A couple of weeks ago, I happened to be perusing the shelves of one of my sanctuaries, Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland, when I happened upon a book I had been meaning to read, yet, had forgotten about – or perhaps had become to busy to remember to get back to.
It was a collection of columns by one of my heroes and mentors, Mike Royko, a longtime Chicago newspaper columnist in the 60s, 70s and 80s. The book, Like I Was Sayin’, compiled some of his best works dating from the mid-60s to the mid-80s. I’ve read several of his books in the past and love his work. His sharp prose, his wit, his ability to tell fantastical stories and spin a good old-fashioned yarn helped shape my own writing style. Every word he laid to paper had an underlying message to it, even when it seemed like he went completely off the rails and you weren’t quite sure just what the hell he was thinking.
I loved Royko and his work. Luckily, I got the chance to tell him so not too long before his death in 1997. At that time, I was a wide-eyed, idealistic upcoming journalist who wanted to set the world on fire but had a bad habit of writing far too long – to the point where any message of my own was severely diluted. I met Mike after he gave a speech on writing. Afterward, I picked his brain on everything I could—from how to best uncover the truth when reporting to find his passion in each topic—even if they were as dry as fine salami—to how to find my starting point and be concise.
I’ll never forget some of the words of wisdom he imparted on me:
- On how to hone my craft and be a better writer: Just tell the voice in your head to “shut the hell up—I’m trying to write here!”
- On getting through tough assignments or times you feel overmatched: Just start writing nonsense and don’t stop for 30 minutes. Then look back at what you wrote. Your hook will be somewhere there on the page.
- On a career in writing: Be prepared to be broke, heartbroken, physically and mentally broken and have multiple breakdowns—but it’s the best ride you’ll ever have.
I took almost everything Royko said to heart. A couple of years later, I became the youngest person in the history of the Nevada Press Association (or so I was told) to win the organization’s top honors as Outstanding Journalist of 1998, along with four other awards. A year later, I took home six more awards. Mike was one of my heroes and mentors and I credit him with giving me a lot of the fire I needed to succeed and the courage to not be afraid to fail.
I remember being saddened by his passing, but thankful he had led a full life—one I still could only dream of having.
Which leads me to a much more recent passing—that of longtime National Public Radio Carl Kasell, who died this April at the age of 84.
For more than three decades, Kasell was the calm and steady voice of NPR’s morning newscasts. I used to listen to him on my drives to work. He had a true knack for delivering even the most upsetting news in an even-keeled tone that made you feel like he was there alongside you—the voice of reason in your head, with an objective demeanor that always assured you that life had multiple possibilities, that outcomes were not definitive, that all could, and would be well again soon.
Especially in an era where fear-based and shock value “journalism” was cleaning up, Kasell was a refreshing reminder that we’re all students of the world, and never stop being. He knew how to drive a point home without manipulating. He was deliberate and serious, but never authoritative. His was a voice I craved when it seemed like all other voices became louder and louder squawks of competitive one-upsmanship.
I’ve built a good career from my own writing and communication skills. And though the odds of my ever reaching the same levels of achievement or influence as Royko and Kasell are slim to none, they nevertheless inspired me to keep driving and refining myself along the way.