When I was young, I never really thought about what careers or jobs I wanted to have when I grew up. At least if I did, I don’t remember any of them. I thought more about experiences I would like to have (I wanted to spend a couple of years in the Peace Corps) or what kind of person I wanted to be. Might sound cheesy, but it’s true.
One of these ambitions has wandered around in my mind several times over the years and has recently taken a permanent seat as I sort through what happened to its source this past August. This thought, this goal, came one night while my parents were watching a comedian performing his act on TV. He truly was a genius, even at that young age, knowing everything from politics to religion, history to current events, pop culture to passing trends, and he could whirl them all into a high speed barrage of jokes and hilarious skits while the comprehension of the audience was just trying to keep up.
And I didn’t get a single joke. Not one. My parents laughed hysterically, along with the TV audience, but all I could do was sit there and try to find any little piece of it that I could understand. When it was over, I went to bed and tried to play the show over in my head, but could remember so little. That’s when I knew one thing I wanted to be when I grew up – and it was not a brilliant, talented, comedian…I wanted to be smart enough to understand that guys jokes. I wanted to have as much fun as the audience was having and in order to do that I had to be smart enough to understand every genius thing he said.
As I did grow up, I watched the public life of that comedian as he starred in a popular TV show and many, many movies and I started understanding more and more of his jokes. I also learned some things about his real life. The story of his real life is not so funny. There were no jokes and it didn’t take a genius to understand what an incredible effort it must have taken to play the roles that entertained millions.
As of this past August, the role he played in his real life ended, and along with my sadness of his death, I am thankful for his life. Not for all of the decisions he made in his life, but for making me look at what a role model really means to me. Sometimes, I think it means doing your absolute “best” at any given moment, even if your “best” can fall short. When you look up to someone, it can be difficult to admire an amazing part of someone without over-idealizing the rest of them, and I can’t imagine what kind of pressure that must be like. All I can hope for is that he felt as much of the joy in his own life that he brought to so many of us.
In my life I have admired many people and even more roles, all of which led me to be the writer I am today. All the years I spent, trying to be smarter, funnier, kinder, more adventurous, more mysterious, and a whole host of other things (it is always a work in progress!), gave me more dreams and ambitions than I think I could ever put into action. Being a writer gives me the chance to create an infinite amount of characters who play roles that my mind is still trying to understand.
A couple of years ago, I heard Mo Willems speak and he had some interesting advice. He said, “Don’t write what you know, write what you want to figure out.”
So my question for all you writers is the same question I ask myself everyday…what else do you want to be when you grow up…what roles do you want to play? And if you’re not ready for that question, how about one of these: What roles inspire you? What roles frighten you? What roles do you think are just dreams? What roles can you not imagine living without playing?
Now, write that story!
Robin Williams July 21, 1951 – August 11,2014
You will be forever missed…