Last night, my husband and I finished another watch-through of The West Wing. We do it every few years, to while away the time between TV seasons. But… it felt different this time.
The first time I watched The West Wing, I was a shiny new university student, studying social science with no clear idea of what I might do with that particular degree. By the end of seven seasons, I’d decided: I was going to go into journalism. I was going to be the next CJ Cregg, or Dannie Concannon or Sam Seaborn. That was how I was going to change the world.
I threw myself into it, heart and soul. I read my newspaper cover-to-cover every day, highlighting and researching the stuff I didn’t understand. I began to teach myself shorthand. I entered every journalism contest I came across and I earned full marks in all my communications subjects. I still have the five-year plan I created back then, which included “get an internship” and “learn Chinese”.
It didn’t last. I grew disillusioned with the media industry. I watched newspapers fold all over the world. I acknowledged how much it took out of me, a staunch introvert with extrovert aspirations, to conduct interviews with strangers. It wasn’t me. I didn’t have the personality for it. I admitted, quietly, there was really only one thing I wanted to do with my life: Write novels.
A year or two after that, I watched The West Wing again. I was working full time for a private investigator and writing at night. My first novel had just been trunked and I suddenly realized that this would be my life for years to come if I really wanted to be a novelist. Dead-end day job, long nights at the laptop. So much work.
I watched The West Wing and I saw passionate people giving all of themselves to change the world. I saw their idealism, something that was beginning to flag as I faced rejection after rejection in my writing life. I thought: I want that. I want to change the world. I started researching degrees again. I picked subjects out. I knew now that I’d never work in high-level politics or become a newspaper editor: I wasn’t good enough. I’d failed too many times. But maybe I could fix the world with a different kind of degree. I didn’t have the money to stop working, but if I stopped writing and studied at night, I could still do it.
I got as far as enrolling in a distance education degree. All my materials had arrived, I’d paid the first installment. But I’d started writing a new novel and it was like falling in love again. This, this, was what I loved to do. This was what I was made to do. I didn’t have the heart for business or law or politics, but when I was writing I was whole.
I cancelled that distance education course, forfeiting my deposit, but I didn’t feel good about it. I was still just an aspiring novelist, a university drop out, watching my friends get masters degrees and conquering the world. You can’t do anything, I whispered to myself. You’ll never change the world.
Fast forward another two years, to a few months ago. I’d been writing seriously for five years, and things were starting to happen. I had an agent now, which meant everything and nothing. I’d found my voice and I was finally writing something good. I was happy, fulfilled. But still, when my husband suggested another West Wing viewing, I approached it with trepidation. What would I decide to be this time? What desperate actions would I take to feel worthy of these characters and their dreams?
I sat down to watch and after a few episodes I realized something strange. I wasn’t surfing university websites. I didn’t feel that familiar surge of ambition. I felt… settled.
No, I didn’t want to be C.J. Cregg, managing a room full of reporters, or Sam Seaborn, writing speeches for the President. I didn’t want to be a political lobbyist like Amy or an assistant like Donna. I didn’t want the long hours, the late night debates at half-empty bars. I didn’t want the strain on my relationship or the constant pressure, the heart attack in middle age.
I still wanted to change the world. But somehow, in the last two years, I’d gathered enough wisdom to understand the only way I was ever going to change the world was by doing the thing I was made to do. Not by trying to be someone else, to change my personality to fit an industry ideal, but by being the best possible version of myself.
Every time I enrolled in a new course or made a new five-year plan, I was being dishonest with myself. I was constructing a Plan B, a backup plan in case I failed at what I really wanted to do. I was giving into fear.
‘And “backup plan” is code for, “Give up on your dreams,” and everyone I know who put any energy into a backup plan is now living that backup plan instead of their dream. Put all your energy into your dream. That’s the only way it will ever become real.’ — Laini Taylor
I don’t have a Plan B. I haven’t for years. And it’s taken a long time, but all my hard work is beginning to bear fruit. This time, watching The West Wing on my couch, I started to think of what my life would be like if I followed through with one of those backup plans. I wouldn’t be happy. I wouldn’t be fulfilled. I’d be a novelist without a novel, a failed dreamer, an imposter in a world I was never meant to inhabit.
I am so grateful I stayed the path, however hard it seemed at times. I’m so relieved I never gave up. I am so glad I never ended up living my backup plan.
It’s pitch contest season again, and I’m watching a lot of young writers hopefully offer up their work to the world, only to have it rejected. It’s a very public kind of failure, and I see them hurting. I see them fold up their dreams and stow them in pockets. I see them side-eye backup plans and wonder if this writing life is worth it.
I want to draw them in close, put a coffee in their hands and tell them I felt that way, too. I want to tell them I’m a better person and a better writer for all those rejections. I want to tell them the backup plans will never make them happy, that they’re doing the right thing, that all they need is to stay the course for a few more weeks or months or years.
Because those people who live their backup plans never become writers. Don’t steal someone else’s dream because you’re too afraid to follow your own. Gather your courage, lace up your boots, and march on after your dream.
‘Personally, I think the passion for an extraordinary life, and the courage to pursue it, is what makes us special. And I don’t even think of it as an “extraordinary life” anymore so much as simple happiness. It’s rarer than it should be, and I believe it comes from creating a life that fits you perfectly, not taking what’s already there, but making your own from scratch.’ — Laini Taylor