When we are writing we are often told to keep our readers in mind, to shape what we say to fit their tastes and interests. But there is one reader in particular who should not be forgotten. Can you guess who? Russell Baker surprised himself and everyone else when he discovered the answer.
Writing for Myself
The idea of becoming a writer had come to me off and on since my childhood in Belleville, but it wasn't until my third year in high school that the possibility took hold. Until then I'd been bored by everything associated with English courses. I found English grammar dull and difficult. I hated the assignments to turn out long, lifeless paragraphs that were agony for teachers to read and for me to write.
When our class was assigned to Mr. Fleagle for third-year English I anticipated another cheerless year in that most tedious of subjects. Mr. Fleagle had a reputation among students for dullness and inability to inspire. He was said to be very formal, rigid and hopelessly out of date. To me he looked to be sixty or seventy and excessively prim. He wore primly severe eyeglasses, his wavy hair was primly cut and primly combed. He wore prim suits with neckties set primly against the collar buttons of his white shirts. He had a primly pointed jaw, a primly straight nose, and a prim manner of speaking that was so correct, so gentlemanly, that he seemed a comic antique.
I prepared for an unfruitful year with Mr. Fleagle and for a long time was not disappointed. Late in the year we tackled the informal essay. Mr. Fleagle distributed a homework sheet offering us a choice of topics. None was quite so simple-minded as "What I Did on My Summer Vacation," but most seemed to be almost as dull. I took the list home and did nothing until the night before the essay was due. Lying on the sofa, I finally faced up to the unwelcome task, took the list out of my notebook, and scanned it. The topic on which my eye stopped was "The Art of Eating Spaghetti."
This title produced an extraordinary sequence of mental images. Vivid memories came flooding back of a night in Belleville when all of us were seated around the supper table — Uncle Allen, my mother, Uncle Charlie, Doris, Uncle Hal — and Aunt Pat served spaghetti for supper. Spaghetti was still a little known foreign dish in those days. Neither Doris nor I had ever eaten spaghetti, and none of the adults had enough experience to be good at it. All the good humor of Uncle Allen's house reawoke in my mind as I recalled the laughing arguments we had that night about the socially respectable method for moving spaghetti from plate to mouth.
Suddenly I wanted to write about that, about the warmth and good feeling of it, but I wanted to put it down simply for my own joy, not for Mr. Fleagle. It was a moment I wanted to recapture and hold for myself. I wanted to relive the pleasure of that evening. To write it as I wanted, however, would violate all the rules of formal composition I'd learned in school, and Mr. Fleagle would surely give it a failing grade. Never mind. I would write something else for Mr. Fleagle after I had written this thing for myself.
When I finished it the night was half gone and there was no time left to compose a proper, respectable essay for Mr. Fleagle. There was no choice next morning but to turn in my tale of the Belleville supper. Two days passed before Mr. Fleagle returned the graded papers, and he returned everyone's but mine. I was preparing myself for a command to report to Mr. Fleagle immediately after school for discipline when I saw him lift my paper from his desk and knock for the class's attention.
"Now, boys," he said. "I want to read you an essay. This is titled, 'The Art of Eating Spaghetti.'"
And he started to read. My words! He was reading my words out loud to the entire class. What's more, the entire class was listening. Listening attentively. Then somebody laughed, then the entire class was laughing, and not in contempt and ridicule, but with open-hearted enjoyment. Even Mr. Fleagle stopped two or three times to hold back a small prim smile.
I did my best to avoid showing pleasure, but what I was feeling was pure delight at this demonstration that my words had the power to make people laugh. In the eleventh grade, at the eleventh hour as it were, I had discovered a calling. It was the happiest moment of my entire school career. When Mr. Fleagle finished he put the final seal on my happiness by saying, "Now that, boys, is an essay, don't you see. It's — don't you see — it's of the very essence of the essay, don't you see. Congratulations, Mr. Baker."