Many of us, I think, have good reason to be mad at Aaron Sorkin. His heroes elevate the professional life to classical heights, and I suspect that if I let myself, I could be quite bitter that the workplace is rarely the scene of an impassioned plea for idealism in action, or even a good pedeconference. It’s not that I feel lied to, because we’ve always known that The West Wing and Studio 60 and Sports Night were fairy tales, but now I have this model for how I’d love to live my professional life, and I don’t know where it exists.
Don’t get me wrong: my colleagues at my day job are passionate, hardworking, good people. I work at a nonprofit, and I’m very proud of my organization. Oddly enough, though, each day doesn’t unfold like a 45-minute play. There is very little patter, and even less narrative symmetry.
I’m taking the GRE tomorrow, which is why there’s no new chapter of Innogen and the Hungry Half today. As a coping mechanism, as those of you who follow me on Twitter have seen, I accidentally wound up watching the second half of Season 1 of The West Wing, and then the first two episodes of the second season. It’s been a while since I’ve spent time with the Bartlet White House, but one thing becomes apparent very quickly on a rewatch: I am still deeply in love with every one of these characters. It is an ensemble show in the truest sense; even the incidental characters are rich, and all of them mean something to each other. Sorkin’s writing and world-building are staggering, and the man who’s capable of intensely funny episodes (need I say more than “secret plan to fight inflation”?) is also responsible for some of the most powerful and moving television ever aired (“Noël,” Season 2’s Christmas episode, is basically flawless).
There’s a reason we love them all, C.J. and Toby and Sam and Josh and the rest. The commitment these characters display, to their work, to their colleagues, to their principles, is immensely appealing—and this is one of many reasons why it’s a fairy tale, of course. Those manifestations that are out there in the real world aren’t marked by speeches or great banter: they’re subtler. That’s fine. But digging deeper, we find that one feature binding the players of the Bartlet Administration is a commitment to professionalism, to being able to take care of things, to fix them. “Don’t worry about it” is a constant refrain on The West Wing.
I remember, somewhere around middle school, I started having conversation with my parents about how they chose their jobs and how they became an English professor and a psychologist. My mom’s answer has always stuck with me: she wanted an identity as a professional, and I think I’ve absorbed that more deeply than I realized. I want, more than anything, to be a professional writer. It’s been the only consistent occupation I’ve ever wanted, and I’ve been writing stories since I was 4. Magpie & Whale is an effort toward that: with a long interruption in the middle of the year (for family health reasons), I’ve tried to hold myself to a regular posting schedule. I like the challenge of a deadline, and of producing good work quickly. One of the reasons I’m doing Innogen weekly is to push myself out of my comfort zone.
For five weeks, the story was produced more or less on schedule. However, it coincided with an immensely stressful month that I couldn’t have predicted, and while I tried to roll with the punches, some things have to be sacrificed, and given that my other balls in the air were paid work, graduate school prep, family commitments and personal issues, Innogen was what took the hit. (That was three entirely separate metaphors in one sentence—apologies!) I’ve been beating myself up about this. If I’m going to be a professional, I should be able to produce, I should be able to manage my time so that somehow I can put together work that makes me proud. That isn’t what happened, though—I wasn’t proud of any of the starts I made at Chapter 6, and I want this story to be good too badly to sacrifice quality for regularity.
So, all of this is to say that I’m sorry Innogen has fallen off the grid these past few weeks. Once I’m done with the GRE tomorrow, that will be off my back, and I hope to be able to resume normal life/posting. I’m very excited about where the story is going, and I so appreciate those who’ve stuck with me. It means more than I can say that people are interested in this. Thank you.
In the meantime, I have less than 24 hours until I take what I hope is the last standardized test of my life. There are still a few fistfuls of practice sets to do, and—dammit, Sorkin—more episodes of The West Wing to anticipate as a reward.
10 thoughts on “Bartlet for America and other words to live by”
It’s finals for me — the last round of finals for my masters degree, in fact — and as such I’ve been thinking a lot about professional competence-p0rn and what it means for me. There’s an interesting cognitive split, I think, between wanting to spend all day watching a show about people who work ALL THE TIME and then internalizing that and also wanting to work ALL THE TIME in order to live up to their influence. The West Wing is a huge touchstone for me in that regard, as are a lot of the Avengers side characters (Pepper Potts, Jane Foster, etc.). I’ve actually been thinking about drafting a longer, in-depth post on this topic, so it’s really cool to see it pop up here. My research demands keep me from being up-to-date on reading your work, but it’s really neat to see someone else as committed to something, and with the same inspiration.
Good luck (break a leg?) on the GRE! If you ever want to chat about the rigors and rewards of grad school, I have a million thoughts on the topic.
I would love to hear your expanded thoughts on this! Given that I’m just at the start of this whole grad school thing, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I want my professional life to look like, and as I’ve been doing my rewatch, I recognize a lot of what I want in the Bartlet White House. I’d also be really interested in your take because I’m not so familiar with the Avengersverse folks, aside from the movies.
Thank you much! And good luck yourself on finishing up your finals. I’m sure I’ll be full of questions as soon as I can stop thinking about special angle triangle ratios and the Kaplan Approach to Reading Comprehension (ay me!).
There was a time when I was in a job that asked very little of me, and I started spending a lot of time watching “Lie to Me” mostly so that I could watch people being professional and competent. One way or another I’ve never watched any Sorkin shows, so it didn’t occur to me to watch any of them then, but I bet they would have scratched the same itch (and probably better, though with less opportunity to guess what someone’s face was supposed to be showing).
I think that’s another thing that we come to believe (or never let ourselves be disabused of), that right away, the workplace will demand as much of us as college did. It’s definitely an itch for me, and it’s one of the things I’m really looking forward to in whatever degree or profession I fall into, which I hope to be both self-directed/sustaining and team-/common goal-oriented.
I would, of course, totally recommend Sorkin shows for your viewing pleasure at any time in your life or career! Studio 60 was my first, and it holds a special place in my heart, but The West Wing, ohmygoodness. I’ll have to look into Lie to Me — I’ve heard good things about that too!
I love this entry, it’s so true. Sorkin is great at creating people and places you want to work around. I’ve loved reading your tweets as you rewatch.
I also asked my parents about how they got into their careers especially as I got towards the point of going back to graduate school. My early childhood was spent in the college where my mother worked and in small contact with my dad’s patients and it taught me I wanted to make a difference.
Now that I have an MSI and I’m in the process of searching for a full time job and working part time as a librarian, I keep realizing again and again that this is the right path for me. It’s a powerful feeling to know that I’ve found the path that allows me to share books, nurture kids and learn myself. I’m still learning what it means to be a librarian but I love the journey.
I’m always so encouraged to hear you talk about how much you love the path you’ve chosen and how happy it’s making you. It’s so reaffirming, that this can really happen to real people that I know. Thank you.
Speaking from personal experience from the editorial side of things, professional writers are rubbish at schedules.
…that’s not as encouraging in writing as it sounded in my head, but I hope you see the spirit is there. ❤
Well, I laughed for about a minute straight when I got the notification, so I think it did its job. <33333
[…] took a break during finals to read Esther’s terrific post on The West Wing and Sorkin’s epic portrayals of professional life. Her sentiment is one I […]
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