Mon 21 Feb
The New Yorker’s 14 Feb double-issue features a profile of David Milch, co-creator of “NYPD Blue” and the man responsible for the riveting, foul-mouthed and thoroughly excellent HBO series “Deadwood,” an intensely brutal Western set in a real South Dakota boom town in the late 19th century. As is the New Yorker’s wont, the article is unavailable online — or if it was at one time, I was, as always, too late in catching up on my issues to be inspired to go seek out the online version.
If you can find a copy in your therapist’s waiting room, you could do worse than read this article on Milch; I’m not much of a fan of the magazine’s pieces on entertainment personalities because they seem lightweight and shallow compared to some of the genuinely interesting stuff the magazine continues to turn out even in its old age, but this one happens to be about an interesting fellow. Or, at least, Milch has some interesting things to say about how he writes.
Understand first that “Deadwood” is a fictionalized version of a real frontier town, and is therefore populated with an obligatory inventory of stereotypes — card players, town bullies, righteous do-gooders, prostitutes with hearts of gold and jaded old gunslingers are all present and accounted for.
I’m incredibly partial to the Western as a genre, and so I have little objection to watching archetypes pitted against each other, but what I like most about this show is that the characters Milch draws in his scripts are incredibly intricate and complex even in their occasional simple-mindedness — without ever compromising the essential spirit of the genre.
It’s a great feat to pull this off once, but in his first season and soon in his second, Milch will have pulled it off at least twelve and as many as twenty-four times. No other show in recent memory, not even “The Sopranos,” has managed this accomplishment with nearly the consistency of quality that I saw in the first twelve episodes of “Deadwood.”
Anyway, in the course of disclosing the particulars of his writing process, Milch tells New Yorker journalist Mark Singer that an essential component of his process is that he never thinks about the writing until he’s actually writing.
“I find that when I’m merely thinking about a scene I’m in an egoist state, which is the opposite of the state of being where you suppress the ego and go out in spirit to the characters. What writing should be is a going out in spirit. And my idea of storytelling is — I wouldn’t say it’s religious but I would say it’s spiritual…
“But it’s not as if I just go with the flow. I spent a lot of fucking time studying these characters and trying to feel my way into them. and I feel that once you’ve done that sort of research and lived into your sense of the characters, the next essential step of the process is to suppress the self. The way that happens for me is that the only time I’ll think about the work is when I’m working. I won’t plan it out. My belief is: anything you’re thinking about when you’re not in the act of writing is probably useless.”
What struck me about these comments is how utterly different they are from how I work — both when I write and when I design. As someone who at least engages in the act of writing (here) regularly, and who has in the past flattered himself occasionally with the possibility of one day trying an extended career in creative writing (nothing much has come of that), I thought it natural to be nearly always thinking about writing when I was away from the keyboard. The same goes for designing: modesty aside, I think some of the design solutions I’m most proud of have come to me when I’m away from the computer — most often when I’m standing in the shower in the morning.
But what I like about Milch’s insight is the idea of removing the self from the process. He’s absolutely correct that the process of ruminating on writing or on a design while away from it can be interpreted as a kind of egoism. Looking back on my own working methods, it’s clear to me that what I’m doing when I’m turning over a creative problem in my head is conforming the problem to my own agenda, twisting its corners to match the conceptual templates I’m most comfortable with.
It’s a process that makes a certain kind of sense for design because it allows for solutions to be repurposed, improved upon, and interpreted into ‘best practices.’ But I can see now that it’s not a process that is particularly complementary to writing good fiction; I can see now that whenever I tried to write fiction in the past it was entirely smothered in my own ego, and the characters suffered for it because they were not living and breathing on their own, they were merely expressions of my hidden agendas. And that’s why I’m a designer and not a writer. For the time being, anyway.