[TIPS OF THE TRADE]: Are You a World-Changer?
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
April 2013
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
April 2013

“I arise in the morning,” E.B. White wrote, “torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

I used to be torn, too – tormented, in fact.  For years, I didn’t allow myself to be a writer (except of leaflets, manifestos, platforms, and speeches).  The worthy causes that claimed all my time – peace, women’s rights, environmental protection – were rewarding, but…   

I missed writing. 

Eventually, deciding I could wait no longer, I did begin to write.  Oddly, the explicitly political novel I started with (a somewhat autobiographical tale of a speechwriter in the Clinton Administration) didn’t turn out to be either soul-satisfying or any good. 

Then I discovered a diary kept by my late great-aunt, an elderly former secretary living alone in Brooklyn, and found myself mesmerized by it. I started working on a one-woman, one-act play based on my aunt’s spare, eloquent words.  Some lines by Walt Whitman seemed to belong in the mix, too.   

The work seemed to have no political content at all, and of course that worried me.  But by the time I’d finished, something surprising had happened.

To my amazement, what I’d written turned out to feel – to me – deeply political.  In revealing my aunt’s inner life and her innate worth, I seemed bent on communicating that every person, no matter how ordinary, has a place in the great sweep of humanity Whitman celebrated.    

“Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn” became a short film starring Joanna Merlin, and now it’s being used to train people who work with the elderly.  When I introduce it at professional and community gatherings, I feel like an activist.

And like a writer. 

This would not be news to Barbara Kingsolver, the prolific author and creator of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.  Great literature, she believes, always changes minds. 

“Fiction cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger,” Kingsolver writes, “by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view. It can broaden your view of gender, ethnicity, place and time, power and vulnerability, things that influence social interaction. What could be more political than that?”

As writers, we help people inhabit other people's lives, slip into their skin, walk in their shoes.  Which is what that photo of the guys in high heels is doing at the top of this post.  The teetering parade in question is the brainchild of an organization called “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes,” which agitates against rape, sexual assault, and gender violence. 

Savor the world, save the world – it turns out sometimes they’re not so far apart after all.



Ellen Cassedy’s latest book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012), which won the 2013 Grub Street National Book Prize for non-fiction. Her first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly. See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.

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  • Karen Lawson

    Thanks all, it's encouraging to hear from activist writers. I just picked up an inspiring older book from my bookshelf on this riff,The Spell of the Sensuous. I guess I'd call it Poetic Non Fiction! 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Re: the danger of cluttering your narrative with "fact dumps":  Ursula LeGuin has an interesting exercise in her book, “Steering the Craft”.  It's called "the Expository Lump."  As she puts it, the goal is to become skilled at slipping in information so that readers don't realize they're learning anything.  Break up the lumps in the oatmeal.

  • Daphne Q

    Thanks for posting this Ellen. Love that quote from E.B. White!

  • Pamela Olson

    I agree with Karen -- the human mind is shaped by evolution to respond more to good storytelling than to fact dumps. As Buckminster Fuller said, "Don't fight forces. Use them." So I try to use good storytelling -- that comes from the heart -- in the service of truth, justice, and the greater good. Inshallah.

  • Karen Lawson

    Thanks Ellen. I also noticed that when I tried to write explicitly political fiction, it was tedious, overly intellectualized, and a fact dump. When I let myself switch back to what I loved, bubbling up from heart, it worked. Tree Listener, a Lab Lit to Fantasy stretch about the corporate takeover by Nonsantis of the world food supply, let me tell it like it is for me, and still be a page turner.Kingsolver is my leader.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Thanks to all who've sent comments  -- it's so gratifying to see that we're part of an activist/writer community. I'd love to hear more from all of you and from others.  

  • Elena Schwolsky

    Thanks so much for this post, Ellen.  I also move between activism and the more isolated, internal work of writing, sometimes finding them in conflict in my own life and I appreciate your exploration of this.  "Writer" and "Activist" describe two pieces of who I am in the world and my best hope is that each experience informs the other.

  • Writers are witnesses, mirrors, voices for those who would not speak themselves. I love the quote you used to begin your post. As a poetry editor and writer, I've occasionally wondered if it's enough, but ultimately, it proves to be just that when someone turns to the written word in any of its beautiful forms as a way of coping or understanding.

  • Karen Carr

    Thank you for your post today Ellen. Perfect information for me today!

  • Marybeth Holleman

    Oh I'm just delighted with this post, and with finding all of you here who are, like me, activist writers. I have also written about this EB White quote, and about finding the balance between art and activism. I do believe that art brings about deeper, more long-term change. But so long-term that the artists often doesn't see it happen in their lifetime. I also think that art feeds those who stand at the front lines and lead the charge. The poetry of Mary Oliver, for example, nourished environmental activists. This is what inspired me to start Art and Nature (www.artandnatureand.blogspot.com) so that artists in all media could converse about how nature inspires their work and inspires them to work on its behalf.  So for me the problem is finding the balance between art and activism. For there are times when direct action is necessary. As Rick Bass once wrote, when your house is on fire, do you sit and write a poem about it or throw water on the flames? Sigh. So much to do, so little time.

  • Pamela Olson

    I never found a contradiction between writing and activism -- my blog, then journalism, then book (Fast Times in Palestine) were always about educating people about a far corner of the world that they have more responsibility for than they probably realize. And that has more to teach and offer than most Americans can imagine.

    However, I do sometimes wish I could DO more at the same time I'm immersed in writing about it. But I try to remind myself -- I don't have to be everything or everyone in the world. There are other people doing AMAZING things all the time. And if I do my job well, I am supporting them effectively -- more effectively than if I lived a scatter-shot life trying to do a little of everything. And that's a good feeling.

  • Natylie Baldwin

    Thanks so much for this post, Ellen.  It really resonated with me.  I spent several years as a peace and environmental activist, writing political essays and articles for alt/indy media.  I got totally burned out and, after some major issues to contend with in my personal life, I came away with a new perspective and desire to write fiction.  I find that I'm still dealing with political and social issues in my writing but in a different and, likely, more effective way.  

    I think people are much more open to a change of heart or expansion of consciousness through story-telling and the arts than through lectures and facts, which tend to put people on the defensive or make their eyes glaze over.   

  • What a great post Ellen. Thanks for the inspiring photo, the reminder that we can be writers and activists, the meaningful quote from Barbara Kingsolver. I really needed to read this post today! 

  • Deborah J. Brasket

    I so agree, and have used E.B. White's quotation often enough myself. My background is much like yours, and I too have turned full-time to writing, believing like you, that "the two are not so far apart after all".

     In a blog post I wrote not long ago called "Saving and Savoring the World" I wrote: "Within the desire to save the world is the felt-sense that, despite all our faults and failures, there is something beautiful and good in the world, in humanity, in each and every one of us, worth the saving because worth the savoring. The savoring not only comes first, but the savoring is what sustains us."