Tell me if you’ve heard this one.

A large headed man with a halo, The Apostle Paul by Aidan Hart
The Apostle Paul by Aidan Hart

There’s a joke that’s been coming back in my mind for a while, now. I can’t remember the details, and it makes me crazy. I don’t know if it’s a joke, or one of those academic urban legends, or both. Here’s what I can remember.

Students in a theology course at a prestigious university spread a rumor amongst themselves. The rumor was that the class was very difficult, requiring a lot of reading and study, but the final exam was easy, provided you had some inside information. It was rumored that the exam was only one question, a long essay, and the question was, “describe and explain the life and times of the Apostle Paul.” This was a lot of information, true. But if you were ready for it, you could narrow down a ton of your studying, and sail through the course.

finalsSo far, the rumor had turned out to be true. For many years, the students came in, sat down, and were presented with the final exam question: describe the life and times of the Apostle Paul. Students told their friends, “dude, you gotta take this class, it’s not totally easy but you really only have to know this one concept for the final, you can sleep through all the lectures on whatever else.”

Finally, one year, the professor who taught the course got wind of the rumor. When the students came in for the exam, they were provided one essay question.

“Explain the existence of God. Cite examples. Use both sides of the paper if necessary.”

The students stared in disbelief. They hadn’t prepared for anything resembling this. Some of the students walked out immediately. A few tried to scribble out a haphazard answer, before shuffling up to the front of the room and sheepishly putting their papers on the professor’s desk. One student, however, did something different. The student started at the question for a long time, then started writing. The scratching of the student’s pencil was slow at first, but gradually it gained speed, in the way that comes from confidence. The student carefully filled both sides of the paper in small, neat handwriting, using proper paragraph and essay structure.

When the exam time was almost finished, the student brought the paper up to the front desk. By now the room was almost empty. No one was left but the professor and the lone student. The kid’s pencil was chewed down to a nub. The professor had stopped doing other work and had just watched the kid scribbling away, with a bit of amazement. No one else had even hung in there and tried to complete the exam.

“Listen,” said the prof, “You’re the only one who hung in there and took this exam seriously. I mean, there are a few half-hearted tries that were handed in, but nothing even came close to a reasonable exam answer. I’m giving you an A+ for the entire course.”

The student said, “You sure you don’t even want to read it?”

“I don’t have to,” said the professor. “Students like you are the reason I teach. Have a great summer.”

“Are you positive?”

“I’ve got my grade book right here. Look. A Plus. That’s ink. It’s done. Now go on, get out of here, so I can go home. Go play frisbee on the quad or something, you’ve earned it.”

(I heard this story in the 80s.)

The kid said, “Okay,” and skedaddled out of the room as quickly as possible.

The professor looked down at the paper, thinking about how he’d happily put an end to the rumor about his easy exam, and thought maybe this would mean he’d get good students next semester. Good students, like this kid. Right?

“Explain the existence of God. Cite examples. Use both sides of the paper if necessary.”

The kid ‘s opening paragraph read as follows.

“Who are we, as mere mortals, to explain the existence of God? Such hubris goes against everything we have learned this semester. Therefore, I will take this time to describe and explain the life and times of the Apostle Paul.”

It bugs me that I might not be telling this joke correctly. Maybe the message I’m taking away from this story is something I’ve mis-remembered and made up, not the real intention of the story. I’ve tried looking for it in theological humor message boards, academic humor message boards, so on and so forth. The punchline has been popping up in my head a lot lately. My friend Nick  and I were discussing this joke recently. I said I couldn’t figure out why it kept sticking to me. He suggested, “Write what you prepared, not what they demand. ”

Mme of Gloria Anzaldua that says, 'you should be writing."There’s more to it than that, but Nick summed it up pretty well. Lately I’ve been not writing as much. I worked on writing and rewriting Season 2 of Jarnsaxa Rising for about a year,  and now we’re in the editing and production stage. I’m feeling a little bit guilty right now for taking time away from doing dialogue assembly. The itch to write gets answered by the demon of doubt, saying, “who would want what you write?” And I worry a lot about writing what people want, as any playwright will tell you. After three or five or seven full-length plays, there’s only so much looking within you can do, without looking outside. With a social media infested world, by the time you get together enough information for a reasonable play idea, it’s become last year’s meme.

But, honestly, if you want to write about The Orville or incentives to recruit volunteer firefighters or Westworld or kitten season, it doesn’t really matter if someone else wrote about it first. As Kerouac said, “it ain’t what you write, it’s the way atcha write it.” Actually, I don’t know if he said that, but a friend of mine had a coffee cup with that quote on it attributed to him, and we both worked at Borders at the time, so it’s not too far-fetched.

So, why can’t I toss out a bunch of pop-culture observations, like R. Eric Thomas, and still write good plays, like R. Eric Thomas? Actually, these days I’m writing audio drama, but the reason for switching is a thorny one, and I’ll save that for another time.

So, anyway. My point is, does anyone remember this joke? Does anyone know anything about it? Am I getting the message correctly, or is the story something else? Am I mis-remembering The Three Little Pigs and thinking, “wow, the pig that built the house out of sticks was a genius?”

My other point is, I disagree with Joanna Robinson, I don’t think Terminator Dolores and Evil Young William are all that bad, because characters have to start out horrible for their eventual redemption to mean anything. But I like listening to Joanna Robinson.

Really, my point is, we should all be writing with fearlessness, and reading with fearlessness. Tennessee Williams used to write “Avanti!” at the top of the page when he started writing for the day.  Onward and upward.

 

 

 

 

 

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