Remembering Russell Baker

Russell Baker at his Leesburg, Virginia, home in 2012. (Photo by Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

I thought about it more than a couple of times, but I never went to visit him. He lived not too far from me. But I felt his privacy was more important than me wanting a picture with Mr. Baker. By the time I’d come to admire Russell Baker’s work he’d long since been out of the public eye and it had been over a decade or more since Baker published a book. I guess I felt the likely-hood of Baker having fans show up at his door was pretty darn low. In fact, very few people I knew had heard of him. So maybe he’d welcome the reminder that there were still many great admirers of his masterly pen. But still, it didn’t feel right and I wasn’t about to bother him in his retirement.

I discovered the writings of Russell Baker, I’m guessing, about 15 or so years ago. I was reading another book called Clear and Simple as the Truth, written by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner. That book was a fascinating analysis of style in writing and instruction in how you develop a particular style of writing they called Classic Style. It was a style I’d recognized and admired in the writings of authors like Mark Twain and John Keegan.

Thomas and Turner had provided examples of Classic Style in their book, but there weren’t any examples (as I recall) of more recent biographies or autobiographies written in Classic Style. So I emailed Mark Turner and asked him if he would recommend some authors and titles. Turner emailed me back a small list. I don’t recall any of the others on the list, but Russell Baker was one of the names Turner provided. And so I picked up a Copy of Baker’s 1983 pulitzer prize winning memoir Growing Up.

The memoir is a lovely and hauntingly moving story of Baker’s “growing up” years during the Depression era. It’s a story that began to take root in Baker’s mind many years later while he was visiting his dying mother at the hospital. Senility had taken hold of her mind. As he sat looking at this woman who’d made him so much of what he was, he began thinking about the distance between them and about her life and what went into the making of her and him:

Sitting at her bedside, forever out of touch with her, I wondered about my own children, and children in general, and about the disconnections between children and parents that prevent them from knowing each other. Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them.

The above paragraph is underlined in my copy. I’ve had similar thoughts floating around in my mind about my parents over the years, and as a veteran parent myself, I’ve wondered if one day my boys might experience this same curiosity about me and my wife before it’s too late to know. Most children don’t experience this deep curiosity about their parents; not because they don’t care, but more from the fact that life is too busy and the past is, well, past.

But like Baker, I think exploring and understanding the past and where we came from is a form of connecting (or reconnecting) with those people and things and events that shaped us for better or worse. I’m one of those who still stops the car, when back home visiting, to take pictures of the homes I grew up in and some of the other memorable places of my childhood and teenage years. Nostalgia is the rust of memory it’s been said, and I’ve always had a good bit of the rust. I started this blog in partial hope of leaving behind for my kids something of myself beyond what little material things I might pass on, so that one day, maybe, if my kids become interested in their dad’s personal history this blog might be of some help.

“We all come from the past, and children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud.”

Baker wrote a sequel to Growing Up called The Good Times (1989). Baker began his career as a reporter in Baltimore and achieved his fame, and his first pulitzer prize, writing his observer column (1962 – 1998) for the New York Times. He published about a half-a-dozen or so other books…all of which I have a copy of with underlinings throughout.

Russell Baker passed away at his home in Leesburg, Virginia, on January 21st. He was 93.

John F. Kennedy on the Highest Duty of the Writer

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“It may be different elsewhere. But in a democratic society the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.” — John F. Kennedy

Heat and Light: Thomas Friedman on Opinion Writing

LightbulbThomas Friedman has won 3 Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism. He’s written 7 New York Times bestselling books, won numerous book awards, and his New York Times column is one of the most read in the English speaking world.

Friedman’s most recent best selling book is called Thank You for Being Late: An Optimists Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. The book is excellent and I highly recommend it. But for this post, I want to focus on a small section of the book where Friedman discusses the writing process. As a scribbler, I found this section especially interesting and I think you will too.

In the beginning of Thank You for Being Late, Friedman tells us about his chance meeting with Bojia, an Ethiopian gentlemen who worked at a parking garage in Bethesda, Maryland. Bojia happens to read Friedman’s column, and he also happens to have a blog about political and economic issues in Ethiopia. As part of a deal with Bojia, Friedman agrees to help Bojia manage his blog. The help comes in the form of two memos to Bojia in which Friedman describes how one goes about constructing a column (or blog post) and about what makes a column “work.”

Here is Friedman describing the advice he gave to Bojia:

When you are a columnist, or a blogger in Bojia’s case, your purpose is to influence or provoke a reaction and not just to inform—to argue for a certain perspective so compellingly that you persuade your readers to think or feel differently or more strongly or afresh about an issue.

That is why, I explained to Bojia, as a columnist, “I am either in the heating business or the lighting business.” Every column or blog has to either turn on a lightbulb in your reader’s head—illuminate an issue in a way that will inspire them to look at it anew—or stoke an emotion in your reader’s heart that prompts them to feel or act more intensely or differently about an issue. The ideal column does both.

But how do you go about generating heat or light? Where do opinions come from? I am sure every opinion writer would offer a different answer. My short one is that a column idea can spring from anywhere: a newspaper headline that strikes you as odd, a simple gesture by a stranger, the moving speech of a leader, the naive question of a child, the cruelty of a school shooter, the wrenching tale of a refugee. Everything and anything is raw fodder for creating heat or light. It all depends on the connections you make and insights you surface to buttress your opinion.

More broadly speaking though, I told Bohia, column writing is an act of chemistry—precisely because you must conjure it up yourself. A column doesn’t write itself the way a breaking news story does. A column has to be created.

The act of chemistry usually involves mixing three basic ingredients: your own values, priorities, and aspirations; how you think the biggest forces, the world’s biggest gears and pulley’s, are shaping events; and what you’ve learned about people and culture—how they react or don’t—when the big forces impact them.

When I say your own values, priorities, and aspirations, I mean the things that you care about most and aspire to see implemented most intensely. That value set helps you determine what is important and worth opining about, as well as what you will say. It is okay to change your mind as an opinion writer; what is not okay is to have no mind—to stand for nothing, or for everything, or only for easy and safe things. An opinion writer has to emerge from some framework of values that shapes his or her thinking about what should be supported or opposed. Are you a capitalist, a communist, a libertarian, a Keynesian, a conservative, a liberal, a neocon, or a Marxist?

When I refer to the world’s big gears and pulleys, I am talking about what I call “the Machine.” . . . To be an opinion writer, you also always need to be carrying around a working hypothesis of how you think the Machine works—because your basic goal is to take your values and push the Machine in their direction. If you don’t have a theory about how the Machine works, you’ll either push it in a direction that doesn’t accord with your beliefs or you won’t move it at all.

And when I say people and culture, I mean how different peoples and cultures are affected by the Machine when it moves and how they, in turn, affect the Machine when they react. Ultimately columns are about people—the crazy things they say, do, hate, and hope for. . . .

I argued to Bojia that the most effect columns emerge from mixing and rubbing these three ingredients together: you can’t be an effective opinion writer without a set of values that informs what you’re advocating. . . . You also can’t have an effective column without some “take” on the biggest forces shaping the world in which we live and how to influence them. . . . [It] is very difficult to persuade people to do something if you can’t connect the dots for them in a convincing way—why this action will produce this result, because this is how the gears and pulleys of the Machine work. And, finally, I told Bojia, you’ll never have an opinion column that works unless it is inspired and informed by real people. It can’t just be the advocacy of abstract principles.

When you put your value set together with your analysis of how the Machine works and your understanding of how it is affecting people and culture in different contexts, you have a worldview that you can then apply to all kinds of situation to produce your opinions. Just as a data scientist needs an algorithm to cut through all the unstructured data and all the noise to see the relevant patterns, an opinion writer needs a worldview to create heat and light.

I read this section of Friedman’s book over and over again because it’s a nicely articulated description of what goes into making a good columnist, writer, or blogger. As you can see from this post I took note! It definitely caused me to rethink my own writing and what goes into my opinions. If you’re opining, and that’s what most scribblers do, then here you have the secret chemistry spelled out for you by one of the very best.

Upping my Twain

My study and my home, for that matter, are starting to become overrun with books. Actually, this started a long time ago but I prefer to ignore the realization as long as possible. Regardless of sagging shelves, loaded boxes and growing stacks, I continue to collect books. I recently told my wife I would address this addiction immediately. I would attack it with energetic vigor and a dogged determination. I will hold the line!

So with that in mind this past week, I added three more books to my Mark Twain collection.

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I already have the Complete 29 Volume Oxford Collection of Mark Twain’s works, a CD collection of his private letters, and a couple boxes of his books in various paperback editions. You see, when I read I use a pencil to underline memorable passages and make marginalia. I’m a slow reader, taking in every word and every punctuation mark. If I don’t underline passages I’m not likely to find them when I go looking for them. I can’t bring myself to write in most of my hardcover books. That’s irreverent! Well at least not in the one’s I consider my collection stock. This means I collect the hardcover books and in some cases, like my Mark Twain collection, I buy a paperback version so I can write in that book.

If you don’t already, one day I’ll have to write a post on why you should read Mark Twain. But that’s for another day.

So as for the books pictured above:

Well if you weren’t already aware, Mark Twain’s writings, beside being humorous, a work of art and fun to read, mark a transition in the history of American literature. Ernest Hemingway famously commented:

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

That’s high praise coming from a winner of the nobel prize for literature. A part of Hemingway’s renown as a writer comes from his adopting a Twainesque style of writing. Not the humor so much, but the rule that a writer “Employ a simple and straightforward style,” and “Eschew surplusage.” Of course there’s a lot more to Hemingway’s particular art but he was clearly influenced by Twain.

Anyone who likes to read and write is usually attentive to prose style. I pick up books all the time and skim a few passages in order to get some feel for the writer’s prose. For me, this attentiveness to writing tends to spill over into an attentiveness to everyday speech, because good writing, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said, is “the shadow of good talk.” This has become a habit. I find listening carefully to good talkers can help improve your writing. I listen for organization, rhythm, cadence, word choice, and structure. All the elements of an individual style or personality. People’s individuality and their particular way of thinking and expressing themselves is truly fascinating.

So naturally with a writer I admire, I’m interested in how they developed as a writer. What influenced and shaped their style. This is why I picked up The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. This history book outlines the beginning of Samuel Clemens’s (Mark Twain’s) career and how he and some other prominent writers of that time helped reinvent American literature.

Then we have the recently released Chasing the Last Laugh  by Richard Zacks. This book is about Twain’s great world wide tour. Mark Twain didn’t have much luck with investments and business ventures. He made a lot of money and he lost a lot of money. He got heavily in debt. He decided this wasn’t the way his story was going to end, he wasn’t leaving his family with massive debts to pay off. So Twain set out on very successful world wide tour. This book focuses on Twain’s tour around the world—chasing the last laugh.

Now, I haven’t read this book yet but I know Twain was able to pay back his debts and substantially rebuild his wealth. Full length biographies typically require a good investment of time, whereas books aimed at capturing a brief period or event in a Life are usually shorter reads and yet very informative. So this book along with, say, Man in White are good, short reads if you’re interested.

Finally, I picked up the 125th edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  This edition is a copy of the original first edition with illustrations and notes as Twain originally approved. My goal is to read this one through carefully and write a review—eventually.

A Little Book of Writers’ Wisdom

Though I don’t write as often as I’d like, I think a lot about the craft and about its mysteries. This means when I see a good book that sifts the gems of a writer’s wisdom from the mass of their written work I pay attention. When the master speaks, the student listens.

I collect good quotes in general, but I probably have 30 pages of just quotes on writing. Quotes capture the essential wisdom of an author’s thoughts. For some of us, for many of us actually, all we ever read of an author is a quote we run across while reading something else. Well, like in this blog post!

So the other day while browsing the discount table (where you find some great books!) at the bookstore, I came across The Little Book of Writers’s Wisdom. I thought I’d share just a few quotes with you.

So the first one is from George Orwell:

“For the creative writer, possession of the ‘truth’ is less important than emotional sincerity.”

I remember Orwell saying somewhere something to the effect that unless a writer can “feel” they really can’t write persuasively. This connection between feeling and good writing is a common theme in Orwell’s essays.

The second quote is a very rich one by Christopher Hitchens:

“There is some relationship between the hunger for truth and the search for the right words. The struggle may be ultimately indefinable and even undecidable, but one damn well knows is when one sees it.”

Wow, this is a quote that probably deserves an entire blog post by itself. Any volunteers?

Which leads me to my final quote by John Steinbeck, which is a nice follow up to the Hitchens quote:

“The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through — not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible.”

Yes, another great quote for the topic of a blog post. 🙂