Friday, September 5, 2014

From the Complete Works of Anonymous (3)

The Student's Tale

Some years ago I attended a conference of the Board of Jewish Education in Toronto, Canada, where a good friend who happened to be a Rabbi told a story that summed up my entire attitude to writing and publishing, and explained why it took me forty years before I published anything, though still with reservations even now that I have started. I am passing the tale off as my own... sorry, I meant, I am offering the tale here, as the only advice of any use that I have for my fellow-writers (other than "Never listen to advice", which of course is self-defeating):

A student was given an assignment by his professor, on which he worked, fastidiously, over many weeks, researching as thoroughly as he could, attending lectures and seminars to obtain background and to hear the arguments pro and con debated; then he wrote, redrafted, asked friends to read and comment, rewrote again, and finally the day came when he was ready to submit the paper. He waited for the professor's response, but what came back was simply his own essay, without marking, comment, marginalia, a grade, anything; only a single question at the foot of the final page:

"Is this the best you can do?"

The student was mortified. After all this endeavour, so brusque and unequivocal a rejection. Undaunted, he returned to the task, went over his research again, rechecked his findings, re-examined the arguments on every side, found new material, restructured his presentation of the whole; and submitted it again. And again the professor's response: no grade, no marginalia, just the terse and succinct disparagement:

"Is this the best you can do?"

He rewrote it a third time, had friends read it and reassure him there was nothing left to add or modify…but this time he did not submit it in the usual envelope; he took it by hand, and knocked on the professor's door.

"You cannot imagine how much work I have put into this," he explained, and the tension in his voice was evident, the cracks through which a sound like tears was echoing. "How many hours, how much revision. And all you can do is throw it back at me with 'Is this the best you can do?'"

"I didn't throw it back at you" replied the professor. "I asked a simple question, and I am still waiting for you to answer it."

The student looked perplexed.

"What question?"

"Is this the best you can do?"

The student stood, bemused, bothered and bewildered. "Yes," he said, "this is the best I can do. Believe me, it's the very best."

The professor smiled. "In that case," he said, "I shall be pleased at last to have the opportunity to read it."

With special thanks to Ron Morgan for not minding that I stole his original drawing, without his permission, for my cartoon (but I just couldn't resist the fact that he had "borrowed" the same background template for his blog that I did).

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