A crash course in how to be creative from Rod Serling
During New Years, my wife and I always try to catch a few hours of The Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy. This year marked the 20th anniversary the station has run the yearend blitz of this trippy show. According to online sources, the TZ marathon attracts over a million viewers. It’s amazing, considering the show premiered in 1959.
Of course, it’s dated. The show was shot in black and white, the acting can be pretty wooden, and the sets look like TV sets. But the stories are still compelling and often timeless—and before you know it, you’ve binge watched eight episodes.
Serling wrote 92 out of the 156 shows, picking up some Emmy and Hugo awards along the way. He was known, especially in his early career, as being an angry young man constantly fighting with TV executives and sponsors over creative control. After the show ended in 1964, he wrote other television series, movies (including Planet of the Apes), lectured, did college tours and taught film and writing classes. He kept himself very busy and enjoyed a lot of success.
About a decade ago, I became very curious about Serling. His writing was powerful and seemed to be standing the test of time. As a writer myself, that intrigued me. How did he do it?
As it turns out, it wasn’t so easy for Rod at times.
In a biography and a few in-depth articles I read about him, Serling was often plagued with insecurities. His process, during many Twilight Zone episodes, went something like this:
- He would write a killer episode, it was shot and aired.
- When it was time to write the next one, Serling would often get a debilitating case of writer’s block. He couldn’t think of a thing.
- Clenched in anxiety, he was convinced that his creativity and career were over, that the awesome show he just wrote was a fluke, and he had nothing left. He would tell this to everyone—his secretary, staff and wife. They knew better, but listened lovingly.
- Feeling hopeless and with a deadline looming, he’d leave his office and wander around the backlot of the studio, trying to soothe his nerves.
- Then, something in the backlot—a piece of a set, a scene, or perhaps a costume—would suddenly trigger a thought or concept.
- He’d run back to his office and start writing another killer episode.
The next time, it was rinse and repeat for this tortured soul.
This was Serling’s process, at least at this point in his career. As I read about this, it seemed the equivalent of giving emotional birth for each episode, which must have been extremely taxing for him. Hence his multi-pack-a-day smoking habit that would eventually kill him in his mid-50s.
In Serling’s story, though, there are valuable lessons for us, as marketers, who are faced with creative challenges as part of our jobs:
Let your process be your process. No one knows when or how the muse will bless you. But often, approaching a problem in a particular way sets certain synapses firing and forces in the universe in motion—coaxing that ever-elusive muse from her hiding place. Rod’s process was extreme, leading to questioning his very worth as a writer. For others, it may be doodling, or jotting down ideas in a Word file, or scouring websites to get the juices circulating. Whatever your process is, let your creativity unfold as it does for you.
Change the scene. Being cocooned in his office only heightened Serling’s insecurity. He had to get out, look at other things, and break out of his thinking. You can do the same. If you’re in a particular industry or space, poke around in a completely different one—and try to connect that world to yours. Creativity is nothing more than combining things in new and intriguing ways. Give yourself material to work with by broadening your scope.
Know that your creativity is limitless. I know, that’s a bold statement. But there are so many easily accessed resources now. There are endless, easy ways to keep your muse well fed and happy. The single most common trait of the most creative people I know is curiosity. They read, think about and look at all kinds of things. Be that—and finding unique, interesting combinations and solutions will come more easily for you.
I was surprised, at first, about Rod Serling’s agonizing creative process. I imagined, like we do about many iconic types, that the twisty, interesting tales he crafted gushed out of his fingers like little fire hoses. But he was a lot like most people I know in marketing, advertising and other creative fields. You get something to work on, you panic, and you power through. The ideas eventually and inevitably come, from some nebulous place, like The Twilight Zone.
– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group