Why I Learned More About Writing Novels from The Wire than I did in my MFA Program
The Wire, HBO’s now-defunct drama series that ran from 2002-2008, is everything that you’ve heard and more. Believe the hype. There have been countless pieces written on how great the show is and for a long time I listened to the praise and thought “Yeah yeah, I’m not into cop shows,” but it became hard to ignore the glowing recommendations of the series by people whose opinion I valued. Several talented writers kept saying, “It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.”
So this summer I rented the DVDs and I watched. "Watched" is probably not the right word. Paul and I were addicted, shuttling the kids off to bed each night so that we could stay up past our reasonable bedtime to watch episode after episode. Paul was more hardcore than me, he could watch 3 episodes back-to-back without fading. I usually had to stumble to bed and then catch up to him later by watching the rest of the episode the next day.
The characters are always complicated like people are in real life. They struggle with good and bad impulses, they have conflicting motivations. The actors aren’t your standard Hollywood actors with symmetrical, flawless features. They have scars, filmy eyes, missing teeth and these details make them much more interesting to watch.
The plot lines are deftly woven throughout the series. A seed is planted in Season One that may not blossom until Season Two or Three but by the time it does, you can look back on all the hard work the writers put into developing that particular story. I never felt like “Why did he do that?” or “That’s not believable” (well I did, but only once with a minor character, Brother Muzone, who seemed more like caricature.)
Best of all, The Wire confirmed the importance of examining social issues in creative writing, something that I felt was missing from my MFA program. Often in workshops we focused on the insular world of a story without considering or discussing the larger context of the story. I remember work-shopped story that featured a character engaged in homophobic conversations through scribblings on a bathroom wall. For a long time we talked about the veracity of the scribblings and the character’s motivation without discussing homophobia, public restrooms as sexual meeting places, the low-tech nature of this type of communication, etc. It felt like craft was being examined in a vacuum and sometimes, as a result, our stories weren’t rooted in any familiar social context. Often I felt like I learned more about writing from teaching composition courses at the university. At least those writing courses accepted that we can’t separate language from its environment.
The Wire’s language (it has multiple storylines and numerous characters) is a reflection of our complex, multi-tasking society and how we engage with industries and institutions. Although the setting is Baltimore, it is every urban metropolis in the age of our industrial decline. The Wire portrays a world that many of us grew up in.