Writing advice from David Simon

The first time I watched The Wire I liked it. The second time I watched it I was convinced it was one of the best shows ever. And I’m far from the first person to come to that conclusion. Just Google “Best Show Ever” and you’ll see The Wire is on every list out there. 

I recently read the book All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire. And while I’m not usually a fan of oral history-type books, I can admit that this one was pretty great.

While it was fun to hear from the actors who portrayed my favourite characters (I’m looking at you Andre Royo and Michael Kenneth Williams), the best part of All the Pieces Matter was hearing from the show’s creator, David Simon, particularly when the topic turned to writing.

Novelists were (and still are) a big part of David Simon’s writing room: Richard Price, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane are all successful novelists who write with Simon on a regular basis. And that’s because, according to this New York Times piece, Simon believes “that novelists are particularly well-suited for longform television, where stories unspool over several episodes or a whole season: ‘They can see the whole.'”

I’ve often heard Simon describe himself as a storyteller, and if you’ve seen any of his television shows you already know that he clearly knows how to tell a story. So I thought I’d look around for some words of wisdom from the man himself on writing. Here’s what I found. 


Tell your story in a different way

“I tend to look upon stories as having a build and a pace and a structure that is similar to a multi-POV novel. And that’s an indulgent way to tell a story by television standards. I’m aware that the optimum way to structure a TV show is to keep people constantly excited or terrified, to provoke at all points, but I really don’t have any interest in making entertainment just to be entertaining. My models are prose models. And that may mean that if you watch some of these episodes individually you don’t think anything’s happening. It’s only when you give yourself over to the process and you watch them in totality that you see the whole – which by standards of prose is a sensible way to tell a story.”

(Source: The Writer)

Don’t write what you know 

“My own life is particularly uninteresting to me. I grew up in a suburb of Washington. There, I had a completely normal dynamic with the world. I was politically angry at times. I liked to argue. In my family, arguing was a sport.

When I got to Baltimore, the situations I encountered were something Silver Spring hadn’t prepared me for. This was a hyper-segregated city. I had gone thirty miles north, but I had gone south. I’d walk into a white bar in Dundalk [in east Baltimore] and the shit one would hear!

The work was exhilarating, though. Once you had the story, you were like a kid running back to the campfire. “I have a story. Here are the names. Gather around the campfire and listen to me.” As a young reporter, I thought, “Oh, there’s that much vanity in that.” Then, I read an essay by George Orwell where he said something like, “I’ll tell you why I write. I want everyone to know that I’m the smartest guy with the best story. I’m showing off.” He copped to it. I don’t think I even aspired to be that person until I acquired better and more interesting stories than my own.”

(Source: The New York Review of Books)


Learn to live with doubt and fear

“Like many writers, I live every day with the vague nightmare that at some point, someone more knowledgeable than myself is going to sit up and pen a massive screed indicating exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame, half-assed assumptions. I see myself labeled a writer, and I get good reviews, and I have the same doubts buried, latent, even after my successes. I suspect many, many writers feel this way. I think it is rooted in the absolute arrogance that comes with standing up at the community campfire and declaring, essentially, that we have the best story that ought to be told next and that people should fucking listen. Storytelling and storytellers are rooted in pay-attention-to-me onanism. Listen to this! I’m from Baltimore and I’ve got some shit you fucking need to see, people! Put down that CSI shit and pay some heed, motherfuckers! I’m gonna tell it best, and most authentic, and coolest, and… I mean, presenting yourself as the village griot is done, for me, with no more writerly credential than a dozen years as a police reporter in Baltimore and a C-average bachelor’s degree in general studies from a large state university. On paper, why me? But I have a feeling every good writer, regardless of background, doubts his own voice just a little, and his own right to have that voice heard. It’s the simple effrontery of the thing. Who died and made me Storyteller?”

(Source: The Believer

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