Listen to your friends. Listen to your friends when they tell you there is this programme you should watch because it’s about politics and you would like it. Listen to them even though you don’t give a monkeys about American politics. Even though all you know is George Bush is evil for reasons having to do with caricatures of Tony Blair as a poodle.
Borrow a laptop. Maybe yours is broken, or the speakers are not working, or something. The reason is irrelevant and utterly forgettable. You want to watch Friends: a few moments of levity in your crazy busy London life before you turn the lights out. Eject the DVD that is in the drive. Note that the DVD you have ejected is, in fact, this other American TV show that your friends won’t shut up about, even though your friends, like you, are British and they don’t care about politics of any kind, as far as you can tell, or at least not as much as you do, or did, back in the days when you did.
Forget about Friends, or whatever else it was that you were going to watch that night. Instead, give in. Give in, even though American English hurts your ears and you have to listen hard to understand when they speak fast – which, as it turns out, on this show is always. You secretly think this is because your first language is not English of any kind. Your French mother can never understand American accents and though you have spent most of your life to date trying not to be her, trying to be as un-her as possible, this is one of the many traits you find yourself sharing with her.
Note that this TV show actually seems quite good. It seems intelligent. That is something you did not expect from TV, from American TV in particular. It also features a number of good-looking men, which you probably should have expected but nonetheless are pleasantly surprised by. Yes, the dialogue is fast, and you keep having to rewind to catch the words, but later you will learn to use the subtitles to make sure you understand and that will help a great deal. The dialogue is witty. The dialogue seems to have content. Watching feels like biting into a gourmet burger, the kind that is lovingly prepared in a smart Washington restaurant: substantial, satisfying. Not the kind you get in McDonald’s, which leaves you wanting something tastier, something healthier, something more: one day not too long from now you will compare all other TV shows to these kinds of burgers, even ones that you loved, even Friends.
Tell yourself, regretfully, that you don’t really have time for a new TV show. (It is only much later that you will realise just how much time, how much energy, this new TV show will take up in your life. Just how many things it will change.) You are busy. You live in London, after all, and in London people fill up their diaries weeks in advance, or months. Your job takes up all the hours that Church activities don’t. The very occasional free evening must be immediately filled with people, because you have not yet discovered, or re-discovered, the joys of a quiet night in with a book or a pad of paper. Or, in fact, a West Wing DVD.
Spend a week at your parents’ house that summer. Take a friend with you; it’s a little quiet otherwise. Also pack a DVD. Because you will have time, there in the countryside. Your parents go to bed at nine pm and even your very sensible, early-to-bed, early-to-rise friend is not ready to sleep at nine pm. Slip the DVD into the laptop (yours, this time – a new one, perhaps?). Watch, in silence. You never do anything in silence. This is something of a milestone. When the episode is finished, your sensible friend whose bedtime has passed will nevertheless ask, “Shall we watch another one?” You won’t need to think much, or at all, before you answer her.
Go back to London. Resume life at its usual pace. Fit in the occasional episode of The West Wing because now you know that it is worth it. Get stuck on one particular episode where the aforementioned good-looking men are playing basketball in sleeveless shirts. Get stuck, not because you are unwilling to move on from that scene, but because the DVD is scratched, or something. Consider giving up. Your friends tell you not to; your friends tell you to power through. Find a way to. Borrow someone else’s DVD if you have to.
And so power through. Find yourself welling up sometimes. Find yourself gasping. Take the DVDs on holiday when you go to the Canary Islands with your parents and once again need something to occupy you after nine pm. Find yourself unable to stop after just one episode. Take the train to Cumbria to visit some friends and almost miss your stop because a dramatic episode is ending and you just can’t believe what is happening.
Move to Belgium. This may appear unrelated to The West Wing, but it will give you plenty of time to indulge in what are now your favourite DVDs. If possible, be self-employed – perhaps as a language tutor – so that building up your business will take some months and you will therefore have guilt-free swathes of time to fill. (You could, of course, be spending this time marketing yourself, but we’ll gloss over that.) Move just before the summer so that the friends you are starting to make, or the friends whom through complicated circumstances you have known all your life, will promptly up and leave you for four weeks. In Belgium holidays are a month long and July is the deadest of all the months. Do not buy a TV: you will want to be focussed. You will begin to love The West Wing less sometime around Season Five. You will find out later that Aaron Sorkin – the creator of the show and now your hero – left at the end of Season Four and it took the new writers a while to find their feet. Luckily, by this stage you are thoroughly invested in the will-they-won’t-they romantic subplot simmering just below the surface, so you will continue to power through, faster and more furiously than ever. You will, in fact, Google the actors’ name and “accidentally” find out that they will, they will. You will wish you hadn’t. You will know in advance exactly which episode to be surprised at.
Pick up a pen. In the middle of all this, you will find yourself itching to write again, as you did prolifically in your childhood and your teens. Aaron Sorkin has shown you that English can be elegant. English can be powerful. English can, in the words of one of his characters, make your heart soar. It will make your heart soar again. You will recognise the bubbly excited feeling in the pit of your stomach as inspiration now. Start to write. Write a novel based in DC because, after all, the political world is what inspired you this time around. (Back in your teens, it was, of course, existential angst.) Base it in Brussels too, since that is where you live. It is where you teach French to a Russian diplomat who looks a little like one of the West Wing characters and one Saturday, walking home from the train station after a lesson with him, the idea will come to you: an American diplomat, learning French, will be one of your main characters. Ditch your real surname, which no-one can spell (and you will later discover Americans can’t pronounce) and adopt another one as your pseudonym, one that pays tribute to your inspiration.
Read. Read to absorb the rhythms of good writing. Read about authorly technique. Read about politics. Read a lot about politics; you have so much to learn. Read The Audacity of Hope and be horrified when you find out that the US is one of only five countries in the whole entire world that does not provide paid maternity leave. The character in your novel, a Senator, needed an issue to fight for, and here’s one she and you can get behind.
Discover the world of fan fiction. You wanted more West Wing? It’s there. Alternative endings to episodes, theoretical out-takes, a fantasy Season Eight: all there. Mostly badly written. Mostly horribly written. You abandon that world after a few months because you cannot bear the contrast between it and the novels you are reading. But when you do writing exercises of your own, you will find that the characters you write are often from the show. And sometimes you will put those exercises online, and people will say they like them.
And while you’re hanging out online, make some new friends there. No-one in Belgium has heard of The West Wing¸ and though you will give one of your friends a DVD for her birthday, that will not be for some months. You didn’t really know what Twitter was for: now you do. Hashtag #westwing and suddenly you connect with dozens of fans. Debate questions of politics, policy, and yes, romance. Jointly enthuse on the, ahem, aesthetic qualities of the show.
Visit the US. Years ago a childhood friend of yours invited you to New York and you screwed up your face as if it to say, why would I want to go to New York? But now you do. Now that you know that there are smart Americans, there are moderately left-of-centre Americans (whom others call socialists, which is pretty funny), there are eloquent Americans, now that you need to travel there for research purposes, it’s a different story. So visit New York. And when your friend asks if there’s anywhere else you’d like to go, and you want to respond in all caps, WASHINGTON DC PLEASE!, be British about it: “I don’t suppose we could maybe…?”. You can, because it turns out she has relatives there who live not that far away. Relatives who are very hospitable and who will pay for a delicious dinner at Legal Sea Foods, and then take you on a drive around DC in the dark, where the lit-up monuments look just like they do on the TV and take your breath away.
Back home, continue to write your novel. Continue to dream of DC: you have fallen in love. Reach for Google and see, just see, if there is anywhere in DC where you can study creative writing: two birds, one stone. You could be there in time for the presidential election. It would be like living The West Wing. You could do some campaigning, and call it research. You could watch the debates at nine p.m. like a normal person, or at least a normal political junkie, and not set your alarm at three a.m. for them because of the time difference. American University will reject you the first time you apply, but like your favourite Sorkin character you have backbone and determination, so try again. They will accept you this time and later you will find out there were all kinds of weird things going on in Admissions the year you were rejected. Try not to feel too terrible about it. You can write. And if you can’t now, hopefully you will be able to by the time you graduate.
Dither and do some soul-searching. This is not nothing, this move. It will cost money. It will mean uprooting your life. Losing your language students. Having, yet again, to make new friends. It is a risk. You have upped and moved across seas before; a slightly larger ocean shouldn’t scare you that much. And yet, somehow, it does: the unknown.
Listen to your friends. They have been right before. They are right now, when they tell you that you should just do it. Just go for it. Take the opportunity because you will never have it again. Okay, you say, okay, and later you will wonder why you ever hesitated at all.
You will wonder this on many occasions. You will wonder this when you get to meet your favorite actors – he of the bare arms, for example, though now all dressed up in a tuxedo and wearing it extremely well. You will wonder this when you sit in rapt attention as your young and handsome speechwriting professor tells stories that begin “when I was working at the White House…”. You will wonder this when the boundary between truth and fiction blurs further and you find yourself sipping wine on a Hollywood director’s boat as some kind of precursor to his Congressional run. You will wonder this when you stop to take your thousandth picture of the Capitol, surrounded by fall colours or springtime bloom. You will wonder this each time you walk past the White House – though walking past is a misnomer. You will be incapable of walking past. Every single time you will stop and look and wonder at its closeness, and that you get to live here, on the set of your favourite TV show, the TV show that has unexpectedly, improbably, changed your life.
But when they ask you, in America, how you ended up there, you will hesitate slightly. You won’t want people to think you are crazy. You won’t yet have learned that few people in DC think your path to be odd. That when you go to an interview in a Congresswoman’s office and confess to the reason for your interest in politics, your potential future boss will say, oh, that’s what got me into it, too.
In love with your new life, you will sometimes shake your own head and find yourself wondering: because of a TV show, seriously? Well, yes and no. But mostly yes.