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. I began to get irresistible cravings for episodes. At the end of season seven, bereft and grieving, I began to tweet my sorrow at there being no new episodes, and that was the beginning of several beautiful friendships – with Twitter itself, and with several fellow fans whom I met along the way.

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.

Writers’ Conferences: Yale

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This, for me, is the Summer of the Writing Conference. I was meant to go to Wesleyan, but circumstances conspired to keep me away. On a whim, I thought why not apply to Yale, since it’s nearby and they’re a few days apart and both on the Amtrak Northeastern train line? I didn’t expect to get in, so when I did, I had some soul searching to do. The Yale Writers’ Conference is really expensive, and they have no scholarships available at all. But it’s hard to resist the lure of Having Been Chosen. And it’s also, if you’re me, hard to resist the lure of the Ivy League campus.

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Berkeley College South Courtyard, where I stayed.

The Yale Writers’ Conference is a relatively new addition to the scene. In total, it runs over a little more than two weeks. The first ten days or so comprise Part I, “exploring broad issues of craft in nine days of workshops, individual conferences and readings”. It sounds really intense. I was very tempted, because one of the master classes was being led by Colum McCann, who is probably my greatest literary hero (his book Let the Great World Spin ranks as one of my all-time favourites) but in the end I couldn’t bring myself to part with $2600 (including accommodation) for that session. It may be money well spent, but it’s a heck of a lot of money. Part II, in any case, sounded more my thing: four days of seminars – not workshops per se, which frankly I have my fill of on my MFA course – based on a specific craft area. There’s a wide range of topics – from TV writing to children’s lit to memoir.  My first choice was food and travel, but I think that class must have been full by the time I applied so I got my second choice, “poetry for prose writers”. It sounded amazing, and right up my alley.

“In this generative workshop, we’ll explore the give-and-take that happens between lyric and story line within our prose as a means to create a compelling narrative.  Each session will include a look at a couple of models, a look at our own work, and an in class writing session based on our discussions. Given the short span of our sessions, we’ll begin by comparing some so called “prose poems,” Flash fiction” and “Flash CNF” and work in the last session towards full length prose. Along the way we will ask what all these have in common and how can we use techniques of one to help the other. We’ll use these insights to help break out of your habitual writing style and into something that’s more authentically and uniquely your own voice. This is a workshop that is also suitable for poets, too, especially those who want to make excursions into prose.”

It didn’t exactly do what it said on the tin. The first session seemed promising, but after that the format was really more of a workshop – and a poetry workshop at that. Did I “break out of my habitual writing style”? Hmm, I’m not sure. But we had some great conversations and my classmates’ writing was of a high standard, so the workshoppy discussions we had based on it was worthwhile and engaging. We were a very eclectic bunch, and over a longer or more intense time might have killed each other, but as it was, it worked, and we learned from each other’s writing.

We had one three-hour workshop a day, and that was more or less it, though we had homework every day too, which then formed the basis of our discussions the next day. We also each had a half-an-hour individual meeting with our teacher, which some people found more useful than others. (Mine, more than anything, was really encouraging – we ended up discussing where I could submit pieces of prose poetry I’d written for my translation class last autumn. I also, like everyone else, left with a long, tailor-made reading list. Definite bonus.) On the final day, we also had a really useful session with publishing professionals, and throughout the few days there was optional readings, and one night a screening of the film Midnight in Paris in the Berkeley College courtyard. The slower pace of the Session II was probably really helpful for those who had been to the more intensive Session I, though the Program’s Director told me that even so, many of the participants who had been there for both sessions were exhausted by the end – and I’m not surprised.

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Pierson College, where we ate lunch, and where I loved whiling away my time in the afternoons and evenings – often I had the courtyard all to myself.

I loved, loved, loved New Haven – it’s a bit of a crime-infested dive, apparently, once you leave the Yale bubble, but I had no desire to do that.  The weather was perfect – warm, sunny, with none of the unbearable mugginess of DC. That meant, for me, a lot of sitting around in pretty courtyards  that reminded me of my years at Cambridge, thinking about my novel and reading, which was worth every penny. The first night was a little on the hot side (31 C/high 80s F), which is where living in dorms sounds more romantic than it is, but once the temperature dipped back into the twenties centigrade (70sF), I knew I’d made the right choice. It’s my favourite kind of environment – even the window latches reminded me of the windows back at King’s College – so I willingly put up with the irritations of (perfectly fine) shared bathrooms. There is, in any case, a choice to live off campus too, though that probably makes the whole thing even more expensive. Meals were part of the deal, and we ate in the lovely Pierson College. The food was actually decent, and it was an all-you-can-eat-buffet style. I can’t vouch for the breakfast, since I just about made it to Starbucks every morning before class, but lunch was nice – if very samey. And Pierson College was one of the lovely places I found myself going back to time and again to hang out and absorb the Ivy Leagueness.

Lunch at Pierson College

Lunch at Pierson College

Would I go back? Yes, probably, especially if the weather was guaranteed to be as nice. It’s a shame they don’t have scholarships to at least aim for, because I would love to go to the whole thing.  I know now to expect lots of time to sit and think, and in that environment that is more than okay with me. I might also check more carefully with the course leader that it’s not going to be a straight forward workshop – I much prefer the model where I am explicitly taught, though that doesn’t seem to be the done thing in America or in writing classes (Gotham Writers’ Workshop, in New York, being a notable and noteworthy exception).

Would I recommend it? Yes, if you like being surrounded by Serious Literary Types, many of whom have or aspire to MFAs or PhDs in Creative Writing; if you can afford it; and (for Session II) if one of the genres offered is of particular interest to you.

Weddings: A Single Girl’s Survival Guide

Spring is here. Soon, if we’re lucky, it might even stop raining.  Spring: the season of new things and hope. Also the season of thick lilac envelopes landing heavily on your doormat as you pull your single duvet back over your head.  Just me? Come on, I know it’s not just me.

And the reason I know it’s not just me, and the reason that I have been reminded of this, is that I keep hearing about Save The Date, a new novel by Jen Doll which I can’t wait to read even though I know I will kick myself for not having written it before her. Years ago, in the throes of nuptials fatigue, I pulled together this list of wise gems of advice for wedding-weary single girls. I could leave it to languish in my metaphorical drawer, or I could share it with the world. Lucky you: I’ve chosen the latter.

I’m also happy to report from the other side: it really does get better. Eventually, most of your friends are married, and the weddings you get invited to become welcome occasions to get together with people you’re genuinely happy to see. It also helps to move across an ocean, so you can be picky about which invitations to accept, and everyone will totally understand. But for those of you who haven’t made it to that stage of life yet, maybe these tips will help.

1.  Remember it’s an honour to be invited.

Yes, really.  Unless you are a close relative of either the bride or groom, they were not duty-bound to include you.  They want you there: they value your friendship and the place you have in their lives.  This, surely, is worth celebrating.

2.  Pamper yourself.

Have you been wanting to get a manicure, or perhaps highlights in your hair? Here’s your excuse.  If budget allows, it’s also a great opportunity to add to your wardrobe.  Take pleasure in dressing up and looking beautiful.

3.  Wear comfortable shoes.

Nothing breeds self-pity like physical pain.

4.  Focus on the positives.

Take in your surroundings.  Savour the wine.  Revel in the quantity and quality of the food.

5.  Meet people.

In everyone’s circle of friends, there are some fascinating eccentrics who will make for great anecdotes later on, or perhaps inspire a character for that novel you’ve been trying to start.  There are people with great stories, who’ll be thrilled with the opportunity of telling them to a new audience. Who knows, there may even be minor celebrities, future politicians, or someone who shares your love of rare seashells or German embroidery.

6.  Go easy on the drinking.

I know it’s tempting to overdo it when the wine is so tasty and so plentiful.  But alcohol is a depressant, and if you’re struggling to hold it together, it won’t help.  Trust me.  I’ve tried it.

7.  Reward yourself.

Plan for this before the wedding: what film have you wanted to see for a long time? What bubble bath would you like to try? What chocolate? Go out and splurge, so that when you return home, your reward will be awaiting you.

Got any tips of your own? I’d love to hear them.

Where I ate: Elephant and Castle

I really dug the vibe at Elephant and Castle. It felt simultaneously British and American, and was quiet on a Friday night, which is nice when you’re not 22 and you don’t want to shout to be heard. The seats, American booth style, were comfy. And it’s on Pennsylvania Avenue, which is great, because you can go and say hi to the White House and walk down towards the lit up Capitol, and remind yourself once again how lucky you are to be living in DC. It’s also about one minute away from Barnes and Noble, always a pleasure to pop into and browse the magazines and look longingly at the journals, and pick up one with inexplicably seems to have a Ryan Gosling theme (for a friend, honest).

So it would be great if I could report that the food is yummy and the wine is delicious, and I had, all in all, found my new favourite place. Well, the wine was perfectly passable, at least the Pinot Grigio that I had. It was, by the way, the only European wine on the menu, which seems odd for a British-themed pub (as did the American sports on the big screens, but then I suppose it was the middle of the night in the UK when we were there – probably not much “soccer” being played). There was Guinness, though, and a vast array of British ales and beers.

The food, though, was not great. I admit that fish and chips was perhaps a risk, and one that I had so far resolutely refused to take. Americans (or any non-Brits) trying to do British food did not seem like it could end well. But this place prides itself on doing British food well, so what the heck. And it was okay. Maybe more than okay. The fries – I was not quite idealistic enough to expect or even hope for British-style chips – were not the best I’ve ever had, but neither were they the worst, though they may have been the worst of the more-upscale-DC-places. The fish almost tasted like British fish ‘n’ chips fish; almost, but not quite. And it certainly didn’t have the yummy crispy batter that I miss.

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I didn’t finish my fries, because I’d seen the dessert menu. As well as Big Ben brownies (a pathetic attempt at making THE quintessential American dessert sound vaguely British), it featured Baileys cheesecake. I love Baileys, and I love cheesecake. How could I not?

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Well, it wasn’t great cheesecake. It didn’t taste of very much at all, certainly not of any discernible Baileys. It didn’t even have that lovely fluffy consistency you get sometimes, which in itself is enough to make up for lack of taste – though cheesecakes that are fluffy tend also to be delicious, because made by expert hands.

I didn’t finish it. I never don’t finish my food.

Sorry, Elephant and Castle. I had high hopes for you, but I can’t in all good conscience award you more than a 6/10. Oh, go on, a 6.5/10, because of the location, the vibe, and the comfy seating, and because you treated me like a grown-up when I asked for wine and did not ask me to prove I was in my mid-thirties.

Where I ate: Medium Rare

Is Medium Rare a French restaurant? It’s hard to tell.

The menu is certainly encouraging in that respect, with a French translation of each element and no mistakes spotted by this keen-eyed linguist. (The menu, by the way, is a short one: you go to Medium Rare for steak-frites. There is no other option. For just under $20 (plus tax and tip),  you get bread, salad, and steak and chips, complete with “secret sauce”.) The wine list, pleasingly, includes many French options, each with a key adjective to help you decide if you want to give it a try. We went for the “easy” Malbec, which did in fact go down nicely, and paired very well with steak. I’d forgotten my passport, but they thankfully didn’t ID us – I’m in my mid 30s, and the friends I was out with are also well over 21 – so that helped, because to be denied a glass of wine or two with my meal would not have been very French, or have made me at all happy.

The bathroom is pretty French too: I’m not such a fan of the unisex thing, but what I am a fan of is the French audio-learning phrase book that was being played through speakers in the ceiling. And these weren’t just any French phrases. These were a course in flirting. Que vous avez de beaux yeux! What beautiful eyes you have!

The bread was delicious, and warm, and the butter was unsalted (again, very French, and therefore preferred by me). I was a little sad that they didn’t replenish the bread – I could easily have eaten more of it. The salad, brought as an hors d’oeuvre, was very simple, home-made style – mostly lettuce, with a hint of tomato, and a dressing that tasted as if it could have been made by my (French) mother if she were branching out from her usual (delicious) one. A small mouthful of Europe, right here on the East Coast of America.

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After not much of a wait (this being, after all, America), the next course was brought. The frites were hot and slim and definitely worthy of a French restaurant. I thought, in fact, that they were worthy of Belgium (incomparable home of the frite) but decided I must be imagining it – until I saw on the restaurant’s Twitter profile that they double-fry them, which is exactly what the Belgians do. The steak was not the best I’ve ever had in my life: medium rare rather than rare, without the yummy hint of crispiness on the outside that you get from grilling in a super hot pan, and lukewarm at best. (It was pre-cut into pieces, which probably didn’t help with keeping it warm.) But well, you get what you pay for, and it was still steak.

And that’s when the meal went from being French to being full-on American. After a decent sized main course, the waiter returned with a second helping for us all. The steak was slightly warmer this time – or maybe I was just used to its low temperature – but the chips were just as thin, crispy, and hot, and I thankfully still had some wine left. Can you beat the red-wine-and-steak combination? I think not.

By the time dessert came, we had both feet firmly planted on this side of the pond. The desserts were not even slightly European – even the chocolate they used was American – and they prioritised quantity over gourmet quality. Still, our Sundae (shared between three!) went down well.

And with the bathroom language lesson, the pleasant wine, and the delicious frites and bread, there was just enough Frenchness to make me smile and give me the warm fuzzy feeling I associate with home.

7/10.

DC people: Mary Matalin and James Carville

When your passions lie somewhere in the Venn diagram intersection between politics and books, DC is a magical place to live. In the year and a bit since I moved here, I’ve seen and had books signed by Michelle Obama, Al Gore, Sonia Sotomayor, and former Senator Olympia Snowe, and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head.

All of those events were organised by Politics and Prose, the fabulous bookshop I keep harping on about in this blog. This weekend, though, I got to go to the prestigious National Press Club for another book event. (Is it prestigious? It certainly felt prestigious, with the flags everywhere and the signed and framed pictures of political and Hollywood celebrities and the – if I’d only known! – free coffee.) The speakers were Mary Matalin and James Carville – political strategists who have been married for twenty years, remarkable for the fact that she is a rabid Republican and he a rabid Democrat. (Remember “It’s the economy, stupid” from the Clinton campaign? That was Carville.) The woman sitting next to me quipped that their wedding in 1993 was probably the last bipartisan event in DC.
It was Saturday morning, and raining, but I got there, on time, which just goes to show, I dunno, something about what is really important to me and vindicates my granny, who liked to say that quand on le veut, on le peut: when you want to do it, you can do it. It sounds better in French, with the rhyming and stuff. 
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At first, they waffled, started stories and didn’t finish them, and generally sounded a bit off their game. Not that I know what they sound like when they’re on their game, but it didn’t seem like this was it. I thought maybe it was just me – I struggle  a little with Carville’s thick Louisiana’s accent – but the woman behind me in the book-signing queue concurred. We concluded charitably that they were probably just tired of these events (one of many from their book tour for Love and War, I imagine), but had it been evening we may have attributed their demeanour to a little too much wine. It didn’t help that the moderator was, well, not fantastic. I think he was trying to be original with his question about cats – cats! – but the questions from the floor were much more in line with what I wanted to hear from them.  “What do you think of Kenneth Starr now?”, “What one thing would you changed about Chris Christie’s press conference?”, “What’s one piece of advice you would give to your respective parties?”, “What advice would you give a young person wanting to get into politics?”. Mine, for the record, was going to be about their joint writing process, a question I have regretted not asking Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, aka the Game Change guys, at their New York event.
They spoke for a total of an hour, and got progressively funnier as the caffeine presumably kicked in. In true American style, the event finished right on the dot of twelve, which was a shame, because they had warmed up by then and there were a couple of questions left from the audience, which had elicited some great responses from them. (I didn’t get to ask mine; I was fourth to the microphone. Lesson learned, yet again: never ever hesitate. This country is ruthless towards those who hesitate.) 
Carville, on campaigning in the 90s: “cellphones were as big as George Stephanopoulos”.
Carville, on his piece of advice to the Democrats: “where is the joint committee on income growth?”. (In other words, it’s still the economy, stupid.) Mary Matalin’s advice to the Republicans was to stop apologising, to be unashamedly Conservative. To stop being simply reactive to the Democrats’ accusations of them.
Mary Matalin explained that when the Lewinsky scandal broke, she had just given birth and her husband (rather than being around to help her) was out there defending Clinton’s lies. She couldn’t quite get her head round that. Carville’s response? “Sugar, if I did something that stupid with a girl that young, I’d lie about it too.”
Matalin’s advice to aspiring politicos was to be there, to make coffee, to do everything you can. To know you will never be as idealistic as you are now – there are great advantages of that. You make up with passion for what you lack in wisdom and experience. A mentor can help with the latter; experienced people love to help out people just starting out. On the other hand, Carville countered, you’re you – follow your passion. Don’t aspire to be another person.
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 Worth getting up on a Saturday morning and trudging through the rain for? Yes, definitely. 

New Year’s Resolution: trying something different

Maybe it’s age, or the cynicism that can sometimes come with age, but this year I didn’t want to make grand pronouncements about how on the stroke of midnight I was going to magically change into a new person, a better person. One who is tidy, organised, always, always on time, and never ever misses a single day of writing, because oh my gosh, Claire, what kind of a writer are you if you can’t even sit down for five minutes a day and do what is supposed to be the thing you love the most? 

I’ve tried in the past. I love the New Year and its blank state. But I fail almost immediately, and after this many years of doing so I thought I would try something different. 

You see, beneath the layers of laziness that seem to have built up over the last few years, lurks a bit of an obsessive compulsive type. A perfectionist, even. If I say I’m going to do something every day, and by the second week of January I have already failed at it, then what is the point? The year is a write-off already.

And let’s face it, 1st January is not usually a good day to start being Uber Productive and spring out of bed at the crack of dawn to do all the myriad things you have suddenly committed to doing every single day. Even if you are not hungover, you will likely be sleep-deprived from the parties the night before. Not the best state of mind for cracking open that first page of your language learning textbook.

Maybe you’ve decided to never sleep with your iPhone next to you, because it leads to periodic waking up to check Twitter and to the first half hour of your day being sucked into the internet vortex: a laudable choice. But 1st January is still holiday time. What if you want to laze around in bed and play around on Facebook for a bit and wish everyone you know a happy new year? What if, given that is still the holidays, that is actually okay? Or, say you’ve decided to get better about getting up in the mornings. What sane person decides to start getting up earlier right in the middle of the season when many living creatures are hibernating? It’s cold; it’s dark. The springtime seems a more reasonable time for this kind of thing. 

You get the idea. 

So this year, I’ve set the bar low. 

I’ve made a very long list of things I want to do this year. LIke Skype certain friends more, blog more, and yes, sometimes sleep without my iPhone. But you know what I haven’t done? I haven’t used the word “every”. Instead, I have lowered my expectations. I have said, I will work on my writing 200 times this year. And I will make a mark on the list when I have done so, so I can see the progress.

200? That’s only about half the days in the year! 

Well, it’s a little over half, actually. If I make it, I will have written on more days than I will have not written.

With this more-than-achievable goal, I have built in time off for weekends and holidays, for days when I am ill and days I am travelling, and days when all I can think about is the pesky essay due the next week. And next year, I can up the goal slightly. My competitive gene also kicks in when I am doing well. If I see myself coming close to the 200, I may well decide “let’s see if I can make it to 250!”. 

I’ve followed a similar pattern for many of my other goals. For things I am not good at, like exercise and abstaining from the iPhone, I am not going to even tell you how low I have set the bar. But I want to actually make the goal. I want to experience doing those things, reap their benefits, and let that motivate me, rather than be kicked around by a crippling fear of failure, self-loathing, and guilt. I am, in other words, going to have grace for myself. See if that works. 

The definition of madness, says Donna Moss in the West Wing (quoting someone else, but whatever) is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I think I’m done with that. It’s time to try something different. 

 

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is my hero (and possibly a character in my novel)

I try mostly to stay away from politics on this blog. I could justify that in many different ways, but it boils down to this: I want people to like me, and eventually to buy my books, and not be put off by my political views. It’s too easy, when people only “know” you online, to come across as obnoxious and preachy and I don’t want to be either of those things. I probably am both of them in real life, but in real life I also hug people, laugh with them over glasses of wine, and make their babies smile. Even if I disagree with them politically – as I do with some of my closest friends – I remain a person, rather than a one-dimensional online figure they can, to borrow the horrendous grammatical phrase, “hate on”. (See how easily I slip into preaching mode?)

Anyway, all of that being said, I woke up in the middle of the night last night and checked my email (as, of course,

you do), and lo! My long-set-up Google Alert on family leave had yielded something. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I also still can’t quite believe that despite my virulent interest in politics in general and this issue in particular, and despite the fact I am currently interning in Congress, it has taken me a week to catch up to this news, but better late than never and I am belatedly and metaphorically drinking champagne as we speak. 

The news is this: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro have introduced a bill for paid family leave. 

It’s an issue close to my heart, because in my first novel, Inevitable, the main character is a Senator who does the same. 

I also wrote a speech last year on the subject. The occasion was a competition at American University commemorating the 50th anniversary of JFK’s commencement address, which was the famous speech in which he called for a nuclear test ban treaty. (“Not just peace in our time, but peace for all time.”)  We were supposed to imagine him giving another commencement speech and choosing another policy area to speak on. Granted, it is unlikely he would have picked paid parental leave as his topic, but nonetheless, that was what I went with. So for those interested, and because I want to be part of this conversation, here is the speech I wrote back then.

 

President Kerwin, members of the faculty, Board of Trustees, distinguished guests:

I’m glad I didn’t scare you off the first time. I guess I’d need to come up with something more frightening than world peace to do that.

In all seriousness, thank you: it is an honor to speak again at this university.

A global outlook. Practical idealism. A passion for public service. The values of AU are the values that beat in my own heart.

From the beginning, American University broke new ground: out of its first 28 students, five were women.

This was at a time before women could vote.

A time when women expected to stay home after getting married.

A time when women could not easily divorce and were often trapped in loveless marriages.

Yet we have an unfinished task before us. Across the world, women are still not receiving equal pay for equal work. Girls are still not being educated at anything like the rate of boys.

And right here at home, there is one issue which gets hardly any attention, and yet desperately needs that attention.

For the sake of our children, our families, and our businesses. For the sake of the economic health and the social well-being of America.

It’s an issue that affects all of us, because all of us are someone’s child, and many of us are or will be parents. It’s also an issue that disproportionately affects women.

It’s the issue of paid parental leave.

Parenthood is full of sacrifice. Your moms and dads here today can attest to that.

Today is the culmination of all they have worked for.

All they have toiled for.

All they have hoped for.

You have made it through. You have made them proud.

Your mothers and fathers, I guarantee you, have been looking back on the task of parenthood today.

They remembered bringing you back from the hospital, little fists balled up in your oversized mittens.

They remembered wiping away a tear as they dropped you at kindergarten for the first time.

They remembered packing suitcases and sending you off to college, their hearts heavy, their homes emptier.

You have all of that ahead of you with your own children. And it may seem a long way off. It may be a decade or two away – but those years will go past quicker than you think. And then you will be faced with a decision: work or kids? Which to prioritize?

That may sound like an easy choice. On the day you bring your firstborn home from the hospital, it will seem like a no-brainer. But the reality as it stands now is that the choice will not be so easy.

You will have three months – just 12 weeks – to bond with the child.

To get used to being a mom or dad.

To recover physically from the birth if you are the biological mother.

And you only have those three months if, like around half of Americans, you work for a company or organization with fifty or more employees.

If you are lucky enough to be eligible, 12 weeks are guaranteed by law. That, at least, was progress when the Clinton administration passed the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993. But those 12 weeks are not guaranteed in practice.

And that’s because few people can afford to take three months of unpaid leave.

There is plenty to worry about with a newborn: is he eating enough? Is she eating too much? Does he need his diaper changed? Is she running a fever? Will this child ever go to sleep?

To those natural worries, our nation is the only one in the industrialized world that unnecessarily adds the financial concerns of unpaid family leave.

Take Carolyn Stout. She planned carefully for the birth of her daughter Catherine. She saved up enough vacation and sick days to take 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. But her baby did not arrive on her due date. They often don’t.

Wisely, Carolyn stopped work nonetheless. She didn’t want to be 30 miles from home, just in case. (My wife also informs me that being nine months pregnant is not all that conducive to sitting at a desk for eight hours a day.)

Baby Catherine arrived a week late. That left 11 weeks.

Then she developed an infection, and had to stay in the hospital another week. That left 10 weeks.

10 weeks to bond with her mother.

10 weeks to be breastfed – when the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life.

Baby Catherine doesn’t always take the bottle well. She sometimes gets hysterical and needs her mother to nurse her to calm her down. But 10 weeks after baby Catherine went home, her mother was taken away from her.

Afghanistan, a nation where just one in four people can read, gives its new mothers 12 weeks off with pay.

Djibouti, plagued with drought and civil war and populated by nomadic herders, has a fourteen-week paid maternal leave policy in place.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, among the very poorest nation on earth, pays new mothers to stay home with their newborns for fifteen weeks.

And those are not the nations to which we are accustomed to comparing ourselves.

We are more accustomed to comparing ourselves, for example, with the United Kingdom. 39 weeks of paid leave for the mother and two weeks for the father, with plans for increases in both.

Or Denmark, where the mother and father can share up to a year of paid leave.

Or Canada, where employers are required to accept new moms back into their jobs after 17 to 52 weeks of paid leave.

America should not the trail the world.

America should lead the world.

America should inspire the world to greatness.

So let’s put in place what others have had for decades. That’s the least we can do. Let’s give our new moms and dads unpressured times with their little ones. Three months, at least.

Paid parental leave is good for the economy. Studies show that women and men who get paid leave after the birth of their child receive less public assistance. They don’t go into debt as much. They have greater family economic security, and that means they can continue spending.

Paid parental leave is good for business. Google increased its leave allowance to new mothers in 2007. After that, they found that twice as many new moms stayed in the company. Given the cost of hiring new workers, and the hard work of training them, that’s not nothing.

Paid parental leave is good for mothers. Post-partum and post-adoption depression rates are lower for women who have it.

Paid parental leave is good for fathers. It gives them the chance to bond with their child and to feel included, which lays a foundation for a healthy family life.

Paid parental leave is good for children. Kids whose mothers go back to work within 12 weeks of giving birth are less likely to get all the medical check-ups and immunizations necessary in the first year and a half of life.

That seems like something we should want to fix.

It’s been said – rightly – that women’s right are human rights. Well, my fellow Americans, so are children’s rights.

Children’s health, a family’s emotional well-being, benefit to business: all of these are good for our country. All of them are good for our economy. All of them are well worth the investment.

That’s why I’m calling on Congress today – calling on anyone and everyone listening who has the power to change the status quo – to look into implementing at least six months of leave, three of it paid, for all mothers of newborns. And not only to look into it. To actually implement it.

My fellow Americans, we went to the moon. We planted our flag in a distant satellite and we were rightly proud. We did it not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

Will we shrink from the challenge of providing for our families?

This challenge which is perhaps harder than it ought to be – but which is nothing compared to space travel?

This challenge which, instead of displaying American glory, will develop American growth, by strengthening our families?

Our families, who are the backbone of our society.

Graduates of American University, you have been well-trained by this excellent institution for a productive and positive role in society.

Some of you sitting here today will go to law school. You can make a difference.

Some of you will run for office or help others to run. You can make a difference.

All of you can play your part. Vote. Encourage others to vote. Organize. Call your Representative in Congress. Make your voices heard.

You can make a difference. You should make a difference. You will make a difference.

We have never been a nation who shrinks from challenges.

Let us not shrink from this one.