A quick fable about writing

A young man climbed a hill to find a teacher. He handed the teacher a page he’d written. The teacher read it and handed it back saying, “You try too hard. Come back when you find a more natural way.”

The next week the young man climbed the hill again and handed a new page to the teacher. The teacher read it and handed it back. “I hear your voice now, but your meaning is unclear. Come back when you’ve got the words in the right order.”

The young man returned a month later and handed a new page to the teacher. “The meaning is clear, but you use too many words. Come back when you can say it with half as many.”

Two months passed before the young man returned. “Not one wasted word, but you have nothing to say. Come back when you have lived a little.”

The man returned five years later, and not so young anymore. He handed his page to the teacher. The teacher read it and handed it back saying. “This tells me what happened, but I want to feel what happened. Come back when you can laugh and sing and cry on the page.”

The man was about to snatch the page away from the teacher and tear it to pieces when a boy arrived at the hilltop. The boy handed the teacher a page he’d written. The teacher read it, but said nothing. He handed it to the man. When the man read it, the man’s shoulders sank. He thrust the page at the boy, but the teacher quickly snatched it back and tore it to pieces. He said to the boy, “Come back when you are ready to work as hard as this man.”

*

And the moral is…well, I’m not sure. What do you think?

83 thoughts on “A quick fable about writing

  1. It took me a while to understand the moral of the story, but I’m understanding now that there is no moral, yet there is one. It kind of bends toward your appeal, or your experiences in life.
    But all his life the man returns to the erratic teacher, hoping for approval. I feel that symbolized hope and hard work in one, but also prosperity and kindliness.

    Thank you for writing this @waltwalker, I enjoyed it as much as all of your other posts!

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    • People seem to be finding their own morals in this one, so I guess you’re right to say there is not one, yet there is one, and it takes a while to find it. Glad you enjoyed it, Kiwi. Thank You!

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      • I have some difficulty with this one, if I was the writer. I would feel that I would never be good enough for the tutor and no matter how hard I worked, he would always have something critical to say. The tutor probably thinks he’s getting the writer to strive for better, but there’s no encouragement, no sign of ‘you’re getting there’ it’s just all criticism. Also it don’t know whether the writer is taking more time In between showing his work to the tutor because he is working longer on it – or losing faith in his writing and afraid to show the tutor his work. Or it could be that he will never be a good writer and the tutor doesn’t have the heart to tell him – but then the tutor does the same to the boy, so maybe not. Why does the writer need his tutor’s approval – who is to say his tutor is the best to judge? As you can see – I’m conflicted as to what this is about.

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      • Great points, all of them. What I would say is that a good teacher points out with honesty what a student is doing well and where they can improve. There should be encouragement and recognition, but always a push for doing better. And it doesn’t matter if the student is young and gifted or older and less gifted, there is always an opportunity to improve, and the teacher’s job is to identify this is in a constructive way. Maybe this particular story didn’t make the “constructive” part very clear. That’s the writer’s fault, though, not the teacher’s, I think. The teacher is only as good a teacher as the writer is a writer. That’s what I’m conflicted about. 🙂

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  2. Can it just mean that school is dumb and we should just move on with our lives? Because I’d be so much more happy if that’s what it means.

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      • I would move on to making fun of all of the people still going to school while I, obviously more enlightened, sell books in the Bahamas to women named Bradley. You see, it’s all about having a niche.

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      • That’s a compelling vision. I think you’ve got the right idea, but the wrong niche. Don’t misunderstand me, there’s nothing wrong with your actual niche, it’s just that it will never be a terribly lucrative one. It’s too small a market, you see. Can’t sustain a young entrepreneur such as yourself. At least not to the lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed. Or wish to become accustomed. One of those two. I don’t know enough at this juncture.

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  3. Is that teacher attached to my mind somehow? Why is nothing ever good enough when it’s written? Why does it go out and not bear revisiting because it’s not good enough – or rather, because the next thing will be better? It must be better, right, so dwell on that… is writing a curse Walt, or is it just a distillate of life, some harsh liquor that tastes foul at times but makes you see stars at others? I wonder that question, but never too much. I suspect you’ll keep trudging up that mountain too.

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    • For me, writing is the one thing I do that I am in complete control of and that doesn’t change when I walk away from it. What I mean is, what I write stays written, and it’s there, and others can look at it and see it for what it is. And I can come back to it later, after having forgotten about, or not having forgotten about it and needing to read it again to be reminded of something, and it won’t have changed. This is entirely unlike what I do for a living. What I do for a living is make things better temporarily, solve problems, build teams. All of which will eventually fall apart after I leave. Writing is so far the only thing I’ve found that I can leave behind with any permanence. So I want it to be good. It’s not a curse, I don’t think. The only curse would be my own sense of perfectionism. Sometimes when I go back to something I tinker for no reason, like making Greedo shoot first. That’s a curse. Thanks for reading and commenting. Much appreciated.

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  4. He is the perfect teacher. Your growth stops when you think you are perfect. The teacher wants him to strive on and on . Clearly, the boy is more gifted than the man as you can notice that ‘the man’s shoulder sank’ when he read the boy’s paper. The boy is spontaneous but not hard working. The teacher wants the man to learn originality from the boy and the boy is expected to learn hard work from the man. I wish I get a similar teacher.

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  5. I think the man assumed silence meant the teacher had nothing to criticize, and when he read the boys paper, he thought because the teacher seemed to approve, the paper was better than anything he had ever written. It wasn’t. It was only his adopted belief that it was-have confidence! Other meanings are to never stop improving in your craft and do not necessarily take the word of another as final.

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    • I think the teacher thought the boy was more gifted than the man, but I think he intended to praise the man for his hard work while simultaneously challenging the boy to work as hard. As you say, never stop improving in your craft. But no matter what level you are at, there is always room for improvement, and the job of any mentor is to push for that improvement.

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  6. I think E L Doctorow probably summed it up in his one word advice to other writers: ‘Perseverance’. Though the apprehension that this is ‘the answer’ does have a shoulder-slumping effect I find. It’s hard to keep squaring them, and setting off on the next writing round. One day it might all come together 🙂

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  7. Talent is great, but hard work and perseverance mean just as much.
    There are some very talented people out there who don’t want to put in the graft, don’t want to rewrite the same sentence a dozen times, don’t want to totally re plot a first draft because it’s just not right. They are the people who won’t get anywhere in writing. You have to sit your bum down on the seat and tap, tap away regularly, every day, every night, whenever you can. And you have to take constructive crticism onboard and work with it.
    It’s either that, or it’s just about some weird hermit guy messing with some needy guy’s head.

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    • Right on all accounts, I think. I didn’t see the needy guy as being “needy” per se, but I think you weren’t the only one who did. I was more interested in the teacher. Unless you are pushing someone towards the next level, you are encouraging them to be complacent. That may not be your intent, but that is what you are doing, whether you realize it or not.

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      • ‘Needy’ might have been a bit harsh – but seeking feedback is always essential, if at times painful. There is no way I would be as competent as I am now (however competent that is!) without a ton of feedback and advice – professional and amateur. I always feel I need to improve, am never complacent – how else am I going to land that six figure advance and huge movie deals? 🙂 I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as I want to be and that’s no bad thing really.

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      • As soon as you think you are good enough, you are not. Everyone needs a mentor. Or maybe not needs. Everyone could benefit from a mentor. How’s that? I’m surprised at how quick people are to blow off what the teacher has to say in favor of doing it their own way. I agree with what you said about feedback and advice. I place a lot of value on constructive criticism. But it seems that most people don’t want that. They want encouragement. And while there is certainly value in encouragement, it won’t get you very far. Not nearly as far as discipline and routine, and feedback and advice. We need more of that on WordPress, I think.

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      • Well, part of me understands wanting encouragement. I’d like nothing more than to have unrelenting positive comments and feedback … if it’s true 🙂 It’s tough on the ego to be told you’re not as good as you’d like to be time and time and time again. But how else do you improve?
        I handed over a first few thousand words of my YA manuscript to a literary consultant a few years ago. She was pleasant in many ways, but didn’t shy away from telling me where the plot was going wrong, how the character’s were underwritten. After a few day’s sulking I replotted, dumping a lot of stuff, inlcuding a lot of new stuff – pretty much a total rewrite. I know it’s now a much better book than it was. Whether it will sell or not is still to be seen …

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    • Reminds me of a sculpture my dad carved out of a piece of wood, need to keep shaving it to make the face come out right. I like your advice here. Need to keep at it to turn it into something, but you can go so far too, to where it loses its original intent.

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  8. I am always amazed at how people want to change your style. My style is mine and I will be doomed to failure because I will stay with it until death do us part. You wish to read it fine but do not condemn it for it is not the normal pattern. Joyce did not go with the guidelines, he rebelled against them and so do I. The teacher on the hill wishes me to pattern my work based on his pattern. I therefore do not go up the hill but will wait for the teacher at the bottom of the hill. If he shows up fine, if he does not fine too. It is what it is.

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  9. Agreed, we all have our own way of going about it. There is a certain freedom in that. But it’s good advice, isn’t it? Write with clarity. Use few words. Have something to say. Impact the reader emotionally. If we do that, people would come down from the hills.

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  10. I can understand the young man’s struggle to write well enough to please the teacher. I had a Creative Writing teacher who always found something for us to change. She wasn’t as harsh as this teacher but it was enough to make me strive to edit and try to perfect my work so she would be proud of me one day. She hardly ever gave a perfect score to anyone without revision first. One day I was one of the lucky few and I felt so proud of my self, but I knew I wasn’t where I wanted to be. The young man in the fable looked up to the teacher and only wished for his approval, and when he gets it, it comes in an unexpected way but he got it none-the-less.

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    • I often have a particular reader I want to please. It might be a different reader based on the kind of writing I’m doing, but I do often have someone in mind. Of course, there is also me. I want to please me. But there is almost always one other. And sometimes it’s like no matter how good it is, it’s not good enough without that one reader’s nod.

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      • I can relate to that. They always tell us to think about the audience that they want us to target that we can often forget about what we want and like. Some people may want to write about daffodils but we know that no one else wants to read about daffodils so we write about daisies. I don’t know if that is making any sense or not. When I was working closely with my teacher about some of my pieces and she thought it would be better another way I would abandon my whole original vision to fit what she thought would be best. I aimed to make her happy and proud so I could in turn feel happy and proud because she was.

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  11. Working hard doesn’t always garner approval. And would we want it if it changes our work? I think we want to be true to ourselves. And if we are, our work will speak. If not to “everyone”, at least to ourselves!

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  12. This maybe captures the honest drudgery that most people feel their lives amount to. It is an austere kind of illustration of the futility of a westernized Guru-Apprentice relationship. Nothing happened to the protagonist in the story at the end when he witnessed, no flash of enlightenment, spiritual revelation, the dropping away of the veil, the internal Apocalypse, ect. This could be an illustration of Cosmic Indifference, the quiet acceptance of a man who is, either so strong that he pushes on silently, humbly accepting all criticism, even into old age, or a man so deluded and slavish (and knows it) that his actions beyond this point will be so inconsequential as to not warrant mention.

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  13. Firstly, I have to commend to you for the title of this comment box which is both creepy and hilarious!

    Now, to the post. I love this, for me it was reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s Auguries of Innocence, which happens to be my favourite piece of writing. The boy is able to express himself clearly and with ease. His ‘experience’ stems from his imagination, or ‘innocence’. He is not yet burdened by the fear of failing and as such he writes expressively, without overthinking his content. The man’s inspiration seems to fade as he ages. It takes him longer to return with his piece, potentially because he’s losing his vision for it. I noticed that what his piece lacked later in life was feeling or emotion, which children are full of, not structure as it was previously. It tells me that though we may reach a goal early on, we can never stop working to improve. It also reminds me that as we age, we mustn’t lose sight of why we’re writing in the first place. A very insightful piece, thanks for writing it!

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    • Glad you liked the comment box. I’m not familiar with Auguries, sounds interesting. Good insight to this piece, all of them. I was especially interested in the idea of raw talent versus persistence and hard work. Mat what point does one overshadow the other?

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  14. Don’t give up and don’t listen to just one person what he thinks about your work. sometimes you have to tell the teacher and critics to Bzzzzzzz of.

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  15. Beautifully written, I’m really glad I found your blog today Walt and I’m sure I will enjoy reading through it, your humour is..hilarious. And I like that this blog makes you laugh and think. To add to the interesting series of comments about what this story means. I think, as someone who has struggles with ‘getting it right’ when writing, always changing things, overthinking things, deleting things. To me, this feels like a story about the universal struggle a writer faces, always looking to improve but never feeling anything they produce is good enough. But that is what makes us step forward and try harder. The teacher’s rejections were essential to the student’s improvement.

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply. May I ask where you are from? Wondering because that seems to be a factor in how people respond to this piece. Thank you also for the kind words about the blog being both humorous and thoughtful. Good luck with your writing!

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  16. Thank you Walt and good luck to you too. It’s interesting to see how the same story can be interpreted in so many ways, and thats the thing about windows and angles I suppose… I’m from Oman, its a peaceful place in the gulf.

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    • A lot of my stories that feature two characters talking are just me exploring my own thoughts, two sides of myself talking to each other. In this one, though, I envisioned the teacher as a sort of “Eastern” style guru who is actually instructing the writer. Most readers from your side of the globe have a similar take, whereas most on my side (the “West”) reject his teachings as too harsh or as infringing on their personal style of expression. It’s interesting, and a subject that could be debated endlessly. I agree with the “Eastern” take, myself. Greetings and best wishes to you in Oman from the U.S.

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      • two characters…that is interesting! I read somewhere something similar about all the characters in a book or movie being different aspects of the writers personality(ies). So in this case you might say you are both the student and the teacher, the one seeking approval as well as the being the only one who can provide it (self acceptance). I think I’m rambling, though. Greetings and best wishes from Australia.

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  17. I think the echo of this story stayed with me when I read it earlier, Walt. and so I wrote something directly influenced by its ideas. Maybe it is also a cheeky of way of saying ‘come check out my blog,’ but no pressure, just a story your story has spawned 🙂 Thank you for the inspiration, and here is the link if you would like to read it. If you do, and, in light of this story- I’d say constructive criticism is always appreciated.

    https://swinburnesnapstories.wordpress.com/footsteps/

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  18. This is the first post of yours that I’m reading, and i can already tell i’m gonna like it here…its like watching fireworks, some ppl wonder how the rocket works and some just want to see the bright lights…take what you will from the story, as you will.

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