It’s called Life’s Work. It’s anything but a simple title, as only to be expected from its incomparable author, David Milch. It’s not so much a play on words as it is an enunciation of intent, a spiritual aspiration. Yeah, let’s start there and see where it takes us. The rabbi is in.
There is a profound sadness that winds its way through these pages. Alzheimer’s is laying claim to David’s current challenge, and it permeates his thought process in this troubling memoir. He is assisted in committing the recallable memories to paper by his family, and even where confusion follows his path like a sine curve, it’s not just Alzheimer’s that elicits sorrow. It’s the entire path of intermittent regrets. If words are to make us feel, his words again succeed.
I hadn’t seen David in a very long time when I attended his book launch. I asked him if he remembered me. “Of course,” he said, “do either of us owe the other money?” I was 99% sure it was a joke, but just in case I assured him we did not.
In the broadest sense of its definition, rabbi means teacher. In the workplace, it means more than that. If you get one, your life is going to change. You might just be finding a path to Life’s Work.
When you’re a young writer, if you’re smart you seek teachers. They don’t teach you how to write. They teach you how difficult it is to write. They instill in you taste, fortitude, inhuman patience, proper doubt, and resilience.
The feedback is anything but pleasant. It’s not for the faint of heart. You learn that bad first drafts are a fact of process. They are necessary, but largely need to be deleted.
David Milch taught me these things, mostly by demonstrating them, but sometimes from the breakfast lectern. He taught me that subjecting others to unpolished work was amateur, lazy, and unfair. If you choose to tell stories, you must learn to craft them in ways that don’t waste an audience’s time or take advantage of their goodwill.
You learn discipline, like an athlete. You do it every day, again and again. The rabbi keeps you honest. Character comes first, then reveals plot, but plot is only a device to enhance the arc of character development. We think we love story, but what we really love are characters.
David taught me those characters are guests in people’s homes. Audiences will let them in on expectation, but will only keep them there if they grow. When a show dies, it’s not because you have run out of story; it’s because the characters have no more headroom to interpret and flourish.
Feedback becomes lifeblood. Then one day you’re on your own. When the teacher is no more, your filter is established to shield you from embarrassment. The work must pass your own sniff test as it would be blessed from further refinement by the teacher.
In this memoir, David writes of the mind’s decay. He didn’t ask for this denouement, but his choices are few. He accepts the path as inescapable. He turns to notions of faith that evaded him in his younger years, when his temperament was not tamable. I remember that David. That was the rabbi who first said to me: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
He wrote unforgettable, award-winning episodes of Hill Street Blues. He created the groundbreaking television series NYPD Blue and Deadwood. He left the craft of episodic television writing better than he found it. That is an understatement.
He battled substance abuse and gambling addiction, both almost crushing his existence. He raised a caring family and found his way back to their love. Surviving his demons to nurture love was a monumental achievement.
I came to David because my viewing experience of Hill Street Blues was TV that tore at the soul. I didn’t know that was possible, particularly because it broke for commercial every 12 minutes or so. David came to think of it as bourgeois. That’s a word you don’t often hear outside of college.
He wanted to go deeper, extract honesty from language despite the limitations imposed by presumed broadcast standards. Rules for David were goalposts that needed to be moved with concerted wit whenever a network executive forgot to interfere. All forms of writing are bound by some form of convention, but he wanted those boundaries to be in service to creativity, not obstacles to authentic expression.
He never stopped being a teacher. He saw the gift in his mentor, Robert Penn Warren, and paid it forward. He helped the careers of endless writers who learned from his example the poetic revelations in pure, gritty, messy, conflicted reality.
For many years I never believed I would achieve David’s standard. My aesthetic was too unformed, too quick to quip, too impatient to let a character breathe if it killed a laugh or shocking turn. I became despondent with my own attempts at composition. I worried words would fail me when I needed them most.
Yet I never gave up. The rabbi made that an untenable notion. Work was essential. Rewriting was essential. Craft was essential. I was on my own as David was. Every writer is alone. It takes a lifetime to learn that. The rabbi if abrupt saves you half your life denying this truth and readying you for being alone, determined, indefatigable.
A mentor is a subject matter master. A mentor is not meant to be kind in the present, only in the long arc of life. We learn this too late. The critique of the master is only meant to become self-critique in perpetuity. Like I said, apprenticeship is not for the faint of heart.
There is gravitas in the audacity of writing, absurdity in committing to an endeavor that consistently leaves you empty and unnaturally separates writer from the written. David understands that in a rabbinical sense. His ability to articulate the nature of output is simultaneously divine and existential. A brief, revealing excerpt early in the memoir captures the essence of that reduction:
There’s something about literature—poetry and prose, but particularly poetry—which disinfects the efforts of being. The effort itself is cleansing. It neutralizes what’s profane about the process, and just leaves the result.
If writing becomes your essence, the idea of not writing is about the same as the idea of not breathing. Neither is feasible. Both are equally necessary.
At the end of the reading, supplemented by famous friends sharing passages for reasons of pragmatism, David took the microphone. “Thank you so much for being here. I love you all. God bless you.”
I had never heard him say words like that. His arc had come with an unpredictable resolution. Story and character were again united in natural resonance.
The rabbi placed a small ribbon between chapters and closed the book. His eyes were clear and telling. Here ends the lesson.
Photo: The Author at Diesel Bookstore