“Joy is strength.”
—Saint Teresa of Calcutta
Some years ago, before he was a best‐selling author, Tal was an undergraduate at Harvard, where every student was required to take a writing course. His first writing class, with an instructor we'll call Hilda, was miserable. When he went to her office to discuss his first paper, she lit into him, zeroing in on his weaknesses: “You write in a childish voice,” she said. “Your writing is unfocused and lacks clarity. We're going to work on these issues this semester.” It sounded like a threat.
And boy, did they work on those issues. Hilda's focus on Tal's shortcomings was relentless. Her intentions were good, but Tal hated the class. It was a meat grinder, a series of remedial exercises offering no clue that he might have anything to offer as a writer. More than anything, it was a course in discouragement. Tal worked hard that semester, but his writing improved only a little.
For his second writing class there was a new instructor, Maxine. When they met to go over his first paper—a paper no different from the many he'd written the previous semester—Tal was surprised by her question: “Where,” she asked, “is your voice? You're so passionate and engaged in class. You're knowledgeable and widely read. In our discussions you bring in so many ideas, from so many different fields. But you bring none of that richness into your writing.”
Rather than order Tal to go back and fix his mistakes, ...