Features March 2023
David Milch & the strategies of indirection in fiction
On Milch’s writing seminar at Yale.
Pianists trace their descent from one teacher to another back through the gloomy decades to a Liszt or a Czerny. Playing piano is a skill that becomes an art, writing an art that becomes a skill. I spent my early years at Yale wandering through Jacksonian America and, still a sophomore, taking grad courses in probability and game theory—I planned, until the bombing of Cambodia, to take a Ph.D. in the coils of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Arrow’s Theorem. Privately I entertained an imprudent desire to become a poet, filling holes in my schedule with poetry workshops when I could have taken courses with one of the most incandescent English faculties ever assembled. Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, Richard Ellmann, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, John Hersey, R. W. B. Lewis, and Maynard Mack do not exhaust the list.
As an ill-educated young poet, I wanted to write poetry beyond my expectations, but I couldn’t even write within my means. Unlike Beckett, I did not fail again and fail better; I failed and failed worse. Two teachers gave me a compass, my final semester—one, a Pulitzer Prize–winner, showed what the art in the art of poetry required; the other, disturbingly inspired, taught me the substance within the misty reaches of art. He was twenty-six when the workshop began, a would-be novelist. Years later he created two of the most rule-breaking shows on television, NYPD Blue and Deadwood. I had a few brilliant teachers, but only one genius, David Milch.
The university never much cared for writing workshops.
Under Yale’s College Seminar Program, each of the twelve residential colleges offered courses outside academic departments, courses more inventive and freewheeling, often taught by hired gunslingers rather than regular faculty. The university never much cared for writing workshops—the English Department offered little beyond a famous course called Daily Themes. Founded in the first decade of the twentieth century, it had already trained three or four generations of journalists and freelance writers. The department’s few poetry and fiction workshops were oversubscribed months in advance, while one semester the only workshop listed as a college seminar received eighty-seven applicants.
I was not interested in fiction workshops, even those taught by Warren and Hersey. I don’t recall that the department’s poetry workshops were taught by anyone of reputation. There were college seminars in poetry, however, taught by Mark Strand and Richard Howard, among others. Seminar teachers often came from New York or Boston, arriving by train and, immediately after teaching or spending the night in the master’s lodge, bustling home again. The salary was $2,000 per course, little more than a graduate student would have earned in the early Seventies.
The spring of my junior year, after the ruinous mess of the Vietnam War and the killing of students at Kent State had driven me out of political science and American history, a friend mentioned that a riveting young fiction-writer had set up shop in Calhoun College (since renamed Grace Hopper College). I found David Milch camped in the master’s spare office, which like those of other professors was drably furnished with ancient bookcase, scarred oak-desk, and splintery desk-chair, all hauled in by a Hollywood prop department. Atop the desk sat a Bogart-movie refugee, a heavy black telephone. “What can I do for you?” David asked, straight to the point. I explained that I’d like him to teach a workshop at Berkeley College, just up the street. He cheerfully agreed and gave me what I needed to propose the course to the college committee—a short biography and a description of his current seminar, Strategies of Indirection in Fiction. As the proposer would automatically be enrolled in the course, I felt it necessary to confess that I was a poet. He laughed and said, “That won’t matter a bit.” The seminar was duly approved.
Each week the next spring, just after the hour, David would shamble into the seminar room in the basement of Calhoun. (Apparently seminars did not always meet in the sponsoring college.) There were a dozen in the class, all or almost all male—Yale had first admitted undergraduate women only two years before. Dressed in a black T-shirt and Levis or pale slacks, he seated himself at the end of the table, skylit by leaded windows that gave onto a deep window-well running the length of the college. Over the T-shirt he wore the remains of a ratty suit-jacket.
Burly and a shade under six feet, hair slightly thinning, vaguely dissolute, David had an intimidating presence. I often sat at the far end of the table, never directly opposite. He brought no notes. Taking off his watch and settling himself, without pause he began to speak. It was not a class that required discussion, and I expect we were so awed by the gouts of talk that questions would not have been rude so much as superfluous. Toward the end of class, David might ask, with a hint of aggression, if we had anything to add. I may have raised two or three points in the course of the semester, but I doubt anyone said very much. Most of us spent the time scribbling madly on our notepads, because what he said seemed crucial to any deep analysis of fiction. When finished, he’d pick up his watch, nod his head, and shuffle away, fifty minutes into the two-hour seminar. Once, and once only, he saw, nodding in exaggerated surprise, that he’d gone on for an hour and ten minutes. He held up the watch in triumph.
Such minor disasters, treated to mock outrage, were not infrequent.
Oddly, I don’t recall that he was particularly profane, not then—but I was so given to profanity myself (there’s an embarrassing transcript), I might not have noticed. David had a gift for physical comedy, as the incident of the watch suggests. Halfway through the course, a student was asked to read a short story he’d written, the only time this happened. I remember nothing about the story except that it went on and on. And on. Finally David rose from his chair, stood quietly behind the young man—who didn’t notice—and performed a soft-shoe shuffle, then sat down again. In his office, on another occasion, David made a point so vehemently he ripped an arm off the desk chair. Slightly bemused, he stared at it in his hand, then attempted to put the chair back together, without success. Such minor disasters, treated to mock outrage, were not infrequent. Gesture was one of his main languages.
A novel or book of stories was assigned each week—The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and Absalom, Absalom! were obvious choices; but we also read The Confidence Man, Molloy, Narcissus and Goldmund, and stories or novellas by Kafka, Hawthorne, Conrad, and Nathanael West. Less conventionally, we read Leonard Gardner’s Fat City and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. Yates, one of David’s teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was somehow invited to class. I recall little about the visit, which took place outdoors at the height of New Haven spring, except that this tall, awkward man looked slightly bewildered, embarrassed by the attention yet tweedily gratified. The novel had been published to acclaim only a dozen years before, but none of us had heard of it.
Every week or two, I’d drop by David’s office. Living in New Haven, he was far easier to approach than seminar teachers who rolled in by train. I’m not sure I ever saw anyone else from class there, but he always welcomed me gruffly with “So, anything on your mind?” (Those may not have been his exact words; but the warm challenge implied, at least in tone, that every conversation had to start with a thrown gauntlet.) A little of his private life gradually leaked out. He was an inveterate gambler not infrequently in hock to local bookies. Like most gamblers, his losses never outran his appetites. Giving me his home phone-number, he warned, “Ring twice, hang up, call again. Then I know you’re not a bookie.” The number or code would change from time to time. In the office he once said, “Hey, look at this!” He reached into a pocket of the worn jacket and pulled out a wad of papers, which he tossed in my direction. A pile of what looked like play money spilled onto the carpet. I picked up one of the bills. I’d never seen a Ben Franklin before, its verso a deep, slightly strange forest-green. Three or four thousand dollars lay at my feet. “Got lucky at the races last weekend” was all David would say.
In the late Seventies, my sweetheart and I stopped by his apartment in New Haven on a drive down from Cape Cod. David played host the way a host should be played. In the middle of our conversation, he announced, “I’ve found the perfect jai-alai system!” Talk stopped. Every gambler knows about systems. Every non-gambler knows about systems. “You look skeptical,” he said, shaking his head. He turned to my sweetheart. “Debora, open the drawer of that end table beside you.” As she did, stacks of jai alai receipts flared up and drifted to the carpet. He gave a big grin, opening his hands in a helpless gesture, whether of defeat or victory I wasn’t sure.
David’s relation to gambling, like his other addictions, brought him under the shadow of Dostoevsky. Whether high or low, the stakes were high. He justified the gambling, however ruinous its effect, by his need for the action. No win was enough, only temporarily interrupting the cascade of loss. No win offered salvation, only a purge of instinct, the spur to the next bet; but then the goal was not winning, I felt, but punishment. David seemed to feel most alive, most put to the test, when he lost more than he could afford to pay. The losses were both self-destructive and heroic. Gambling was not his only addiction. I knew a little about David and drugs, and he knew a little about drugs and me. However broad my knowledge of contemporary pharmacology might have been, his was certainly deeper.
David had graduated summa cum laude from Yale only six years before the workshop, receiving among the highest scores ever recorded on the final exam then mandatory for English majors. He often spoke warmly of “Mr. Warren”—Robert Penn Warren, who had made David his protégé. After graduation, David had gone to the Iowa Workshop, where he was something of a misfit. (Anyone from the Ivies was by definition a misfit there, I later discovered.) He’d gotten into a fistfight with Kurt Vonnegut, whom he thought a poseur, and dropped out to go to Hollywood, where he wrote for Peyton Place, then a popular thrice-weekly soap opera, the first ever to run at night.
David had returned to Yale for law school—finishing the Iowa degree by mail, he told me. He entered law school to receive a draft deferment, a common strategy before the draft lottery began. (I was fortunate not to have been drafted my sophomore or junior year.) David’s career as a law student was cut short by an incident, of which there is more than one version, involving heavy drinking, a police car, and a shotgun—either the squad car’s light bar or a hapless streetlight was blown away. He hung around Yale until Stanley Kunitz invited him to be his assistant in a college poetry-seminar, probably in 1969.
He didn’t seem to understand poetry at all.
It wasn’t clear how many courses in poetry David had taken as an English major. He didn’t seem to understand poetry at all. He confided that in the seminar Kunitz would call on him now and then. “Mr. Milch, what is the meter of this poem by William Wordsworth?” Kunitz once asked. “Dactylic hexameter,” David replied. “Exactly!” said Kunitz. “Iambic pentameter.” David once showed me a group of poems by another student, and I dismissed them as perfectly awful. “Why?” he asked. “They have alliteration! They have metaphors!”
What did I learn, then, from David Milch? My notes were not lavish—most weeks I wrote down just a page or two of what he said, though that may be the manifest sign of his talk’s hypnotic effect. His ideas were so striking, I only half finished recording one remark before he launched into two or three others. I caught enough of the manner that I’ll use those notes as direct quotes:
There is a reluctance of the writer’s imagination to give up free rein unless the form is congenial to the imagination. The recognition of that reluctance is the writer’s first duty.
A writer needs a certain distancing so the imagination isn’t threatened. That distancing becomes a legitimate receptacle for the mind. You have to show the imagination that it is not under scrutiny or attack.
Nothing in the spirit is unfit for the page, if properly communicated. Problems of technique are only problems of communication.
The source of humor is the thing survived.
There are ways of absorbing neurotic obsession in form, then attacking other things in the story.
Conrad used Marlow because he needed a ruminating device.
I’m not suggesting that what’s good for your work is good for your life.
The writer must give up fastidiousness. A pat story may be the most necessary. This reluctance is played out by the writer setting forty tasks before writing—as in the courtly-love tradition, the consummation often is not reached. The writer who never consummates permits himself to entertain the fantasy of talent in the head.
In The Great Gatsby, a qualified narrative voice absorbs an aberrant state of mind to see the action rightly. Nick Carraway is the refractor of the story.
Every narrator is conditioned as an actor to the extent he is tested as a narrator.
One usually has the feeling of the weight of the past, but not the time the past takes to become the past.
The ability to delineate what neuroses condition the character is where fiction begins, and what time does to that is where fiction ends.
Action ought to test the values of the form. The narrative voice has values the characters do not. Illusions get characters through the days.
People who are very articulate in describing writing may have difficulty writing because they undercut the gratifications by making them conscious. I reject that you have to be naive to write, but it may be a great help.
Mere technical virtuosity is a conceit.
I doubt many have come closer to the fixation Coleridge created with his talk.
I have missed here his penchant for quoting Darwin, William James, Kierkegaard, and many another. At such moments David seemed in touch beneath the art on the page with a world of perception not immediately perceptible, and perhaps not perceptible at all—in other words, in touch with the drives and burdens of which art is made and in which nothing but art flourishes. These are fragments from his fifty-minute monologues across twelve weeks, monologues delivered almost without interruption, perhaps ten hours in all of an extraordinary mind engaged by its favorite subject. I doubt many have come closer to the fixation Coleridge created with his talk, or the surrender demanded.
I had never heard another teacher talk like that. I’d never heard a teacher think like that. I’d had the benefit of courses with Edmund Morgan, Chris Argyris, Joseph LaPalombara, Richard Gilman, Gaddis Smith, and Charles Reich, all arresting lecturers who but for David would have been far more impressive. I could see in those seminar hours, however, the complicated transaction and explanation necessary for David to curb his own talent and make it useful. For all his Circean talk, his way of analyzing stories could never have been adopted by anyone else. Not only did I lack that cast of mind, but to try to imitate him would have been no easier than imitating William Empson or Kenneth Burke without being Empson or Burke.
David’s influence was the more crucial because indirect. I did not have to treat him with the caution that with a poet might have been necessary, since poets almost unconsciously convey the allurements of their style, praising highest a sort of mimicry. The goad of studying with David, a goad that became a lesson ethical without being moral—he did not believe, so far as I could tell, in the morality of writing or of fiction itself—was the urgency of finding a path, however divergent or particular, into the work itself.
The requirements for Strategies of Indirection were to submit two pieces of fiction or criticism. I gave David instead a gloomy sequence of poems about an unconsummated love affair. He read them, nodded, considered the matter for a second, then exclaimed brightly, “She must have some tits!” My hopes for the sequence collapsed. David possessed an uncanny comprehension of what was wrong with work I brought. Later he looked at a somewhat fragmented poem, no doubt just dreadful. He glanced over it and said, “What if you put these lines here, at the beginning? And those over there, toward the end?” With a couple of arrows and a few deletions he completed the diagram; the poem became immeasurably better, no longer an idea without direction, one that hadn’t even known it was an idea.
David wrote a letter of recommendation when I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Perhaps he’d even suggested that I go. I walked down to his office one day in March or April; as soon as I sat down, he said, cocking an eye, “Did you get in?” (Gauntlet thrown.) I said I hadn’t heard. He raised his eyebrows, as if struck by an immense idea. “Let’s call them!” he said. My heart stopped. Taking the lead-weight of the desk phone, he dialed the number, which he apparently knew by heart. Dialing an old rotary phone took forever. Eventually someone answered. “Yeah, this is Dave Milch,” he said, gravelly but not unfriendly. “I’ve got my student Bill Logan here. Yeah, he applied. Did he get in? Yeah. Yeah. OK.” He slammed down the phone and looked at me. “You didn’t get in.” Then he offered to make me his assistant the following year, promising to split the take from his college seminars.
Heartened and embarrassed by his overestimation of my talents, to my long regret I turned him down. My reasons were not complicated. I had no idea what I’d do after graduation; but I didn’t want to spend the next year being outmatched once a week (“Dactylic hexameter!”), because just to be with David was to be outmatched. He had a gaggle of hangers-on who already wanted things from him. Whatever they wanted, I wanted something else. I was admitted to Iowa a year later, after another letter of recommendation from David Milch.
The dialogue was gripping in an unsettling way.
Gradually I looked up the scraps of fiction David had published, all from an unfinished trilogy or tetralogy exploring the aftermath of the death of a boy in a car wreck. David had already signed the contract and received the advance. I found two chapters in his mfa thesis at Iowa, which he asked me to xerox, having lost his only copy. As I recall, each volume would cover a day between the wreck and the funeral—a Faulknerian enterprise set in Buffalo, apparently based on the death of a friend. The dialogue was gripping in an unsettling way; but the exposition and description, though they served the story, were a work in progress, lacking the depth and reach he achieved so effortlessly in dialogue. He was a master of motivation and complication, both evident in an unmade movie script I later saw, a script about a degenerate gambler who played the ponies. There were extensive notes, detailing what occurred in the minds of the characters, something scripts never do—it was a complete literary work in itself.
At Yale, he was also busy writing scripts for a pbs television series on the James family, a series never made. He also wrote the script, allegedly in one weekend, for what would now be called an indie movie. Financed by the director, who had some family money, Pilgrims (1973) was set at a highway diner near New Haven. David was cast in a part that largely required playing himself. I recall only one line, during his encounter with a slightly cracked monologuist, played by a former Yalie who could produce soliloquies on demand. (I’d encountered him at the Yale radio station, where I’d been program director.) In the scene between them, David looked at the guy and said, “You’re not wrapped too tight.”
David wasn’t thriving in New Haven, however. I saw him whenever I passed through, every year or so. A decade after the seminar, he was gone. A former roommate was in Hollywood writing for Hill Street Blues. When the show lost a writer, he invited David to try his hand. There were other shows afterward, and larger paychecks. He told me that every time he tried to leave the business and return to fiction, someone doubled his salary.
In 1992 David invited me down to Miami to watch the Breeders’ Cup for juveniles. The winner often became the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. He’d taken me to the track in Los Angeles when I stayed with him for three or four days, mentioning that he was buying race horses to cure, or at least hold at bay, his gambling addiction. (David claimed he’d offered a Lexus dealer a thousand dollars not to put a phone in his new car—it would save him from losing money while stuck in traffic.) After years paying to board and train the horses, he finally had a champion. He flew some forty people down to see the race—his father’s old gambling buddies from Buffalo, Yale classmates, members of his family, and Hollywood acquaintances. I seemed to be the only former student, though I gather there was at least one other. David paid for flights, hotel rooms, all of it, with, at least in my case, a handful of gambling money.
Sometime that weekend, I saw him with a man at the hotel’s front desk. “Bill!” he called, waving me over. (I’d upgraded myself to William years before but never made a point of correcting him.) “Bill, meet Bill—Bill Clark. Bill’s a retired detective from New York. He’s telling me undercover and homicide war stories. Maybe we’ll make something of them.” What David made was NYPD Blue, the most groundbreaking cop show of its day, which won both men Emmys. David’s horse, Gilded Time, won the cup and a $640,000 purse. How could it not, in this fairy tale? Ever the gambler, for the post-race celebration he’d rented a country club in advance. Alas, though the favorite for the Derby, the horse bruised a foot weeks after Miami and missed the race.
David left NYPD before the end of its run. He created a couple of other series, but one was canceled after the first season, the other after only six episodes. Then came Deadwood, where he at last created a profane Shakespearean world whose characters proved almost as skilled in rough eloquence and verbal pyrotechnics as himself. Even a writer who lives in the world must create the world in which he writes. Visiting her friend Larry McMurtry in his Texas hometown, Archer City, where he’d founded four bookshops, Susan Sontag remarked, “Larry, you’re living in your own theme park.” That’s what Deadwood was for David.
I spent eight days on the set of the show’s third season. We’d been talking for a year or two about my writing a script for him, but he wanted me to come out to see how he worked. Deadwood was filmed on Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch, north of Los Angeles. “So,” he said, falling into step with me one afternoon. “What’s the best outcome here?” (Gauntlet thrown.) Though my hope had been to write for the show, I said I could see that his only method was to write everything himself. “Yeah,” he said, slightly embarrassed, scuffing the ground with his shoes. He told me that to satisfy hbo he took credit for two scripts per series, passing the remaining credits to a staff writer here, a producer there. He invited me to return for a long stay and hang around. Eventually he might have thrown me one of those credits. That was not the last of his generosities; but, like his offer when I failed to get into Iowa, I couldn’t accept. That rich vein in him included giving unknown actors speaking parts, qualifying them for the coveted Screen Actors Guild card—much to the anger, he admitted with a smile, of the sag.
Due to a bad back, he would lie sprawled on the floor of the writers’ trailer, facing a computer monitor. Behind him interns and staff sat on a motley collection of chairs and a grubby, thrift-store couch. Beyond the monitor his secretary sat at her desk, with a second monitor. As David dictated, creating a scene in thin air, she’d type up what he said. He wrote aloud, like Henry James after he acquired typewriter and secretary, or Milton when he was “milked” by his daughters. At the end of the scene, David would rewrite it, keeping up a steady patter that justified each change, each addition and deletion, as an alteration of emphasis or the provision of necessary information, teasing out emotion or advancing plot a notch or two. He had become notorious for writing to deadline and beyond, making last-minute changes to the script, the bane of actors and directors. One evening I left while he was still writing. I arrived the next morning to see carpenters finishing the set for that scene. Each of his writing monologues was recorded, and an intern would transcribe it overnight. Somewhere there must be hundreds of single-spaced pages of David talking about the nuts and bolts of scriptwriting.
Working against deadline was obviously necessary for him.
Working against deadline was obviously necessary for him. Once in harness, he was almost impossible to distract—and I suspect that, once distracted, he found it difficult to get back to work. He wrote to the last minute, then a minute more, a minute more, trying to get each character and action in accord with some cryptic, slowly adjusted design; but he needed the deadline just as much to make him abandon, eventually, the search for unattainable perfection. The intensity of the enterprise and his willingness to be observed in the act were even more impressive than the beauty of what was produced. Perhaps some painters have worked in the ruck and roil of a studio while watched by their apprentices, but writers are addicted to silence and slow time. For a man of David’s capacities, a man who answered the call of his obsessions, television scriptwriting took advantage of his disadvantages; and he did not mind, perhaps he even welcomed, naked observation of the drama of self.
A brilliant teacher repairs an unfelt absence. Innocence is the goal of every act of writing, a goal in the end unreachable. We are soiled by the endeavor that would free us—the writer is always soiled by the particular. True Magdalenes, no matter how often forgiven, know they are not worthy, that unbearable guilt will always linger. That is the writer’s crucial, pathetic relation to his work. Similarly, there are debts that cannot be repaid because you do not possess the currency in which they were tendered. I learned from David not just what it meant to be a writer, but what it meant to live in that condition that is the world. I have attempted over the decades to pay that debt by shifting the obligation to my students.
I have said too little about David’s generosity. We were in a restaurant in Los Angeles when he took out a roll of fifties and gave one to the maitre d’, another to the waiter, and others to any staff who happened by. He asked to be remembered to the dishwasher, then turned to me shyly and whispered, “I’m putting his kid through college.” At the party after Gilded Time won the Breeders’ Cup, one of his New Haven friends showed me a large check David had written to cover medical expenses for the man’s wife. Fifteen years ago, I asked David if he’d talk to one of my former students, a young actress. He was in the first season of Deadwood and so fiercely busy it was hard to get him on the phone. Nevertheless, he met her for an hour and offered her an internship in California or New York, promising that if things worked out he’d find something for her as writer or actress. He stood up, she stood up, then he said, “Wait a second.” He took out his wallet and gave her five hundred dollars, adding, “Pay me when you’re rich.” She appeared in the third season of the show.
There are other stories. Like many gamblers who treat largesse as an offering to the gods of chance, David’s philosophy was to overpay. I once asked what drove him to such unimaginable acts of kindness—or call it, as he would not, magnanimity. He puffed out his chest, put his thumbs in imaginary suspenders, splayed his fingers, and struck a pose. “Like to be the big man,” he said.
This piece is adapted from the forthcoming anthology Writers and Their Teachers, edited by Dave Salwak (Bloomsbury Academic).
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 7, on page 27
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