Lessons from The West Wing

Ahh, The West Wing. I won't even try to explain why I have been watching the entire series from start to finish. It's not as if my life is devoid of other tasks. And it's not as if I've been watching episodes 24/7, either: just regularly. And often.

I also don't know why, when I need to rejuvenate my introverted self by spending some time away from people, I want to spent time with some of the talkiest, most egotistical, and most challenging "people" on the planet. Okay, I really do know that answer, or at least partly. I want to because I learn about writing.

Here are just some of the things I've learned.

1. The characters are active. I started to say "stuff happens," but it "happens" because the characters make it happen. "Stuff" doesn't just rain down from the heavens.

When the President experiences angst, it's because he's just authorized the assassination of the Qumari Defense Minister or he's about to get called out for not telling voters he had MS. CJ says something damaging at a press conference and hates herself for it. For about ten seconds. Then they suck it up and do other stuff.

On the show, people are engaged in what they're doing. Characters are gleeful, frustrated, gloomy, hopeful, annoyed, you name it, because of events. Even when Toby is sitting in his office bouncing that ball, it's because he's done something, surprising stuff has happened in response, and he needs to spend time figuring out what to do next. Plus, that kind of reflection is pretty rare.

My take-away: make stuff happen. Rather, make your characters make stuff happen. Not every character can work in the White House. But every character can be engaged in doing something that is important to her. All those feely things, the angsty things, the observation-of-life things, are interesting because they come from action.

2. The show thinks I'm smart. Who doesn't love feeling smart? Not every part of every storyline is resolved or explained. I have looked up stuff from throwaway lines (Smoot-Hawley, anyone?) because I wanted to. The show posits a complicated universe. Good people are in situations where they have to choose a course of action (see #1) from among the least of several evils.

And speaking of complicated, the show finds some good in everyone. Only the rare antagonist is wantonly destructive. Even the Qumari Defense Minister looks like a normal visiting dignitary when he's in the Oval Office. (No horns!) In the show, the antagonists are the protagonists in their own stories -- their actions make sense to them. They want what they want because they want it, not because it's Donna's week to have a storyline and someone has to be mean to her.

Contrast this attitude toward smart viewers with any of today's police procedural-type shows. The "clues" to whodunnit are layered in early. Okay. But at the critical "figure it out" point, a character "remembers" that clue, and we see that shot all over again, possibly in black and white to show that it's just a memory, JUST IN CASE we don't make that connection. Y'all. I got it the first time, thanks.

My take-away: readers are smart, too. I'll likely never write a character who cusses out God, in UNTRANSLATED Latin, in the National Cathedral, or who argues in UNTRANSLATED Spanish with a visitor in the Mural Room. But it's okay to write about complicated people who do interesting things and run up against resistance from other complicated people who are doing their own interesting things. Readers can figure stuff out. And they LIKE to!

3. Communication is important. What's not to love about a show in which several of the main characters are speechwriters? And the ones who aren't write white papers, position papers, and memos? And every desk has a stack of reading material several feet high?

I love a world in which you see writers work, and their work is important. In one of the episodes about the creation of a State of the Union address, Communications Director Toby Ziegler is shown wandering the halls in the middle of the day. He mutters to himself, he knocks his knuckles against the glass cubicle walls, he stops to stare at nothing, he wanders closer to Josh's office. He goes in search of pie. He's writing. I recognize it immediately. And the speeches he and Sam write, with input from everybody, set policy. They are important.

I love that world because I love to imagine that writing is important in my world, too. Well, the writing I do as work is important to my clients, and it's important to me. I hope it's important to my client's customers, too.

Sometimes I know it is. Several years ago, I wrote a few things for a nonprofit group because I believe in the group and its work. Recently I was reminded of those pieces and was proud to see them again. Proud that the group wanted to re-use them, proud of the quality of the work, proud to remember that they had touched people and are out there again, possibly touching others.

My take-away: get back to work, and do your best work, whether it's your own creative work or work (also creative!) for a client.

Oh. Yeah. Back to work. Okay. What's next?