Artists and audiences seek the truth. Audiences may yearn for “escapist entertainment,” but truth is what they hunger for. Writers may not even realize that they seek truth, but they know when a scene feels “right.” Same thing.
Everyone has a different process for finding truth on the page, but ultimately writers first must find the truth within before they can put it on the page. That may be the scariest thing about writing.
But what does “truth” really mean when it comes to drama? Calling a scene “honest” is vague. It doesn’t really explain why certain pieces of drama have such tremendous resonance for viewers. Saying that a work is “personal” doesn’t cut it, either, because a personal work may not be truthful and a truthful work may not be personal.
We have to go beyond these petty descriptive words to get at what audiences are looking for when they watch television, and what writers should be aiming for when they compose. As we do, remember that some of the process that we are about to learn occurs in our unconscious. What we need to do is learn how to bring it to our conscious mind to help us tell a story.
Fanciful vs. Imaginative Associations
David Milch who, in his lecture series entitled “The Idea of the Writer” (2007), discusses the concept of “fanciful associations”. The best example of a fanciful association is when you hear a particular song that conjures up some kind of memory for you. The association you make between the song and that memory is a purely personal one, but that song will not have that same association to anyone else. It’s personal and unique to you, and thus defined as fanciful.
Now, if you attempt to dramatize the song with your specific associative moment in a show, it will have very little impact. As Michael Chernuchin said, “You have to depersonalize the experience, and make it universal.” In Milch’s words, the writer must change that fanciful association into an “imaginative association”, where a commonality of experience that is accessible to everyone’s imagination will give that moment resonance. To do this, he says, you must “neutralize what is initially fanciful and find the common association.”
How does a writer do that? You must drill down deep into your psyche. You must, as Milch says, “rest transparently in the spirit which gives you rise…in our recollection as artists, an uninterrupted sequence of associations is made available to us which, if carried out, may generate a premise for a story.”
The premise is our reward for digging in our psychological dirt. So it is imperative that one follow the chain of associations triggered by a memory and not turn away when they become emotional or revealing.
What is it that this process achieves for us? Milch quotes a teacher of his who says that, “this…is the process by which everything which seems merely fanciful and is imprisoned in the past, in its seeming unrecoverability, is once again brought to life and conjugated into the future tense of joy.”
In other words, we need to take these memories and associations that may be painful in some way and by converting them into a universal story everyone can relate to, we create something bigger than ourselves, something that harbors resonance and meaning and, therefore, joy.
This is a combination of unconscious and conscious processes.
Let’s see how The Shield fits into this theory. In my interview with Shawn Ryan, he made references to his limited physical stature as a child, and about how difficult it was to “feel like a whole man” when standing next to a member of the Delta Force. And who could blame him?
So Shawn may have taken a fanciful association of being a boy of small stature (pain of the past), and through a set of imaginative associations, arrived at the iconic alpha-male character of Vic Mackey. He is a deeply flawed character, committed to personal and family gain, but torn by loyalty to his comrades and a sense of justice. These are totally universal and relatable. Shawn then placed Vic into a venue that interested him intellectually, where these thematic interests could be explored.
So why is truth so important?
Ultimately, the creative process must be transformative for both artist and audiences; otherwise it is merely an exercise in vanity or craft. Without transformation, the journey itself becomes pointless.
But can you, the writer, seek truth in your material, while working in Hollywood? The collision between art and commerce makes it difficult. Agents want their clients to specialize in something, since Hollywood employers seek comfort in the form of repeat successes driven by “experts”. We’ll discuss this more in future chapters, but suffice it to say that herein lays the challenge of television.
Ed. Note: This is part two of a two-part series. Part one can be read here.
Excerpts from Inside the TV Writer’s Room: Practical Advice for Succeeding in Television, edited by Lawrence Meyers (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010), by permission.
Autographed copies available at www.tvwritersroom.com.