Richard Walter, Pablo Casals, and Zen Learning

UCLA screenwriting prof, Richard Walter, tells the story of an encounter with Pablo Casals in Puerto Rico. 

Walter wasn’t a student of the famous cello master.  He was a teenager attending student recitals.  At the conclusion of each piece, Casals would…

“sit there patiently, simply nodding. Now, his eyes would roll back into his head. After a pause long enough to undergo a root canal, he would explain, “Beautiful!”


Pablo listening hard.

Casals’ praise prepared the student for the critique that would surely follow.

I hope Prof. Walter doesn’t mind if I put a finer point on this “beautiful” business.

In the aftermath of “Beautiful!” who would not feel affirmed, even blessed?  Our defenses dissolve.  The ego melts.  What a wonderful feeling.  It’s the lightness of being unburdened.  Unburdened of what?  Of dubious strategies and interfering belief systems.  In other words, of who we think we are.  

The master is a kind of death.

Pablo Casals, the master, is cultivating this process of “dying”.  Now, the student is “no longer there”. No longer in her own way. The way is cleared for a more profound understanding of the art to take root.

Welcome to the Zen of learning.


When I was training to be a writer (I was no spring chicken), I signed up for every non-credit course available.  I was particularly excited when a writing guru came to town.  Richard Walter was one such.  

I thrilled to his iconoclastic notions of the screen trade.  “Entertainment”, “commercialism”, “voyeurism”—these were not dirty words, he insisted.  No, these words were just misunderstood.  At every turn Dr. Walter dashed conventional wisdom.  

When I asked him if he would critique my latest screenplay, he promised he would, and he did.

“Beautiful (or something equally encouraging)!” was what he wrote on Page One.

And then with his red pen… the teaching began.

What’s my point?  Do I even need a point?  Perhaps the point is just to point you in the direction of Richard Walter’s latest newsletter so you can read his Pablo Casals story for yourself:

Okay, here’s another point:

Find a master/mentor if at all possible.  

“Dying” is virtually impossible without trusting a teacher utterly.  I’m afraid your husband or wife’s blessing doesn’t quite cut it. 

We need a Pablo Casals.  We need a Richard Walter.  We need to hear the verdict from a master of our chosen art.


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  1. says

    Ah, PJ, what beautiful timing!

    Turns out the Crime Writers of Canada has a Mentorship program, where they pair an old hand in the field with a young pup just cutting his teeth. I’ve just been connected to a wonderful writer who is giving me some excellent feedback on my first thriller.

    You and Pablo are quite right, this cannot be done in a vacuum. The point where we need to go outside ourselves for reinforcement and refinement is long before we take ourselves to the public.

  2. says

    What’s that old joke about the hippie arriving in New York?
    “Excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”
    “Practice, sonny, practice.”

  3. says

    PJ, I agree wholeheartedly with Tony; what perfect timing. I’ve been lucky enough in recent months to team up with a published writer, who offered to critique my wip. Around the same time as we started, another friend offered to critique a chapter also. The first lady began every edited chapter with effusive praise, picking out the parts she’d enjoyed the most. It was so heartening. The second lady went headlong into the red lines–I thanked her for her critique–but the first lady had encouraged me to the point that I made myself ask ‘cap in hand’ if she would critique the entire book. I felt as if we’d matched up. Yet, what was it really? Except for the zen of learning, as you say. She made me feel I wasn’t alone, whereas the second lady made me feel I was standing out in a field with an apple on my head and she was aiming an arrow for it.

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