In 1999, two important things happened to me: I started my freshman year of high school in rural North Carolina and The West Wing premiered on NBC. I had always been fascinated with politics and government; I read endless books on various presidents, attended political lectures at my local university, and followed the news like a seasoned political staffer. The West Wing was a dream come true — finally, a show existed about the smart, implausibly attractive, incredibly hardworking people I hoped actually worked in the Democratic administration IRL. Here were people like the person I wanted to be.
I was instantly addicted — so much so that I began writing my own stories about the show's main characters: Sam, CJ, Josh, Donna, Toby, and Charlie. I thought I was alone in this endeavor — until I discovered a West Wing AOL listserv and discovered that many other people were also writing about these very same characters I loved so much.
It was an incredible new world I had discovered: I could write these stories — my stories — email them out to this listserv, and people would write back with feedback. I was 14 years old, and I was incredibly lonely. It felt like I had found my people.
I was 14 years old, and I was incredibly lonely. It felt like I had found my people.
My mom had died of AIDS the year before, and I was suffering from the same crushing anxiety and awkward puberty that many kids faced — but with a load of grief attached to it all. I felt isolated and disconnected. But online — on message boards and listservs — I could make friends from all over the country. There was a law student at Duke who gave me feedback on the legal plotlines I constructed in my fiction. There was a disabled and housebound lesbian in her 50s who wrote to help me improve my dialogue and listened to me talk about high school and about my grief over the loss of my mom. I became close friends and writing partners with a girl who was just a little older than me who was already enrolled in a community college in rural Tennessee. She and I spent every single night writing elaborate West Wing fanfics together over instant messenger.
"There was a law student at Duke who gave me feedback on the legal plotlines I constructed in my fan fiction. There was a disabled and housebound lesbian in her 50s who wrote to help me improve my dialogue and listened to me talk about high school and about my grief over the loss of my mom."
This girl went by the name Flip, and together, we processed every major world event that happened and every major life event that happened through the lens of our stories. After 9/11, we wrote about the CIA director on The West Wing — a man named Rob Konrad who appeared in literally one scene on the show — and how he and his plucky army of spies hunted down Osama Bin Laden. Through breakups and transitions, writing fan fiction with Flip became a kind of writing therapy. Our fan fiction was a world we could control, and it was safe.
I still talk to Flip literally every day. We work on stories and potential novels together, but we also give each other career advice, talk through the usual sh*t that everyone struggles with: relationships, roommate drama, or what to do about that one person at work who drives you bonkers. After 20 years of online friendship, we recently met in person. I was afraid that it would be awkward — how do years and years of digital friendship even translate to the real world? It turns out, they translate perfectly. She slept on my couch, I showed her my favorite DC spots, we toured the monuments and went to the Kennedy Center, and best of all, deepened the friendship that had started online, when we were just kids, and has continued well into our adulthoods. There’s a shared language, a databank of memories and knowledge. It was incredible, and we’re already planning her return trip when DC isn’t so hot that your shoes melt to the pavement.
"I was afraid that it would be awkward — how does years and years of digital friendship even translate to the real world? It turns out, it translates perfectly."
I don’t really write fan fiction anymore. I work in politics — and I'm living out my dream of changing the world like the characters I idolized so much. When it comes to writing these days, I’m more focused on writing original fiction, essays, and romance novels, but my comfort with the written word is owed to West Wing fanfic. So too, it turns out, is one of my best friends.