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.

ψ

 

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