Thursday, January 19, 2012

On David Milch: Writing with an Oceanic Sense

“Coincidence is God's way of staying anonymous.”

If you listen to any interviews with the renowned producer David Milch, you'll likely hear him say this. I heard it first, however, from Laura Albert (better known as JT LeRoy), who I met quite by coincidence, and have now become writing partners with (perhaps an act of God?). She was a writer on Milch's Deadwood, so she often sends me links to his interviews or passes on his writerly advice.

One can view coincidence within the prism of mathematical probability, and it certainly has a place in such—in some ways we are just numbers, colliding or not colliding, etc.—but even as a bona fide atheist (with a highly mystical bent), I appreciate Milch's view of coincidence as an entrée into understanding our lives.

To view coincidences on such holy ground is to elevate acts, to see life as a grand quilt, all of us woven together—“together” being the key word. When coincidence happens, we must pause and reflect on the chain of events. We must interpret actions, size up who we are, what we want.

This isn't an essay about new age matters, however. It's an essay about being a writer. Being a writer is the most precise metaphor for being a human being that I know of. We are stories. We are revisions of stories. We are stories in the making. We are a series of coincidences that demand interpretation.

Milch is compelling as a raconteur, one who has the necessary distance to be both charmed and appalled and endlessly intrigued by some of the stories he's lived. Milch constantly calls upon the cosmic consciousness when he speaks of writing, something not only beyond the self, but something, a truth, that can only be reached by abdicating oneself. In this way, much of his perspective resonates with Buddhism, although he's more likely to quote the Bible.

When Nietzsche declared that God was dead well over 100 years ago, it began an age of existential isolation, perhaps especially for artists, who burrowed into their modernist cocoons. Milch disagrees with creation in isolation, however. “The modern situation is predicated upon the illusion of the self's isolation–that business of I'm alone, you're alone, but we can bullshit each other when we're fucking or whatever else, but the truth is we are alone. Right? Well, I believe that that is fundamentally an illusion,” he said in a 2005 profile in the New Yorker.

Such a belief puts an interesting frame on Deadwood, a show that places a crew of mostly heartless exiles together in a practically lawless place, all of them tied in one way or another to gold, hardly a substance that brings people together in loving connection. Milch says the show “is about individuals improvising their way to some sort of primitive structure.”

It's a fascinating narrative premise to portray the wild West in—quite the opposite of a writer like Cormac McCarthy, who writes in the vein of Milch's beloved William Faulkner, but accentuates how the wrath of violence trumps any civilizing urges.

I'm interested in how Milch comes out of the “primitive structure” of self to develop stories layered through the lenses of so many characters. He hearkens back to William James, not Henry, who said in The Variety of Religious Experiences that “every vision that ever came to anyone is prefaced by a sense of the dissolution of the self.” Milch says, “it's the fragmentation of ego that allows what he called the oceanic sense to flow in.”

I'll posit that this is impossible for most writers, who tend to write more and more with their egos, as if their egos are a prized fastball. Milch isn't always beyond such a state either, but he says that “what writing should be is a going out in spirit.”

Every writer reads about subtext and characterization, tone and point of view, dialogue and plot—but what about "going out in spirit"? I think of Hemingway's dictum to “write one true sentence.” Such a simple rule on the surface, but one that must be pondered like a zen koan. I've found as a writer that it's easier to write untrue sentences, just as it's easier to live an untrue life—imitating others rather than genuinely creating—no matter the toll on the soul. One must be highly attuned to the truth and quite brave to represent it and delve into it and live it.

In the case of Deadwood, Milch did the research, then suppressed his self and let the visions come. “Visions come to prepared spirits,” he says.

Milch writes his visions in a writing process that most writers can't do, in a roomful of a various people he's brought in for inspiration (a motley crew of rodeo cowboys and yahoos in the case of Deadwood) and he channels characters, dictating the story as he lies on the floor. The act of writing is literally a “going out in spirit,” for him.

“All I want to understand is the mind of God,” said Milch, quoting Einstein. “Now, I don't want to understand it; I want to testify to it. I believe that we are all literally part of the mind of God and that our sense of ourselves as separate is an illusion. And therefore when we communicate with each other as a function of and exchange of energy we understand not because of the inherent content of the words but because of how that energy flows.”

My best writing happens with such a sensibility—when I feel connected with others, when I am writing to and for others, with a sense of touching them, whether real or imagined, it doesn't matter. But it's more than the concept of audience—it is about the relinquishment of self. Like Milch, I believe that the self clouds or blinds vision, so becoming a good writer and becoming enlightened essentially go hand-in-hand. It's the ultimate feeling of opening up, giving oneself away, an act of generosity rather than the stinginess of ego.

That's what is key in writing for a muse—the acts of generosity and connection guide one's words. The writing isn't about the self so much as it is about a mystical spiritual connection, which has to be honored and revered as much as any God, for it is, in the end, a pathway to the sacred.