Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets Society.
As the world morns the loss of the extraordinary Robin Williams, much has been said on what we’ve gained from Robin’s art, the many lessons we’ve learned from him and his onscreen incarnations. In celebration of his life and legacy, I want to share a bit about what I’ve learned from one of my most beloved Robin Williams characters: John Keating of Dead Poet’s Society.
Dead Poet’s Society is the story of a group of young men at an elite, private college preparatory school whose futures are in the hands of teachers rooted in tradition, out of touch with the evolving world of the late 1950s. The students go about their work restlessly and without enthusiasm, until a new English teacher arrives and shakes up everything they thought they knew about the power of words and ideas. With his unorthodox approach, Keating engages his students and encourages them to open up their minds, find their unique voice, and live by the timeless motto of their predecessors: carpe diem. Seize the day. And as he guides his students to be witnesses to their own liberation, Keating shows them one thing that the students at Welton Academy have yet to align with the world of academia: passion.
What John Keating Taught Me About Writing
Literature is an art, not a science.
“Excrement. That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We’re not laying pipe; we’re talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? ‘I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can’t dance to it.’ Now, I want you to rip out that page. Go on, rip out the entire page. You heard me: rip it out. Rip it out! Go on. Rip it out. [...] Don’t just tear out that page, tear out the entire introduction. I want it gone – history – leave nothing of it.”
Poetry and prose are not expendable luxuries.
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.”
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Finding your voice will let you speak your creative freedom.
“When you read don’t just consider what the author thinks; consider what you think. Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”
And that voice can make a difference.
“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”
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When someone says you’re doing it wrong, keep going.
“Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think of them as unpopular, even though the herd may go, ‘that’s baaad’. Robert Frost said, ‘Two roads diverged in the wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.’”
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And, of course…seize the day.
“They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – - Carpe – - hear it? – - Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
Dead Poets Society radiates a lot of profound wisdom on the value of free thinking for young men at the cusp of adulthood whose lives have been directed by the opinions and expectations of others. But at its core, Dead Poets Society has a lot to say to both readers and writers, and that’s where it reaches down into my heart and stokes a familiar fire: when it reminds me of the power of prose and poetry, and not just of the importance of the literary arts but the importance of our ever-evolving, uniquely independent perception of them.