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One Good Turn (of the Page) Deserves Another

In last week's post, I shared about a good book I had read recently, a collection by memoirists on how they wrote their memoirs and what they could teach us about our own writing. Many of you responded positively to that post, promising to get started writing your own "truth" as you remembered things. This week, I go a step beyond.

One of the best pieces of advice a college professor ever gave me came when I was taking a one-on-one, after-hours, post-graduate course on the history of the South. Dr. Abrams gave me a lengthy list of books, ten of which he had designated as required reading. From the remaining titles on the list, I also was required to select ten more of my own choice to read. Every two weeks, I was to read two books and report to his office bearing a paper I had written on one of those two works. That's a lot of reading and writing for someone who is simultaneously holding down a full-time job, which in itself involved a lot of reading and writing.

But near the end of the course, Dr. Abrams gave me some advice. Whenever I read an especially helpful or interesting book, he said, I should then examine the bibliography of the work and read many of the titles the author cited there. I've tried ever since to follow that advice, and it has resulted in not only a lot of books read but also four of my own books being published with another one accepted and in the editorial oven.

I followed that advice after reading Inventing the Truth, which I reviewed in last week's blog post. Each contributor to the work had mentioned various books that had influenced their own writing. As I read, I noted several of the suggested books for my own further reading, one of which was Russell Baker's Growing Up (1982), which I am currently reading.

Baker was a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times. Some of you might remember him as the host of PBS's Masterpiece Theater (1992-2004). He passed away in 2019, but his written words continue to speak to readers today.

I was hooked on Growing Up within the first few pages because he had me laughing so much. His description of his aging mother was both sad and humorous. As senility slowly took over his mother's mind, he encountered both a transformation in her personality and numerous verbal exchanges that sometimes frustrated him as he tried to explain reality to her but also came to amuse him in their ironic humor. Anyone who has cared for someone experiencing senility would immediately relate to his situation.

For example, Baker related how one day his mother called him at his office in New York and asked if he was coming to her funeral that afternoon. "I'm being buried today," she explained over his flabbergasted attempts to convince her that she was still very much alive.

In another instance while she was hospitalized, she tried to convince him that "Russ got married today," to which he argued, "I got married in 1950." She continued to say things that clearly indicated that she thought she was younger and somewhere else. Then Baker described her exchange with the doctor, who had just walked into the room and was asking her questions to determine her mental state. Things like "Do you know what day it is?" "Do you know where you are?" and "How old are you?"

One question was "When is your birthday?" which she answered correctly. But the doctor followed up with, "How do you know?" She replied that she knew because she had been born on Guy Fawkes Day and proceeded to give him a history lesson on Fawkes's attempt to assassinate the king in the Gunpowder Plot. When she finished her lecture, she looked the doctor in the eye and said, "You may know a lot about medicine, but you obviously don't know any history!"

Baker's humor and wit continue throughout the book, although it is interspersed with insights about the times and places in which he grew up. Depression years. Hard times. And yet fun times and lesson-teaching times. Humorous times during which he learned that he was not cut out for selling newspapers and magazines but was destined instead to become a writer.

And the lessons he learned and related in Growing Up provide lessons and writing fodder for all who read it. I'm still reading and enjoying it and getting my own writing ideas. I think you might, too.

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