Q&A with Russ Kuykendall, Senior Researcher, Work Research Foundation, and Assistant Editor of Comment
I read books and magazines about how people can live happily together in their communities, and I write about what I find. I also try to make other people's writing better.
Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
Russ Kuykendall: I read books and magazines about how people can live happily together in their communities, and I write about what I find. I also try to make other people's writing better.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
RK: On the public policy side of what I do at the Work Research Foundation—"Senior Researcher"—I have a long-standing interest in politics and public policy, from when I was a nine-year-old child! Newspapers were always in my parents and grandparents' houses, and they were read and discussed—especially, politics and public policy. I volunteered on the campaign team to elect a federal Member of Parliament in 1993, she was elected, and I was invited to join her staff in the Whip's office. After working in federal opposition and in provincial government for about ten years, I joined WRF.
On the editing side of what I do at WRF, I helped start, write, and edit the high school newspaper. I was the point man for editing the college newspaper and yearbook and for writing a lot of the copy. One summer I helped write and edit a national church publication. In grad school I earned walking-around money editing other students' papers, and I did a lot of the editing on a scholarly journal that was an academic treatment of integrating Christian world view with "all categories of reality," as my major professor put it. I enjoy reading sharply written prose about politics and public policy—The Spectator (the original) comes to mind, an artfully constructed essay or speech—think: Lincoln and Churchill, and listening to the zippy repart?e of a Shakespeare, Shaw, or Simon dialogue.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
RK: When I started working in the Whip's office of my party at Parliament, the caucus didn't boast a full-blown research bureau, so for a time I filled in some of the gaps doing policy research on my own initiative—especially, related to whatever was occupying Commons standing committees at the time, for which I was responsible. I'd park myself in a Library of Parliament alcove and pore over departmental documents, statutes, and committee testimony, in order to understand the background discussion to whatever the policy issue. This ranged from federal funding transfers to the provinces for health care to how the Swiss employed referenda to pass legislation. I brought myself up to speed very, very quickly, over a period of months, working long hours and reading reams of documents.
On the writing-editing side, what has been most valuable was learning to be conscious of how I speak and write—something that resulted from the constant correction of my parents. That included learning good grammar and spelling, but also becoming conscious of verbal tics—the overuse of certain phrases and words. The English language can be a puzzle box to be unlocked. My mother introduced me to one of the keys when she insisted that I look up a word in the Webster's dictionary sitting underneath the phone desk to learn its spelling and meaning—at the age of six. My normal school-trained English teachers—especially, Elizabeth Wilson, Delva Murchie, Margaret Simpson, and Noreen Ford—drilled us on the parts of speech and diagramming a sentence, as well as on how to write the English sentence and a cohesive paragraph. A high school English teacher, Bernie Desrosiers, taught us how to add punch to an essay argument with parallel structure and other devices.
Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?
RK: On public policy, "People don't care how much you know, they want to know that you care"—a truism that's true—is near the top. Sometimes those who analyze or formulate public policy get caught up in the complexity or elegance of a public policy solution—particularly, at the "macro" level—without considering the implications for people at the "micro" level. When I'm thinking about or writing public policy, I try to remember to ask, "How will this affect the small business owner, that tradesman, the folks serving at the Tim Horton's counter, or the family trying to pay off their mortgage?" If good "macro" doesn't lead to good "micro" effects, that should raise the proverbial red flags. The Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper called on intellectual and political leaders to pay attention to "the little people." The founder of the Reform Party of Canada, Preston Manning, called this listening to "the common sense of the common people." America's First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt excelled at it. Some of my best policy ideas have come from listening to small business owners or others on the front lines of the micro describe their frustrations with public policy.
On the editing and writing side, a few pieces of advice come to mind: consider your audience, seek clarity (unless you don't want to be clear!), use the present-active voice whenever possible (unless you're in Britain!), don't use a three-dollar word when a simpler one will do, use the three-dollar word when a simpler one won't do, learn the proper use of the "subjunctive conditional" and the "participial possessive" and those in the know will think you more intelligent than you may deserve, let a piece go stale before doing a final edit, read (and learn) Strunk & White's Elements of Style, and double-check all headers and footers, titles and sub-titles, and proper names—or suffer the nearly inevitable consequences of typo creep at the graphic design and layout phase of publication.
A more generalized piece of advice that has been particularly useful came from my dad's missionary aunt who served with her husband in India and Kenya for nearly thirty years. She could get along with almost anyone—from the mechanic to the Maharani—yet she advised: "Some people you just have to 'write off' as ignorant . . . and ignore them."
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
RK: From faith (the Christian Scriptures), family, and mentors I've found a basis, admonishment, and exemplars for pursuing my work as service to God and to others. For me, service is part and parcel of fulfilling the first and second commandments—loving God, and loving my neighbour. My family emphasized service as an informing ethos, whether in the church or in the wider community—for them, there was and is one theatre of service, not two, and we were-are called to serve in all of it. Certain mentors—particularly, my philosophy prof and adviser in grad school, James Strauss—helped me to understand better just how large the theatre of service is: "Every category of reality!"
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
RK: I'm most productive when I'm well rested and when I've started my day with a hearty breakfast accompanied by "cold caffeine." Generally, my best time for writing and editing is either early in the morning or late at night when interruptions are unlikely. I try to make or return phone calls before noon, since I'm more likely to reach people in the same business day, if I didn't reach them in my first attempt, when they return the calls in the afternoon. I tend to reply to e-mail throughout the day, and I have organized my e-mail client with two dozen folders in which recurring incoming e-mail messages are automatically filed, waiting for attention. Reading is generally an afternoon or late-night pursuit. Often when I take a break from my laptop, I find my way over to my Steinway and distract myself by playing a few measures, and come back to my work, refreshed.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
RK: My laptop, e-mail, Google (including "Google alerts"), the Parliament of Canada and the Statistics Canada web sites (among others), a selection of public and foreign policy journals, book reviews (the NYT Book Review, especially, for its combination of breadth and depth), a hard-bound notebook to log conversations and meetings, my phones, my network of friends and acquaintances in politics and public policy, Strunk & White and the Chicago Manual of Style which are both more or less imprinted on my brain, and amazon.com (both for ordering books and to double-check bibliographical information) are at my finger tips.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
RK: "Delighted" is a strong word! However, a few instances come to mind that pleased or enlightened me. Doing public policy research on industrial construction was enlightening—particularly, meeting skilled tradesmen across Canada whose intelligence was acute, whose love for their families was profound, and who genuinely cared about their country. Feedback from various quarters on the details of my work on Canada-U.S. trade that transcended congratulations was gratifying. Taking a piece with mixed metaphors and muddy arguments, editorially fixing the metaphors and sharpening the arguments, and making the piece sing—knowing no credit will be forthcoming—has yielded private pleasure. The enthusiasm of a reluctant writer for a writing project once he "got into it," the result of that enthusiasm on the printed page, and the enthusiastic reaction from readers of this formerly reluctant writer has very nearly, well, enthused—if not delighted—me.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
RK: I work to deadlines. My first question on a given project is "What's the deadline?" That in itself can lead to a discussion of various stages or details attaching to a project, and it allows me to plan my work days and weeks and map out a critical path of deadlines. Planning and time management challenges generally rise and fall on deadlines, and everyone's keeping them. When I worked in Parliament and in provincial government, the deadlines were dictated by the legislative calendar or by scheduled policy roll-outs. The timelines in these circumstances could get very tight, and required my being on top of files going forward and being both a quick study and a quick writer when called upon. At WRF, there are a couple of times in the calendar year that dictate deadlines when other timelines have come unravelled, because of organizational pressures or issues. I've learned to anticipate those calendar slots, and clear other projects from my docket in readiness.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
RK: Although I generally keep various "aspects of (my) life" more or less separate, they sometimes cross-pollinate. In my political life, I've organized a lot of events, roll-outs, and conferences around the country that have given me a certain level of familiarity with hotels and venues. Occasionally, this inside knowledge has been helpful to WRF. Likewise, my working at WRF has, in part, afforded me the opportunity to teach an undergraduate class on "Ethics and Public Policy." At church, I've run into people who are trying to sort out the integration of faith with their work, and I've passed along WRF's think recordings or print issues of Comment that have been very helpful to them. My leisure reading or personal study in my field of academic interest, political theory, has surfaced ideas and provided a philosophical framework for WRF work. And, again, some of my best policy ideas still come from family or friends on how public policy affects them. My work at WRF (as with all my work) is service to God and to others—it's one expression of Christian and public service that, I hope, characterizes my life, whether in respect of my family, my church, my leadership responsibilities, my friends and acquaintances, my political party, my teaching, my community, my leisure, or my home.