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Oh Captain: a short tribute to Robin Williams

People call them imperfections. But they’re not. Aw, that’s the good stuff.”dead poet's society

– Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting

Robin Williams died Monday. Suicide, apparently. And just like that, 40 years of rollicking genius on film and stage goes silent. Very sad.

His death hit me deeper than most celebrity deaths; Dead Poet’s Society is my favorite film. It was the movie I watched when I started teaching journalism at the University of Texas. Robin Williams’ poetry-loving prep school teacher was my model for teaching with passion (apparently, it was obvious: a couple of my students wrote ‘Oh captain my captain’ on my Facebook page at the end of one semester. I about fell out of my chair). It was the movie I watched when I was working up the courage to leave a perfectly good journalism career and make this leap of faith into writing fiction.

Great comedy and great acting (or for that matter, great fiction) is infused with anger or suffering or some other deep existential angst from which performers draw such powerfully true performances. They go down into those dark places most of us are afraid to go and come back to show us what they’ve found – dressing it in humor or the skin of an unforgettable character. And we love them for it. I loved Robin Williams for it. He was a sublime Mad Hatter.

I heard the above quote from Good Will Hunting on one of the radio tributes after Williams’ death. I wrote it down, because once again, one of Williams’ characters is going to help me. I’m slogging through the draft of my novel, slashing through big sections with a red pen and trying to fish out the little nuggets of inspired writing.

I’m also re-imagining the main characters, which is proving to be the most difficult part of re-writing. Once you start changing the characters, you change everything. And my characters need more depth, more truth. They need more imperfections. That’s what’s missing. That’s the good stuff. Robin Williams knew that better than anyone.

Oh Captain, we weren’t ready to let you go.

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Words to live by: the paperweight my friends Buck and Patty gave me. It stayed next to my laptop all summer.

The Leap (an intro to this blog)

“Leap, and the net will appear.”
– John Burroughs

I don’t remember the first time I heard Burroughs’ quote, but it got stuck in some random fold of my brain and stayed there for years, a little mantra that I believed, but was always a little too chickenshit to actually follow.

Until now.

A month ago, I quit my job as a newspaper reporter — after 23 years as a journalist — to make one big, all-in attempt at turning myself into a fiction writer. I’ve been dabbling for years, writing short stories and fragments of novels that I invariably set aside when I got distracted or lost my fragile fiction mojo. Then a few years ago I took a three-month leave of absence with the blessing of my bosses at the Austin American-Statesman (God bless them) and holed up in a friend’s cabin in southern Colorado to take another stab at a novel. I had a rough idea for a story, but I made the 14-hour drive from Austin without an outline or character sketches or any other real preparation. I remember sitting down at the laptop that first day: Okay, you wanted to write a novel. Type something.

Tap. Tap-tap. Sigh. Tap-tap-tap.

I wrote 1,500 words that first day in June 2011. For the rest of the summer, I wrote 6 to 8 hours a day, six days a week, and by the time I went back to work in September, I was up to 110,000 words (and still wasn’t finished). Now I knew I could sit down every day and do the work (regardless of whether the work was worth a damn). The following summer, I burned up my vacation to go back to Colorado and finish the manuscript. I came back with a 147,000-word draft of The Hotel Imperial.

I asked family and friends to read it and give me feedback. I did a quick round of edits. I found an agent who agreed to take a look, then got my first rejection. I put the manuscript down. Got busy again. Told myself I’d dive in again tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow.

It didn’t happen. I’m just not one of those people who can work a full time job and work on a novel in his spare time (did I mention I’m easily distracted?). I needed take a big leap of faith and commit to fiction full time. So I got my financial house in order (paid off debts, paid off my car early, etc) and in April I sold a rental house I’d bought with my parents (God bless them too), which gave me the nest egg I’d need to actually do this. And now I’m actually doing this. Which is both really exhilarating and really scary. Where’s that net again?

I’m a first-time blogger, so this will be a messy process at first. I’m doing it so my family and friends can keep tabs on my progress, and to hopefully build a “platform” (which everyone says I need as a fiction writer). And to document what will turn out to be the most transformational decision of my life. Or the stupidest. That ending hasn’t been written yet.

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