Russell Baker on How He Learned to Write a Good Story

Russell Baker wrote some wonderful pieces about writing. One, titled “Uncle Harold,” is in Russell Baker’s Book of American Humor, published in 1993 by W.W Norton. The book is well worth seeking out—it’s 608 pages of humor by many of the 20th century’s most interesting writers. But it’s not easy to find. Amazon offers it for $53.96 but it’s “temporarily out of stock.” Try your local library.

Baker also wrote a good essay, “Life With Mother,” that appears in the book Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The book, edited by William Zinsser, has essays by nine writers: Baker, Jill Ker Conway, Annie Dillard, Ian Frazier, Henry Louis Gates, Alfred Kazin, Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison, and Eileen Simpson. New copies are $13.88 on Amazon.
Baker writing about “Uncle Harold” in his Book of American Humor:

It didn’t matter that my mother called him “The biggest liar God ever sent down the pike.” In spite of his reputation for varnishing a fact, or maybe because of the outrageousness with which he did the varnishing, I found him irresistible. It was his intuitive refusal to spoil a good story by slavish adherence to fact that enchanted me. Though poorly educated, Uncle Harold somehow knew that the possibility of creating art lies not in reporting but in fiction. . . .

His face was impassive as always when he issued the usual protest—”It’s the truth, so help me God”—but I could see with absolute clarity that underneath the impassive mask he was smiling. He saw me studying him, scowled forbiddingly at me for one moment, then winked. That night we came to a silent understanding. We were two romancers whose desire for something more fanciful that the humdrum of southwest Baltimore was beyond the grasp of unimaginative people like Aunt Sister and  my mother. . . .

To me he was the man who could remember being born. He told me about it one night when Aunt Sister was out in the kitchen making cocoa. He could remember the very instant of birth. His mother was pleased, and the doctor who delivered him—Uncle Harold could remember this distinctly—said “It’s a boy.” There were several people in the room, and they all smiled at him. He could remember their faces vividly. And he smiled back.

Speak Your Mind