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David Milch's 'Life's Work' holds lessons about humanity and the power of art

Random House

There is a scene in the first season of Deadwood, David Milch's critically acclaimed HBO drama, that encapsulates the crux of the screenwriter and producer's life's work.

Deadwood was an illegal settlement on land stolen from the Lakota Sioux in the Black Hills of South Dakota during an 1870s gold rush; Deadwood explores the settlement's history with a focus on, as Milch writes, "how people make a community whether they intend to or not." In the fifth episode, the settlers are grappling with the craven killing of Wild Bill Hickok, the frontier folk hero and gunslinger. Reverend H.W. Smith presides over Hickok's burial: "Mr. Hickok will lie beside two brothers...So much blood...[I] don't know the purpose now, but know now to testify that, not knowing, I believe. St. Paul tells us, 'By one Spirit we are all baptized into one body...For the body is not one member but many.'"

This idea — that solipsism is a lie, that we must remember that we are as humans all interconnected — undergirds all of Milch's transformative television, from the groundbreaking police procedurals Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, to the Shakespeare-meets-the-profane Western Deadwood, to the odd and awe-inspiring surfing drama John from Cincinnati, to the ill-fated horse racing series Luck. And it's something Milch urgently wants to get across in his memoir Life's Work. "We are organs of a larger organism which knows us although we do not know it," he writes, prefacing his commentary on Hickok's funeral.

Milch's commitment to collaboration is what made Life's Work possible. In spring 2019, before the long-awaited release of Deadwood: The Movie, Milch revealed to the press that he had been living with Alzheimer's disease for about five years. His condition has since progressed. Life's Work is a collaboration with his wife, the artist Rita Stern Milch, and his adult daughters, who helped Milch piece together his story from recordings of his writing process and "past recollection[s] of mine being shared with me now." What results is an exigent reflection on a truly remarkable life, one that holds lessons about humanity and the power of art to make those lessons visible. "It increasingly seems that life is something that happens to you and art the opportunity to understand what's transpired," Milch writes in the prologue.

After the prologue, Life's Work takes us through his remarkable life linearly. We begin with Milch's upbringing in Buffalo, New York, as the younger son of an alcoholic, gambling surgeon. Milch himself started drinking at eight and running his father's bets at the Saratoga Racetrack around the same time. "My brother was going to be a doctor, he had been selected for that," Milch writes. "I had been selected to be the bum. A version of my dad separated into each of us." This millstone of being fated to be a "degenerate" would follow Milch throughout his adult life. His "symptoms of degeneracy" are the source of plenty of wild stories that he shares in Life's Work as he tracks his vacillations between success and self-destruction — from graduating Yale University with the Tinker Prize for excellence in English to manufacturing LSD in Cuernavaca, Mexico in the late 1960s, for instance.

These conversationally related yarns — as well as insider baseball on the making of television from casting to cutting room floor — are major draws of Life's Work, especially for dedicated Milch fans like me. I had the good fortune to hear that Cuernavaca story in person, when Milch visited a course I took at the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, where we studied his work intensively. But the real gifts of Life's Work are the same thing that captivated me most during Milch's visit — his meditations on writing and how to live, and how writing has kept him alive.

Milch became a writer at Yale, under the tutelage of the poet, novelist, and literary critic Robert Penn Warren, whom he refers to as "Mr. Warren" even now. Warren became a surrogate father who demonstrated honorable dedication to literature and "unconflicted embracing of...emotional states." As Warren's student, Milch worked on a novel about his childhood best friend Judgy, who died in a drunk driving accident shortly after they began college. Milch writes that he "didn't want to share my grief with anyone," including Judgy's family, "But I could be with them, and myself, in the writing in a way I couldn't otherwise...It's easier for me to be fully present in my work than in my life."

It was in collaborating with Warren and another Yale professor, the literary critic and biographer R.W.B. Lewis, that Milch came to screenwriting. He might have otherwise pursued a life in academia. In the 1970s, after completing an MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop — with a hiatus for that Mexican acid production and an aborted stint as a Yale law student — Milch taught writing at Yale and worked with his former professors on literature textbooks. "My teachers made the people we studied so alive that soon enough I was imagining them up and about, and talking," he explains of his turn toward television. His first show pitch was about Alice, William, and Henry James, who transformed American culture through literature and pragmatic philosophy. The show never materialized but, Milch writes, "the specific ideas from the Jameses — that the totality of experience and behavior is all at play...that the good is what works, and that we can rewire ourselves by behavior — would come to, and continue to, profoundly shape every aspect of how I lived."

In 1981, Milch's college roommate recruited him to write for Hill Street Blues, which followed a police station in a fictional city. Hill Street Blues was already revolutionizing the police procedural form through its serialized storytelling; Milch brought an attention to language born of the mismatch between network profanity rules and "a credible portrayal" of how cops and criminals speak. Milch wanted to "draw attention to the artifice, and in turn to the energy of the language," he writes. In addition to his penchant for linguistic innovation — later, he'd write most of Deadwood in iambic pentameter laced with cursing — Milch explains that on Hill Street Blues, he uncovered a theme that would preoccupy his work, especially NYPD Blue and Deadwood: "The law is provisional. It fails as often as it works. It's made up and improvised and inconsistent." But in order for humans to function together, we need to have rules we can agree upon, even if they are faulty.

Thus began Milch's contributions to the Golden Age of Television — works that challenge the idea that television is a mindless medium, and that explore the human experience through stories of crime and dysfunctional families and gambling. In dedicating himself to storytelling and working with a community of fellow writers, producers, actors, set designers, and more to bring these explorations of humanity to the screen, Milch found a way to follow his mentor Warren's lead, though he would still struggle with addiction and feelings of being an outsider for decades: "Mr. Warren had given me the gift of understanding that this process — transforming something dark or painful into something joyful by seeing it and knowing it fully — is the proper function of art, whether it be poetry or prose or screenwriting."

Eventually, Milch would explore the "dark or painful" aspects of his own past — notably, his relationship with his father, who died by suicide the same day Milch pitched his show on the Jameses. His annotations of scenes that have a connection to his life and philosophies, like that of Hickok's funeral, are profound Easter eggs that add depth to already-moving moments in his work. On the other hand, passages on projects that never came to fruition, like a series he brainstormed with his brother about the creation of modern American medicine, made me wish that there was more Milch television coming down the pike.

Milch appears to be at peace with this. "I still hear voices. I still tell stories," he writes toward the end of Life's Work. "There are those in my head and another in my throat and others in my work. There is the voice in my wife's head and the ones in my children's heads. The deepest gift I think an individual can experience is to accept himself as a part of a larger living thing, and that's what we are as a family." In reading Life's Work, we enter as part of that larger living thing, too.

Kristen Martin is working on a book on American orphanhood for Bold Type Books. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.

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Kristen Martin