Hidden Agendas in Writing and Design

David MilchThe 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.

The Usual Suspects

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.”

Thinking About Writing

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.”

Self-Defeat as a Creative Technique

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.

Writing v. Design

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.

  1. He, and complimentarily you, make an excellent point about ego and writing. Stupidly, until I read it here I hadn’t realized how much I’ve forced myself to be in the stories I write not just in one character but in them all.

    Incidentally, are we copying each other’s Season Passes? West Wing, Deadwood? Do ya love The Wire too?

  2. I haven’t allowed myself to spend any time in front of “The Wire,” (though I’m sure I would get into it thoroughly) mostly because I fear discovering yet another new television show that’ll make weekly demands on my time. In spite of all the awful reality television shows out there, there are still too many good TV shows on TV for someone who’s trying to spend less time watching it.

  3. I was having a discussion with my sister recently about the New Yorker and how I didn’t really enjoy reading it even though our aunt had at different points given us subscriptions to it. So I was avoiding being social at a party at her house last week when I picked up the latest issue and noticed this article. Really enjoyed it. Despite the fact that the author (somewhat coincidentally, considering the mention of ego in writing) couldn’t stop trying to hide the fact that he knew and understood David Milch when it was obvious he really didn’t. There’s your irony for today (or maybe not).

    Anyhow, I would’ve liked to just hear more of David Milch’s observations. Smart fellow. Maybe I’ll have to go track down some old NYPD Blue episodes. Never caught those…

  4. I don’t really want to defend the New Yorker magazine – either you like it or not, but I’ve been reading it for over 20 years and have seen it go through some stylistic and editorial changes. In my opinion, for better or worse it does have some great articles and is a great resource for cultural events and information (albeit NYC centered).

    Oddly enough – I skimmed this particular article because I wasn’t impressed with Mr. Milch. I have heard that Deadwood is quite good, but his personality (as given by the writer) didn’t particularly impress me.

    I did really like the article about climbing the redwoods by Richard Preston though.

  5. To be clear, I actually really like the New Yorker, but I always find it painful when they decide to profile some celebrity who has a new movie or show coming out. At those times it feels like Rolling Stone magazine to me.

    As for Milch, well, I can see why some people would not be impressed with him. He definitely has a kind of acerbic feel to him, based on the article. But I think “Deadwood” is first rate work, and his thoughts made for a better than usual celebrity profile. Like Mike, I never watched “NYPD Blue,” but I’m very curious now about it.

  6. Just to let you know – there is a writing course Milch gave back in 2001 in Cali. It’s called the “The Writer’s Spirit” it is definately worth a look. It’s a five part dvd and I got it for 100$ at ostrickproductions.com.

    I really love the old Blue episodes – and you can find nearly all the actors from deadwood in at least an episode or two. The constraints on the artist by the big ABC certainly limited certain possabilities, but now at HBO you can see Milch has really been allowed to do something his way – all the way. And that’s for the best, for all who enjoy the work.

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