Thursday, February 2, 2023

Deadwood Revisited

 The Beloved Spouse™ and I recently completed our more or less annual viewing of Deadwood. We now know the show well enough to recite the lines along with the actors and can spare the attention to look for more subtle things: set dressing, how the actors use their eyes, how they play off each other when they are not speaking. It’s all fascinating and no one has ever done it better than David Milch and the cast and crew he assembled.


I could write a series of posts about Deadwood but, looking through the blog’s history, I have no material changes to what I said in 2015. (About which, pardon my puffery, Jim Beaver (Whitney Ellsworth in the series) commented, “Great piece.”)


I do have additional thoughts.


In 2015 I wrote: Probably the greatest praise I can give Deadwood is that it has made me re-examine my creative process. (Such as it is.) Since then I have become much more intimate with not only Milch’s process, but his attitude. I have

·       Watched, taken notes on, and distilled his series of informal talks titled “The Idea of the Writer.” They’re fascinating, if rambling, and I can’t recommend them highly enough for anyone interested in the creative process. All are available on YouTube.

·       Read Milch’s books: True Blue (with Bill Clark, about the first two seasons of NYPD Blue); Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills (companion volume to the series); and Life’s Work, his memoir.

·       Read The Deadwood Bible: A Lie Agreed On, by Matt Zoller Seitz, an exhaustive labor of love that details everything from Milch’s life and career to oral histories of the show’s production, cancelation, and resurrection as Deadwood: The Movie.

·       Seen the documentary Without a Net: Creating NYPD Blue, directed by Marc Ostend and executive produced by Milch’s wife, Rita. The film depicts and dissects the end of Milch’s tenure at NYPD Blue. Don’t let his wife’s involvement fool you. This is no puff piece.


Several changes resulted:

·       I interpreted the concept of resting transparently to suit my situation, using it daily when drafting and rewriting.

·       There are no problems, and nothing is ever “wrong.” There are things that need to be better.

·       The best time for research is not during the writing but before, and it is not too specific. The best research becomes part of you and is expressed more between the lines than in specific explanation. I always had some of that attitude; a future blog post will describe a renewed interest.

·       “Visions come to prepared spirits,” a quote from the German chemist August Kekulé after discovering the structure of the benzene molecule. (After 25 years’ work, the answer came to Kekulé in a dream.) Now I try never to rush an idea to fruition.

·       “The testifying to the going out in spirit by the act of imagination.” Milch believes nothing exists in a vacuum, and that we are all connected in some way. I’m not as sold as he is, but I have found the task of writing—and let’s face it, much as we love to write, doing it well is a task at times—much more palatable. The “going out in spirit” part has also made my life a better place, and probably better for those who interact with me.

·       “The artist’s job is to find imaginative associations in what is merely fanciful.” Our job as writers is to take personal experiences—things significant only to us—and find ways to give them meaning for our audience.

·       Milch never thinks about writing except when writing. My adjustment is that I never try to think about writing unless I’m writing. That doesn’t mean things never force themselves into my thoughts; those that do, are welcome. I rarely play music or listen to the radio in the car; in good weather I take walks. If something about the writing pops up uninvited, well, the least I can do is let it visit a bit.

·       Milch’s memoir is unsparing in its evaluation of his life. I have neither his demons nor his gifts. Maybe they go hand in glove, though I think those types of explanations are more excuses than reasons. I mention it here because it taught me to be honest with myself in all aspects of my life, and to understand that all I can do is the best I can. (See “going out in spirit” above.)


I set out to write about Deadwood and ended up writing about David Milch. (Again.) I don’t see any good way around that. Deadwood is Milch. To talk about the show without going into some detail about him is to miss the point of its creation.


We’ll watch Deadwood again.

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