Slice of the Writing Life
An excerpt of the last interview conducted with Twilight Zone’s brilliant creator/writer Rod Serling.
Interviewer: Linda Brevelle
Place: Franco's La Taverna on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip.
Date: March 4, 1975—just a few months prior to Serling’s sudden death at age 50.
Brevelle: What causes you to write?
Serling: I never really thought about it. If I could really conjure up an answer to that, I suppose I'd be able to answer a lot of questions that bug me.
Why do I write? I guess that's been asked of every writer. I don't know. It isn't any massive compulsion. I don't feel, you know, God dictated that I should write. You know, thunder rents the sky and a bony finger comes down from the clouds and says, "You. You write. You're the anointed." I never felt that. I suppose it's part compulsion, part a channel for what your brain is churning up.
But I don't subscribe to the "Know Thyself" theory. I'm afraid that if I started to ponder who I am and what I am, I might not like what I find. So, I'd rather go along with this sense of illusion that I'm a neutral beast going along through life doing everything that's preordained. I'm out of control anyway, so why fight it. I suppose we think euphemistically that all writers write because they have something to say that is truthful and honest and pointed and important. And I suppose I subscribe to that, too. But God knows when I look back over thirty years of professional writing, I'm hard-pressed to come up with anything that's important. Some things are literate, some things are interesting, some things are classy, but very damn little is important.
Brevelle: Who do you write for?
Serling: Myself. If I enjoy it.
Brevelle: What do you enjoy about writing?
Serling: I don't enjoy any of the process of writing. I enjoy it when it goes on if it zings and it has great warmth and import and it's successful. Yeah, that's when I enjoy it. But during the desperate, tough time of creating it, there's not much I enjoy about it. It tires me and lays me out, which is sort of the way I feel now. Tired.
Brevelle: So it's a suffering process for you...
Serling: It is. Giving birth, you know. Waiting. Should we call the doctor? You know, for the Caesarian. It's obviously not going to come out normally.
Brevelle: What is most difficult for you about writing?
Serling: In terms of screenwriting adaptations it's trying to cut out stuff that's extraneous, without doing damage to the original piece, because you owe a debt of some respect to the original author. That's why it was bought.
That's been the problem with this current project, The Salamander. It's a big book, very heavy with people and complexities and interwoven plotlines. I'm finding it very difficult to decide what can I cut away without doing damage. Or without leaving an audience saying, "Well, wait a minute. How did he come into this? I never saw him before. Who's this person?" That kind of thing.
Brevelle: What's your system for getting writing done? You know, some writers use colored paper, others write in longhand on legal pads...
Serling: I don't have any system. I dictate a lot, through a machine, and I also have a secretary. But I used to type just like everybody else. I find dictating in the mass media particularly good because you're writing for voice anyway; you're writing for people to say a line and, consequently, saying a line through a machine is quite a valid test for the validity of what you're saying. If it sounds good as you say it, likely as not it'll sound good when an actor's saying it. The tendency when you dictate is to overwrite, because you're not counting pages, you don't really know what the hell the page count is. But in terms of standing up when I write, what hour I write, that all relates very specifically to the individual. Writers vary tremendously. Was it Tom Wolfe who stood up or was it Hemingway who had to stand up? I don't know.
Brevelle: Hemingway. He had to space three times between words to slow down.
Serling: Was it Hemingway who had to put the thing on the mantel or something? And I think Wolfe wrote in longhand. You know, it depends on the animal, particularly who's doing it. In my case, the only thing I would say was part of the discipline is that I have to start writing quite early. I write much better in the non-confines of the early morning than I do the clutter of the day.
Brevelle: How much time do you spend actually writing?
Serling: I would guess three full hours a day, and in terms of the pre-writing activity, God, that's endless, it's constant, almost constant.
Brevelle: Do you have any encouragement for writers who accumulate a lot of rejection slips?
Serling: Only that somehow, some way, incredibly enough, good writing ultimately gets recognized. I don't know how that happens but it does. If you're really a good writer and deserve that honored position, then by God, you'll write, and you'll be read, and you'll be produced somehow. It just works that way. If you're just a simple ordinary day-to-day craftsman, no different than most, then the likelihood is that you probably won't make it in writing. You're going to wind up either getting married, working for an insurance company, joining the regular army, or what-all. But if you have a spark in you, a cut above the average, I think ultimately you make it.