By Elizabeth Searle
“You might say I have politics in my blood.” My favorite young author—my son, Will, age 13—wrote this as the opening line for his essay on his involvement in the Elizabeth Warren Senate campaign here in Massachusetts. On September 13, I joined with other writers for a Writers for Warren fundraiser. As Will says, a love of both politics and writing runs in our family’s blood. To me, the two are intertwined.
In my opinion, engaging in the ongoing drama of local or national politics can feed you as both a citizen and as a writer. My Dad always refers to politics as “the greatest show on earth.” Whatever your political stripes, your literary life can be enhanced by following or even involving yourself in this “greatest show.” What better time than now, with the presidential race kicking into high gear?
I, for one, am glad the Olympics are over and the “real games” are beginning. Politics has always been my favorite spectator sport. As a fiction and theater writer, I am fascinated by politics as a never-ending epic soap opera with larger-than-life characters—and real-life consequences.
A framed photo of JFK hung above my childhood dining room table. As a kid, I felt as if he were still our President even though I knew he was dead. My father, a former candidate himself, became a tireless and inspired writer of letters to the editor and opinion pieces. I remember gathering around our TV in South Carolina when I was kid to watch Dad deliver an eloquent editorial piece on the local news.
Dad’s impassioned left-wing letters in our local newspapers in South Carolina and Kentucky and Arizona sometimes drew equally impassioned responses from the “other side.” In fact, for years we kept a shrill metal whistle beside our telephone. If a strange caller started berating our father and his opinions, we would blow the whistle into the receiver and hang up.
If the caller was calm, my Dad would engage in conversation and debate with whomever was on the line. My father in his later years has been a community columnist and commentator for his local paper. He also has kindly contributed astute quotes and guest posts on my own occasionally political blog, Celebrities in Disgrace.
While my writerly focus has been on fiction and theater, I have followed in my father’s footsteps with letters to the editor—a great outlet for any fellow scribe longing to join the public discourse. Though not nearly as prolific as my Dad is (he has had hundreds published), I have had three letters in The New York Times and recently had a letter in The Washington Post.
When I emailed in my Post letter, I let my son, the budding political activist, press SEND. Of course, there are plenty of places to SEND our opinions online. I have been guest poster on the feminist site, VIDA, on their HER KIND blog.
When activist and screenwriter Caitlin McCarthy did a guest post on my Celebrities in Disgrace blog about the DES drug disgrace, her piece was linked by The Huffington Post. Caitlin’s writings helped trigger significant progress in the public effort to gain an “apology” from the FDA. Last year, the FDA issued an official statement acknowledging the disgrace for the first time.
Like Caitlin, writers can go beyond words into actions. We can organize literary events to support our candidates and causes. Working with author/activist Steve Almond and with the Warren campaign, I co-organized “Writers for Warren,” our September event for Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. Our all-star readers included Tom Perrotta, Stephen McCauley, Anita Shreve, and Stonecoast’s own Suzanne Strempek Shea. In 2008, Steve Almond and I worked on a similar event for Obama, an Obama-thon reading.
Elizabeth Warren is a writer herself and so, of course, is Barack Obama, testimony to the power of the pen. One of my son’s favorite films is All the Presidents Men. In its stirring opening, the screen fills with an extreme close-up of a giant grainy blank page. Startlingly, a vast typewriter key hammers down, imprinting the page with enormous screen-sized letters.
Writing and politics will always be intertwined. For those who want to enter into the arena, we can begin to take part by taking up our pens.
Elizabeth Searle is the author of four books of fiction, most recently Girl Held in Home (2011). She is also librettist and creator of Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera (produced in Boston in 2011), a show that’s drawn national media attention. She has taught at Stonecoast for 10 years.