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Constance Alexander: The best advice for writing a weekly column remains: Just be yourself

If Russell Baker had a fan club, I would be a card-carrying member. I’d been a Baker groupie since high school, when I started reading his weekly essays in the Sunday New York Times. Last week, upon learning that he’d died, I went searching for a letter he wrote to me at the beginning of my career.

I’d written to Mr. Baker regarding a column in which he mentioned he was taking a few weeks off for summer vacation, leaving the editor to find someone to fill in for him. In my missive, I told him he was my idol, and extolled the seemingly effortless mix of wit and wisdom he managed to cram into less than eight-hundred words every week.

I offered to write Baker’s column in the time he was gone, and begged him to intercede with the editor for me. Along with a sample of my work, I promised to do my best to reflect his writing style.

Russell Baker’s answer – written in his own distinctive hand – admitted that he had no control over who would temp for him while he basked in the sun on Nantucket. Gently, he chided me for aspiring to write like him, and suggested I continue cultivating my own style.

“You don’t want people saying, ‘She writes just like Russell Baker,’ he explained. “You want them to say, ‘I want to write like Constance Alexander.’”

His kind encouragement made me want, more than ever, to be a writer.

And so I am. Today’s column marks my thirtieth year of writing Main Street. Emulating my hero, I have aspired to excellence. Also like Baker, I understand the sad reality that, for any columnist, some days are better than others.

As one tribute to Russell Baker’s talents put it: “Even with a Ted Williams swing, the best hitters, the absolute best, fail roughly two of every three times. Russell Baker’s batting average is a lot higher than that for sure.”

For me, I continue to aim for the stars, falling short most of the time. Yet I still aspire to emulate Russell Baker’s laser powers of observation, exemplified in this description of Richard Nixon on the campaign trail.

“There were darknesses in his soul that seemed to leave his life bereft of joy. He was a private, lonely man who never seemed comfortable with anyone, including himself, a man of monumental insecurities for whom public life, I thought, must be a constant ordeal.”

Even Baker’s writings on quotidian topics were grand slams. I remember one of his back-to-school pieces about the high hopes of students at the beginning of the year, only to be followed by the inevitable crush of reality.

“After only two weeks in algebra,” he confessed, “I was already three months behind.”

Responding to a student’s question about preparing for a career in journalism, Baker wrote: “The ideal journalism school needs only one course. Students should be required to stand outside a closed door for six hours. Then the door would open, someone would put his head around the jamb and say, ‘No comment.’ The door would close again, and the students would be required to write 800 words against a deadline.”

After he quit writing the New York Times column, Baker went on to host Masterpiece Theatre, replacing the venerable and properly British Alistair Cooke. When the job was offered, he resisted. “Only a fool or a suicidal maniac would take over from Cooke,” Baker quipped.

According to Rebecca Eaton, Executive Producer of Masterpiece, “His daughter finally persuaded him to say yes, warning that if he refused he’d end up in his basement office, writing New York Times columns for the rest of his life. A damp, dark fate.”

Never one to turn away from a challenge, Russell Baker managed brilliantly to introduce complex plots of literary masterpieces in very few words, a feat similar to that of a columnist. “It’s like doing a ballet in a phone booth,” he often said.

And so it is for me too. After more than a million words of Main Street, I raise a toast to the Murray Ledger & Times and its readers. Thank you for listening. I can’t promise thirty more years, but I am determined to last as long as Russell Baker.

Baker’s obituary is available at www.nytimes.com.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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One Comment

  1. Nina Seaman says:

    Hi Connie,
    I proudly join you as a Russell Baker groupie. He was always my go to read in the NYT. My favorite column was the one where he talked about lost objects. According to him, they stayed hidden until they became lonely and then they would hurl themselves out of their hiding place so they could be found. How true, after my endless search, there is the item I am seeking, in plain view.
    Congratulations on your 30 years of writing columns, May you have many more years.
    Ps love your gray hair…signs of wisdom

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