Sunday, 24 June 2012

All because of Aaron Sorkin: how the West Wing changed me

The internet is aflutter with excitement about Aaron Sorkin’s new television show, The Newsroom. All kinds of questions are being asked: how will Sorkin write a Republican protagonist? Where’s Bradley Whitford? Will The Newsroom air anywhere besides the US?

Here’s what I’m asking: will it change lives?

Because The West Wing changed mine.

For a long time, my friends in London had been telling me I should watch it. “It’s all about politics,” they’d say. “You like politics.” They were right. Once I gave in, the show took over my life. And something surprising happened in me as I watched: I fell in love with the English language.

As a child and teenager, I wrote prolifically -- in French, which is my mother tongue. When we moved back to the UK, and English became my dominant language, I did not feel so inspired. French, I was convinced, was superior. It was beautiful. English was not.

But that was before Aaron Sorkin convinced me otherwise. His mastery of the language awoke something in me that had been dormant for years. “Oratory should raise your heart rate,” says one of his characters, and that is exactly what his words did for me.  I began to devour novels. I began to itch to write again.

Sorkin assumes an intelligent viewer, and yet still teaches them a multitude of things. He doesn’t shy away from difficult or controversial issues. And in the language itself there is poetry, too, and rhythm:

“Nice job on the speech,” says one character to another, Sam Seaborn, in the third season.
“How did you know I wrote it?” he asks her.
She quotes some of its phrases. “We did not seek, nor did we provoke… We did not expect, nor did we invite…”
“A little thing called cadence,” Sam replies, and you get the sense that Aaron Sorkin is winking at his viewers through those lines.

Sorkin is also skilled at developing complex and memorable characters, avoiding, for example, the liberal temptation to paint all Republicans as evil.  Life is not black and white, and nor should fiction be if it is to be believable.

Josh Lyman – deftly played by Bradley Whitford - is one such character: arrogant, brilliant, and deeply wounded. He is also at the center of a will-they-won’t-they storyline which kept many viewers hooked; I wanted my writing to do that, too. The restraint which Aaron Sorkin showed in not getting Josh and his assistant Donna together too soon – and the resulting tension - is one of the defining features of the show. I wanted to create characters as compelling as Josh and Donna; I wanted my stories, like Sorkin’s, to reflect the complexities of life in general and romance in particular.

So it was that walking home one summer Saturday after a morning of French teaching, an unexpected thought occurred to me: wouldn’t it be fun to tutor Bradley Whitford?  And that was the start of my first novel, in which someone very much like me teaches French to someone a little like him, who inspires her to move to Washington DC and (many years later) become a Senator.

Given the source of my inspiration, it was perhaps inevitable that politics would provide the backdrop to the story. My friends in London had been right: this wasn’t a new interest. I chose Sociology in my last two years of high school and almost studied Social and Political Science at University. I was once passionate about that stuff. And The West Wing prodded at that, too. Prodded and poked and awoke the beast.

And of course, I had to visit Washington, and the city stole my heart. Maybe it was the majesty of the monuments or the colors of autumn: we don’t have the deep, deep red of the maple tree in Europe. Maybe it was the surreal sense of stepping into a fictional world that had seemed only to exist on screens and in my imagination. Maybe it was eavesdropping on high-level conversations in classy restaurants. Maybe it was the abundance of literary events and of bookshops with names like Politics and Prose. Maybe – most likely of all – it was the fact that my writing feels intricately bound up with DC and the corridors of political power. Hard to tell. But I knew I wanted to live there.

Writing, by then, had become a serious passion; I began to dream about studying it full-time. And when I dream, I reach for Google. I typed in “MFA” and “DC”, omitting “two birds”, “one stone”. And it came up with American University, a place which not only offered exactly what I needed in terms of the course but which also –  oh, happy day! -- was rated number one nationally for its political involvement.

I applied but wasn’t accepted. Would Donna Moss have let that deter her? No, she would not. I worked on my admissions essay and sent in a better writing sample the following year, and this time it was a yes.
I’ll be moving to DC in August. Perhaps to embark on a whole new chapter of my life complete with best-selling novels, a part-time voluntary job at the Democratic Party, and my very own Josh Lyman. Or perhaps just for a two-year adventure. But either way, it’s because of Aaron Sorkin. It’s because of The West Wing.

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