, lived and wrote in an era where communist witch hunt mentality by the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers.

I almost want to invent a word that is a derived sub-classification of followers called 'fallowers' intended to describe the uncultivated among the larger class of followers.  McCarthyism devastated the ranks of entertainment workers through a practice still utilized but unspoken in cloistered society known as 'blacklisting.'

Great actors such as Humphrey Bogart and many others took issue with the witch hunt, facing down Joseph McCarthy and his minions in congressional hearings and well, the truthful disputation of McCarthyism's assertions are well documented and more importantly laid to rest where they belong - in the past never to arise again, with reason willing.  

Many people have memories of this tragic aberration of congressional responsibility today.  We must never forget.
It is important for all creators to remember this demon does not lie fallow in our society, our culture and our collective consciousness in order to be capable of combating the enemies of freedom.  You must contend with such socialism at every turn it rears it's ugly head.  

Writers in particular found then, and today the timidity and hesitance of publishers, producers and yes, even the audience itself can prevent significant new work from reaching the public eye or ear or above all, the consideration of the reasoning human mind.  This was for meany reasons.  Fear, greed, conservatism, protection of the status quo.  No matter how you describe it, you must realize these are the things that hold back the hands of time in the greater sense, and for the petty sake of mere politics destroy the lives of able, culture contributing creators.  

Concerns for economic goals over creative goals often leads to the milquetoast mire we find our culture in today with (my phrase, and remember everything I say is copyrighted you internet pirates) 'kinder media', appropriateness to the point of apathy and accountability agnosticism attempting predominate status in the collective consciousness.

Worst of all, the marginalization and the relegation to the fringe of society by the status quo creators who challenge established (right or wrong) tenets of society as a whole can be a result of this concern.  This is not a progressive society.  

Challenging the established norms of society is a way to create a better, future society.  In an era where 700 corporations control 98% of all goods, services and trade, you would think this would be a paramount concern of creators who want to use their imagination, creativity and the advocacy of audience influence within their grasp for the betterment of culture.  But a lot of creators and others just give up, with rationales like, "There's nothing I can do about it."  Or, "Politics is corrupt anyway, nothing can be done about that."

This is yesteryear thinking, and has no place in our future.  

But we seem to have stalled on this underlying responsibility of creators.  That this is an underlying responsibility of creators at all is subject to debate. But let me ask you, what creative acts have changed the world from important and great degrees to smaller incremental ones?  Every one.  There is no new thing which is not created. That is absolute.

Perhaps this is a good place to direct you to six short minutes of film from the film "The Fountainhead" to illustrate the importance of the creator in society, and the rights to which they are entitled.

Luddites who feel they cannot change anything have played the sloth card in life and are not contributing citizens. Comfort and convenience rule their worldview, and they are excellent servants, as if this were the fate of their lives.  It is not.  

Morons who believe there is nothing new under the sun, well, time has shown this rationale as retrogressive.  

This is not the American way.  

Rod Serling knew this, and when he ran into obstacles to his creative expression when writing about bias based issues such as race relations, religious persecution and human aspiration, he had to win some and lose some.  But he fought the good fight, as we all can choose to do.

Rod Serling knew he had the creative ability to dig deep and reach out with creative expressions engaging the audience.  He stimulated thinking and conversation ultimately leading to change in views necessary for a healthy and progressive society.  This leads ultimately to a healthy and progressive civilization.

There are only 11 countries in the entire world right now that are experiencing peace.  To paraphrase Rod Serling, I submit for your consideration that creators can have, and should engage in if they choose, a massive effect on the current state of civilization.

We can do this with the tool that is foremost in all our creative abilities.  The ability to change hearts and minds with the descriptive work they produce for public consumption.  As I like to say from time to time, control the description and you control the narrative.  Control the narrative and you control reality.  

Rod Serling took on tough issues and presented points of view many of the corporate sponsors of his day either thwarted through compelling changes to the original work altering it's potential or denied supporting said works based on the 'profit uber alles' worldview usually involving changing absolutely nothing.  Only a fool believes commercialism is the be all, end all of society.  

Yet Rod Serling persevered, pushed and changed the worldview of the status quo in spite of it's resistance to change.  Along with many other creators of his time, he led to the advancement of society and civilization that we enjoy the benefits of today much as the early advocates of civil rights, gender and class equality did and we enjoy (but should not take for granted) today.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.  

You can learn from Rod Serling.  Do not take for granted what you have been told by populist perception (which is often failed logic, just plain wrong or designed for forced consumption) of a person or a topic.  Use your power of creativity to make the world a better place, not just the repetition of outdated, inadequate themes simply because it is profitable to do so in comfort and convenience addicted society.  Discovery is why we think.  

This is far wiser than reinforcing the patrician pablum so predominant in the popular media run by corporate personages (yes, they are legally persons under law) designed solely to extract every penny you ever earn from you and enrich themselves.  Yes, that tired, old theme.  

This media assault if it conquers you, leaves you under a mountain of debt you will work off for the rest of your life (I call it soft slavery - its not illegal yet it exists and permeates the very essence of society) an unfulfilled life where your very time (the only thing granted to the living) is sacrificed.

These sacrifices take terrible toll on our personal relationships and individual happiness (the pursuit of happiness is one of the inalienable rights granted all in The Declaration of Independence for and in the United States) and leads to a pathetic state of civilization as history has proven time and again.

You, the creator, have the power within your talent to change these things to the best of your ability.  You the creator, have the right of choice as to whether or not you exercise your creative power to make your life, your society and the future a better place for everyone.

To understand the individual struggle within a worldview of resistance to change, rather than write them down, just watch the American Masters documentary on Rod Serling.

I am asking a lot for you to spend an hour and a half watching this, I know.  But it is time well spent in my opinion.  It clarifies a struggle that has been going on for centuries, and will not go away until we make it go away with the individual creator efforts with the intent to create a better society for all.

I may be a comedy writer, but I also produce and publish solutions for all kinds of social problems, such as homelessness, the environment and education.  I do these social service projects to contribute to a better tomorrow on one hand, and because as a creator, I recognize the personal creative growth opportunity within producing those particular works.

I encourage you to consider that your talent and creativity are far greater abilities that you currently understand.  I encourage you to consider writing about things that matter to us all as well as the things that matter to you.

For is it not true that when you create for yourself, you create for us all?  

It is solely the power of an idea that moves civilization forward.  You have in creativity a skill that can produce or retard progressivism.  

The alternatives to not continuing this tradition of creator's progressive ideation are tragically and well documented in darker, inhumane and primitive eras of history.

Don't be a part of that dark, sad legacy.  Change begins with you.

This is the voice of an American Screenwriter.

The Lone Comic TM
Defender of Creativity and Entertainment SM

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