Embrace the artist! You will get this advice by following suggestion number one, but for the record, acknowledging yourself as an artist is critically important. No one else needs to weigh in on this — you are the decider. By accepting this as fact, you begin to understand that an artist has needs (not just wants). If the artist is to live, it’s up to you to address those needs.
As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Roger Darnell.
Roger Darnell is an author, communications consultant, publisher, and career guide. Already central to billions of positive media impressions worldwide, his ambitious collaborations with entrepreneurs and media luminaries continue soaring to new heights. His latest book, a poetic memoir entitled “Arc of the Poet,” will be available through all major booksellers on November 14.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born the youngest of my parents’ two sons during a time when they lived out among the cornfields of Southern Illinois. Our father held many colorful and skilled positions, from pilot to construction manager, and as we regularly moved here and there year after year, our mother pursued her interests as homemaker and aspiring administrator — and also, always as a writer. In her case, writing letters to others — and poetry for herself — provided essential therapy, and helped her cope with and maximize her life.
Our parents split up by the time I turned eight, which led my brother Scott to bounce back and forth between them. Although I stuck with Mom through age 13, she then remarried, and I returned to Illinois where Dad, our stepmom, and Scott had settled. My big brother was always a star athlete, and very popular. While I also played sports, inspired by Mom’s encouragement for my writing talent, I also took interest in the arts, including acting in quite a few plays, and following in her therapeutic writing footsteps.
I wound up landing back with Mom as a high school sophomore in Tennessee, and ultimately attended four different high schools in three different states, before graduating from Orlando’s Oak Ridge. Although the first year after graduation was rocky, I wound up enlisting in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, which set me up to pursue higher education at the University of Central Florida on my own terms.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
My mother was always encouraging, and when Scott or I did something well, she would acknowledge it, making a case for that skill playing out and leading to career success. For example, I always loved animals, so she fairly insisted I should become a veterinarian.
I don’t recall the exact age when this conversation took place, but I know I was young. Mom told me, “I write, and Dad wrote, but I think you’re the one who’s going to do something with it.” That seed was fed with further experimentation on my part, but also, seeing her working out life’s challenges with a typewriter at our dining room table over the years following the divorce. Earlier, she had written cute and clever poems about her toddlers, and as we grew older, she shared several of her poignant verses with us. Always wonderfully sweet, sentimental, bright, and deep — with cards and elegantly handwritten letters for every special occasion — like clockwork, she also kept at her writing mission, eventually polishing up a manuscript of original poetry that gave her strength and some peace. At some point, she destroyed that manuscript, saying it represented the past, and she no longer needed it.
By the time I was graduating from college, some evidence of inherited writing talent was showing. I had started writing poetry in high school, and one poem was published in a vanity-press anthology. Leaping into creative writing as a humor columnist for the college newspaper generated lots of good feedback, and landed me a Scripps Howard Foundation Fellowship. Pursuing the dream, I reignited my campaign to establish myself as a poet, with submissions to the likes of The New Yorker and The Paris Review, among many others. Sustaining that campaign over many years, eventually, there were a couple of publications … but also, unexpected returns that included more than a few big life lessons.
Thanks no doubt to Mom’s firm belief in me, I have sometimes felt I could become famous, and accomplish all my personal ambitions, through poetry. Time will tell. In the meantime, I have written a book packaging up my story with the most colorful highlights and some insights I hope will be impactful for readers.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Growing up, we were fascinated to know that our father had been a private pilot for Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers, The Monkees, and others. This knowledge made connecting with celebrities professionally seem possible. Before my senior year in high school, I worked as a character at Walt Disney World, which afforded an odd glimpse into stardom. Making my way up in the entertainment business in Orlando, I made direct contact with many living legends, from Bob Hope to Walter Cronkite to Jimmy Stewart, and on and on.
Working on HBO’s “From the Earth to the Moon” in 1997 at what is now Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney/MGM Studios) was the experience of a lifetime. I was the series’ script coordinator — a technical writing job that involves managing changes to every script as it goes through pre-production and production. Tom Hanks was among the Executive Producers, and his roles also included writer and actor. The episode he wrote was absolutely fascinating: He recreated Georges Méliès’s life and studio, where some of the world’s first movies were brought to life, including “Le Voyage dans la Lune” in 1902.
Managing that nuanced script had prompted some interesting discussions with Mr. Hanks, and while the wondrous set was being built, he had been away filming “Saving Private Ryan.” When I took a walk out into the soundstage, I was maybe 20 feet inside the door when his voice rang out: “Roger Darnell, you old bastard!” I approached and there he was, with his wry smile, standing in the company of executive producer Tony To and director Jonathan Mostow. That is an experience and a conversation I will never forget.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am very lucky to engage with a never-ending stream of fascinating people through my PR firm, The Darnell Works Agency. One of my longstanding clients is Cutters Studios, which partners with leading brands, ad agencies, filmmakers, and even the United Nations to develop groundbreaking commercial and long-form entertainment content. Well-known for over 40 years of impactful creative contributions to major commercial campaigns, over the past three years alone, the editors at Cutters have edited the #1 rated Super Bowl commercial, according to USA Today’s Ad Meter. I also work with one-stop cross-media production company Sarofsky, where their clients include the world’s most acclaimed directors, including Anthony and Joe Russo and James Gunn.
Along with my latest book project, I am also deeply involved in developing a feature film based on rights I own to my cousin Dr. James Turner’s fascinating autobiography, “Time and Effort.” With luck, this will also lead to further development of a limited TV series, and a second feature film. I also have enough original film and writing projects in the pipeline to keep me focused for many years to come.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I do have a few stories <grin>. Due to my role leading the University of Central Florida’s Cinematography Association, I was invited to coordinate VIP Tour Guides for the grand opening of Universal Studios Florida, back on June 7, 1990. You cannot imagine the Hollywood royalty that was on-hand for that, a true Who’s Who. My assignment was to escort the one and only Morgan Fairchild, who was a pure joy to spend time with during that whirlwind week.
In my first paid job in the film industry, my employer had the rights to make a feature film version of “Flipper,” based on the TV series I grew up watching, which was a huge inspiration. From the earliest days, it was a dream come true: We were in talks to have a script written and directed by one or another of the biggest names in show business (potential collaborators included Ron Howard, Leonard Nimoy, Ron Bass, Peter Hyams, and Jon G. Avildsen), and I was interacting every day with all the leading talent agencies in LA and New York. The original TV series’ star Luke Halpin stopped by my tiny office in Disney/MGM Studios’ Bungalow 3 quite often, checking-in, hoping to play some part in the new production, and making my day with every visit.
Walt Disney World originally opened in 1971, and in 1991, festivities were shaping up for a 20th anniversary press event. Knowing this, I convinced my boss that, for promotional purposes, we should have a press kit with interview footage that could be shared with the media and other studio executives coming to town. These efforts grew into a massive undertaking; one of the highlights was Roy Disney, Dick Cook, and Jeffrey Katzenberg attending a private screening of the scripted presentation I co-wrote and co-produced, where the result was a very strong interest in distributing our (as yet, undeveloped) Flipper movie.
When development slowed down, I took a pass on writing a screenplay for “Flipper,” which created some buzz and fueled-up the dream. Nonetheless, by May, 1992, the executives’ work adding more undeveloped properties to our development slate led all the discussions to stall, and one day, my colleagues and I were unceremoniously axed, and escorted off the property.
My hustles over the next several years led to freelance video work for NASCAR and some independent film and TV projects. In 1994, I landed the job that led to my later role on “From the Earth to the Moon,” working on a TV series that filmed at Universal Studios Florida. That was followed with a similar role on “seaQuest,” also shot at Universal. That series starred Michael Ironside, along with Peter and Michael DeLuise, Jonathan Brandis, and many other major league talents, and Peter and Michael’s parents spent a lot of time with us. When I stole the courage to introduce myself to their father Dom DeLuise, he graciously shook my hand and said, “Roger Darnell. Roger Darnell. What a great name!”
Before we knew the fate of the next season of “seaQuest,” I took a shot and wrote a spec script. That produced more buzz and dreams, and Ironside promised to work on the script with me if the series was green-lit for another season. Alas, in a matter of weeks, the series was canceled, and we all went our separate ways.
Fast forward to 1997 when I was hired to work on the HBO series at Disney/MGM. After being interviewed in Bungalow 1 and getting the job, production coordinator Melissa Cooper offered to show me to my office. We walked through the building, out the other end, and into Bungalow 3, where during my “Flipper” days, we had been the building’s first tenants. Down the familiar hall I was led, until Melissa got to the door of my old office. She turned and pointed me in: “Here’s your office.” Yes, that was the one!
After relocating to Los Angeles in 1998 and trying and failing to get something going around one of my original scripts, I wound up working my way into marketing and public relations, where surprisingly, my experience pitching poetry to publications helped paved the way for success. The Darnell Works Agency was launched in 2000. Over the years, I have crossed paths with many of those I worked with in the experiences mentioned above more than once. As I learned first-hand, the film industry demands a lot from those who desire to be part of it. I consider myself very fortunate to have learned how to get the most from it, while also having a life.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?
When I connect with a person — or their work — that rises above normal, day-to-day life in some meaningful way, that inspires me. Especially in the worlds of arts, literature, film, and television, when I experience something extraordinarily wonderful, it takes me back to the days when I was imagining crafting “Flipper: The Movie” into the E.T. of dolphin movies.
Prior to writing that feature film screenplay, I also wrote one about growing up playing little league baseball. Along with the teleplay for “seaQuest,” I’ve written many other features and shorts, and so far, only two short films have ever been produced. Being in the mode where you get lost shaping a story, developing every beat of something you imagine coming to life on a picture screen, is something very special. Over my lifetime, to create anything at all, I have had to face-off with the optimist, the pessimist, and all the different characters in between them. Being a creator can be quite lonely and disheartening.
Above all that, I have also felt incredibly well rewarded to have the career I eventually dialed in, in partnership with my wife of 30 years, Beth. All of our parents have now passed, and we have felt their pride and joy in our accomplishments since long before they left. I also have the example of my mom writing what might have been her “life’s work,” and deciding to throw it away (and trust me, she saved everything else). In my own moments where I have used words to address my quandaries, and leaned into the creative spirit, I have often found what’s been written to be very inspirational.
So, for me, I feel it is very important to continue honoring the creative spirit, following where it leads when I can, and then trying my best to share it with others, in the hope they will find something of value, including possibly some inspiration to create something new themselves. These are essentially my cave drawings. I’m doing my best to etch them into the walls. Maybe someone else will take an interest.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Between 2014 and 2021, I dedicated my side-hustle time (two hours at the start of most business days) to writing a book teaching others what I’ve learned about business, and to set them up to follow in my footsteps as a communications consultant. That became two books — both were published last year through Taylor & Francis/Routledge.
With that writing and the outreach aimed at promoting those books, I did my best to present myself as a resource to readers. Quite a few new friendships and conversations have grown from those efforts, and some very interesting public speaking engagements, too, which have been well received.
With my new writing projects, I hope to: generate more of those conversations; encourage everyone to pursue artistic expression; and build connections for themselves on their own foundations.
I am also very grateful to have had the opportunities to benefit and support a lot of amazing charities and causes through our business over the years. There is deep pride in being part of a group of people that has made some profound impacts together … while we also continue looking out for smart ways to pay things forward in the days to come.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Read “The Artist’s Way”: Written by Julia Cameron, this book’s official title is “The artist’s way: a spiritual path to higher creativity.” Copywritten in 1992, it is dedicated to Mark Bryan, who co-founded The Artist’s Way workshops, and according to the author, urged her to write it, helped shape it, and co-taught it. So, we all have those two people to thank for creating something that to me is priceless, and also, utterly unique. This book has many admirable aspects, but here’s what I love most: The unabashed encouragement for “artists” to recognize the existence of this component of our lives, and to honor and nurture it; and, the insistence that we write and commit time to other specific activities to help our inner artist step into the light, flourish, and grow.
- Practice! Author Robert Greene wrote a very powerful book called “Mastery,” where the wisdom included many breakdowns of the tens of thousands of hours famous figures have spent preparing to accomplish monumental feats. That makes the case that it’s a long haul, but what I feel is most important is getting started, and keeping at it. Exercise your artistic muscle today, and tomorrow, it will be even stronger.
- Embrace the artist! You will get this advice by following suggestion number one, but for the record, acknowledging yourself as an artist is critically important. No one else needs to weigh in on this — you are the decider. By accepting this as fact, you begin to understand that an artist has needs (not just wants). If the artist is to live, it’s up to you to address those needs.
- Respect the artist! Having invited your inner artist to set up shop in your life, do you give her star treatment, or lock her away behind the scenes? It took me over 20 years of running my PR firm to finally treat my artist — the author — as a client. If we don’t treat our work as a big deal, we miss the chance to see it succeed.
- Perform! This is something I have been reminded of at different times along the way, but it is especially poignant for me right now. If you believe in yourself and feel your artistry is worth sharing, take your best shot at getting it out to the world with all the pizzazz you can muster.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
What if we could inspire everyone on the planet to write some poetry on a regular basis? Every day, everyone has a new story to tell, and while popular ideas about poetry as an artform can be intimidating, words and language connect us all, and we all have our own vibes and styles. My friend Sue Wasserman, a gifted writer and photographer in Asheville, North Carolina, took an interest in my new book, and explicitly urged me to encourage everyone to write poetry. I had already been thinking along those lines, and she honed right in on my thoughts — connecting with the simplicity of haiku. Two centuries ago, writing poetry was a widely shared passion for men and women. Maybe providing an easily accessible pathway toward such rewarding and creative communications experiences would leverage our higher powers and help introduce new ways of thinking, living, and being.
We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.
When I was taking part in the grand opening of Universal Studios Florida, one of our fellow film students had reportedly printed her resume on pink paper and was going to hand it to Steven Spielberg. Even thinking about that made me feel uncomfortable. Years later, working on seaQuest, he visited the set, and I feared crossing paths with him, feeling I had nothing to say. While living in California, Beth and I attended a wedding where Robert Redford was a guest; although I did not attempt to break the ice, overhearing the chit-chat others made with him gave me some confidence. I now have quite a few friends who are known to both of these accomplished gentlemen, and I’m such a huge fan of them both, I would give just about anything to have those conversations, even if I wind up embarrassing myself.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
I am ‘rkdarnell’ on Twitter and Instagram, and you can find me and register for VIP email updates at rkdarnell.com. I’m also easy to find on LinkedIn.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Absolutely my pleasure. Thank you very much for your interest.
Roger Darnell: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.