The Greatest Show on Earth: A Writer’s Eye View of Politics

Stonecoast Faculty members Elizabeth Searle and Suzanne Strempek Shea at the “Writers for Warren” fundraiser on September 13, 2012

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 SearleElizabeth 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.


6 thoughts on “The Greatest Show on Earth: A Writer’s Eye View of Politics

  1. I love the thread of how you learned by watching your father write and engage – and Will obviously has been watching you and John do the same. Bravo for being so engaged in the world around you. There is no other way to live.

    • THANKS Suzanne and thanks also for your super reading at Writers for Warren. I was happy to share that night with you and fellow Stonecoasters Stacy Thompson and Enza Vescera. Also happy to see Warren opening up a 6 point lead in the latest polls. Cheers– Elizabeth

  2. I’m so glad you’re on the front lines. I think there’s another benefit to being politically engaged, which is a chance to observe human nature up close. I remember going door-to-door for a certain presidential candidate in `08 in Philadelphia, and each door that opened revealed a world of characterization that I could never have made up. Fertile ground for fiction indeed!

    • Hi Aaron– Thanks and yes, that is so true about Door to Doors. My sister going door to door in Arizona was once greeted by a guy cleaning his gun. Then just recently when my son and my sister went door to door for Elizabeth Warren, they accidentally interrupted a lady hosting a Wake in her home! They apologized, mortified. But the lady actually took a moment to tell them she did in fact support Warren. You can’t make this stuff up. Cheers– E

      • Fabulous point, Aaron – I’d suggest canvassing for that reason alone (just pick the right person to promote, please!). There is a reason the campaign headquarters – up here, at least – insist the work be done by pairs.

  3. Hi Suzanne– Just wanted to chime in that yes, canvassing is best done with ‘a buddy.’ Politics is a social sport. It was so fun to have you, Suzanne, and other friends and kindred spirits come together with me at Writers for Warren. Cheers– Elizabeth

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