No paper, no pen: On the loss of Robin Williams, a great American writer

“What will your verse be?”

Robin Williams as John Keating, “Dead Poets Society” (1989)

Just hours after the news that Robin Williams had killed himself broke on August 11, Bostonians opted to continue their dialogue with the late comedian. They went out to a bench in the city’s Public Garden, where Williams had filmed a scene from 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” and began to chalk quotations from his movies in the pavement.

O Captain! My Captain!

“Your move, chief.”


Williams had his share of personal demons and, as came out late last week, was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. But he hid those demons (and that diagnosis) so well that his final desperate act in this life came as a gut-punch to everyone who ever watched one of his live-wire performances. So the need those Boston fans (and the hundreds who used social media in a similar way over the ensuing days) had, to offer things he said back into the universe, had a natural quality to it – he had spoken so much to us for so long, it made sense that we were not ready to end the dialogue.

But Williams was not the author of those quotations; he delivered those lines memorably and brilliantly in movies like “Dead Poets Society,” “Hunting” and “Hook” – but they are not his words.

What hasn’t been discussed much amid all the public mourning for Williams’ loss is this: While he was a genius at improvisation and impersonation, the talent that went bone-deep for him and underscored everything else he did was that he was a writer. Not on paper; Williams wasn’t much of a pen-to-paper guy. That would take too much time, and he had so much to say, and in the end not enough time to say it all. Williams did not author books or screeds; he managed likely just one Top 10 list in his lifetime.

But words on the page aren’t the only way to be a writer. Words are building blocks, constructing the story a person wants to tell and in his case, that story was told in one torrential chapter at a time, in real time, in front of huge crowds.

“Robin Williams would be the first to say that his writing would have happened on the stage,” says Mark Malkoff, a comedian and filmmaker who hosts “The Carson Podcast.” “You go up on the stage and see what comes out of your mouth. He wasn’t methodical like some comedians – like George Carlin – who wrote out every single word before going on stage. But very few people can get on stage and wing it for an hour.”

Talent, yes, but it also takes a serious amount of bravery to get up on stage with just the sketches of ideas and voices rattling around in your head. But that’s what Williams did. A legendary improvisor, he used his body and the room around him to frame what he wanted to say on any given night – just watch the first third of his 1982 stand up “An Evening With Robin Williams,” in which he wanders around the crowd, picking up personal objects, plays with audience members’ hair, tries on their clothing. They become characters in the story he’s writing in those moments, as he constructs worlds and people and thoughts with the strength of his energy and creativity. It’s far from effortless – sweat builds on his face as he progresses – but this free-flowing gush of words is funny, topical and spontaneous all at once. Whether you find his brand of humor hilarious or not hardly matters: This is the creative whirlwind in motion, this is what writing looks like, and Williams is exposing every draft as it pours out of him.


This isn’t a perfect way to work: Williams’ style meant he used almost no filters or obstacles to let what was in his head pour out. That meant if he’d heard a great joke somewhere he might just spit it out later on, with a different flair. Comics who pointed this out to him did note that when confronted he would pull out his wallet and pay them for the joke, as if he knew it could happen and couldn’t prevent it. The crime of joke theft is one of the more egregious comic-on-comic offenses, but it didn’t seem to taint Williams in the long term. It’s almost certain that if he lifted someone else’s idea and gave it out later, it was just part of his inability to stop the words from coming. His mind had picked up the shiniest object it could and handed it to the crowd as if to say See? Isn’t this wondrous?

And it was. 

In the end, Williams got to do what most writers only dream of: He bypassed the editing process and took his work directly to the ear of the audience. The genius of what he was able to do was not just in making that happen, but to prove to everyone else that it was the best way for him to ply his trade. So they let him – Williams had the rare privilege of appearing on talk shows without the usual pre-interview; he would riff those minutes away without a care, while hosts sat back and laughed along with him. On sets, directors often let him improvise dialogue, as if knowing the nuggets he offered were more valuable than whatever the script had down in ink.

Before he was doing, Williams’ story ran the gamut. He was an alien. He was President Eisenhower. He battled and discussed his addictions. He made dick jokes and crazy voices. He played everyone from an earnest, poetry-loving teacher to the scariest photo developer you ever did see. He was a philanthropist and altruist, sports fan and – from most accounts I’ve heard – a genuine mensch of a man.

He considered Jonathan Winters, another great stream-of-conscious comedian, a mentor and once said, “Jonathan taught me that the world is open for play, that everything and everybody is mockable, in a wonderful way.” That makes sense. Robin Williams played with his words in a unique, unparalleled manner, and even if he wasn’t always playing games, he seemed more at home with the world while was composing. Those words arent ones that will likely ever get compiled on a page, but they were all part of the epic tale he was telling, one whose volumes have now, prematurely, ceased to be writ.


This post originally appeared in the Between the Lines column at Curiosity Quills.