Anyone who knows me personally knows that my political leanings are left of centre. Not extremely left but left enough for my father to express his disapproval when I tweeted congratulations to a famous Australian gay couple who had flown to New Zealand to get married after that country’s marriage equality laws were passed. (Before I continue, please be assured that this post is about writing and not politics).
So when Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election and I couldn’t take watching the coverage anymore (which took less than two days), I picked my jaw up off the floor and did what all left-leaning writing fans would do: I put Disk 1 of Season 1 of The West Wing in my DVD player and began binge watching it again (for about the one hundredth time). As well as being able to pretend I was living in an alternative reality, I could yet again immerse myself in and appreciate what is essentially a master class in writing.
As I write this, I’m up to Season 3 in which Democratic President Bartlet has announced his intention to run for a second term and the Republicans are on the verge of nominating Governor Robert Ritchie to run against him. When Governor Ritchie attacks affirmative action, President Bartlet has the opportunity to respond but chooses not to, prompting this exchange with Communications Director Toby Ziegler.
Toby Ziegler: I was a telemarketer for about a week. I can’t remember what we were selling but you worked off a script. “Hi. Good evening. My name is…” And Toby Ziegler was okay for New York but once I got into other time zones I needed a name that wasn’t gonna bother anybody.
President Josiah Bartlet: Toby, if you have something to say, please say it.
Toby Ziegler: Ritchie’s good for all time zones.
President Josiah Bartlet: My family signed the Declaration of Independence. You think I’ve got an ethnicity problem?
Toby Ziegler: The line isn’t between light skin and dark skin.
President Josiah Bartlet: Yeah?
Toby Ziegler: It’s between educated and masculine. Or eastern academic elite and plain spoken.
President Josiah Bartlet: It’s always been like that.
Toby Ziegler: Yeah but a funny thing happened when the White House got demystified. The impression was left that anybody could do it.
President Josiah Bartlet: You’re not telling me anything I don’t know.
Toby Ziegler: It’s one thing that Ritchie came out for the Pennsylvania referendum today but the manner in which he articulated it… His presence. The clear sign he wasn’t personally engaged with the facts…
President Josiah Bartlet: Toby—
Toby Ziegler: His staff was cringing, I promise you. And we let it go.
President Josiah Bartlet: It wasn’t the moment to go—
Toby Ziegler: You were asked the question.
President Josiah Bartlet: Do you have anything else?
Toby Ziegler: Sir, I don’t think I need to tell you that the level of respect with which the staff speaks of you doesn’t change depending on whether or not you’re in the room.
From “The Two Bartlets”, Episode 13, Season 3 of The West Wing
This episode aired in January 2002 meaning it was written in 2001. And even though it all happened 15 years ago, it struck me how relevant it was to what has just happened. How President-Elect Donald Trump could easily be substituted for the fictional Governor Robert Ritchie. How Aaron Sorkin and his writing team had anticipated the situation the US and the world now finds itself in. A battle between feminine and masculine, between smart and ignorant, between the elite and the common man (although anyone who thinks Donald Trump is part of the 99% instead of the 1% should really think again).
And I had a realisation, one that I really should have had long before now, about the importance of writing. Why, I hear you asking, has it taken me so long? Why would someone who has spent the last twenty-five years writing doubt the importance of the very thing they do day in, day out?
It says more about me than I would like – because I don’t doubt the importance of writing, just the importance of my writing. I’m not a philosopher or an influencer or one of the great minds of the twenty-first century. I write action adventure, young adult and crime fiction as well as non-fiction about writing and editing and the occasional article about employment. I suspect I will outlive by a long period of time the importance of anything I end up writing during my lifetime.
When I finished my master’s degree in writing with a high distinction average, I had the option of continuing my studies by undertaking a PhD. At least one of my classmates did. I chose not to because I didn’t think writing was something that PhDs should be awarded for. Chemistry, biology, medicine, physics, psychology, yes but writing, no.
In 2016, my little sister finished and submitted her PhD on psychological insulin resistance in Type 2 diabetes sufferers to become the first person in our family ever to be eligible to use the title “Dr”. That could have been me. Any thesis I could have written wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive and useful as hers is but I could have done it if I’d had the confidence, if I’d had the belief in the importance of what I was doing. But I didn’t.
Writing doesn’t have to be important but it can be. I know that now. What I do could be important. What I write could be important. What you write could be important and I suspect you’re more likely to write something important than I ever am. (What can I say? Old habits die hard.) Why is it important? Because writing is the way we explode the bomb to explore the consequences without anyone having to die and without having to destroy anything and without having to pay for it (both in economic and historic terms).
Regardless of what it is we do, whether it’s writing or something else, it could be important. We have to be able to recognise that within ourselves, within whatever it is we are doing. Perhaps most importantly of all because if we weren’t doing these things, if I wasn’t writing, it would feel like something was missing.
I’ll give the last word to Kalinda Vazquez and Jane Espenson, who wrote the following dialogue about character of the Author who writes the fairytales Once Upon a Time is based on and became trapped in his own book. They say it much more succinctly and beautifully than I have:
August Booth: There have been many authors throughout time. It’s a job, not a person, and the one trapped in here was just the last tasked with the great responsibility. To record, to witness the greatest stories of all time and record them for posterity. The job has gone back eons: from the man who watched shadows dance across cave walls and developed an entire philosophy, to playwrights who tell tales of poetry, to a man named Walt. Many have had this sacred job. Great women and men who took on the responsibility with the gravity that it deserved.
From “Best Laid Plans”, Episode 17, Season 4 of Once Upon a Time