Monday, December 07, 2015

Writing Lessons from Hamilton

Like much of the online community, I’ve been listening to the musical Hamilton a lot lately (I’d say “non-stop,” but The Toast already made that joke). In addition to what it means to me as a person, as a consumer of stories—the gorgeous and tragic friendship of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, their inverse trajectories and contradictory attitudes towards leadership and politics—it means a lot to me as a creator of stories.

Cause I’m a recent migrant to the land of fiction. I finished my Ph.D. in Literature a year and a half ago. Since finishing my dissertation, a long-ass boring document[1] that only four other people in the world have read (and three of them were on my committee), I’ve been writing fiction, something I never trained for and wasn’t sure how to go about. I have a couple of publications now, but I still feel like a beginner. My husband graduated with his MFA from Florida State University, where we met; during my time there, I was surrounded by writers. Now I live and teach in Oxford Mississippi, a town of writers, a not-inconsequential number of whom are some degree of famous. And here I am, giving this writing thing a go, seeing if I have what it takes.

Why do I write? Because I enjoy it. Because I am good at it. And because, I’m sort of ashamed to say, I want to be famous. Don’t quote the statistics at me about how many writers there are for every J.K. Rowling or Stephen King; I already know it’s not likely to happen. But yeah, there’s a part of me—a part I’m not totally comfortable acknowledging publicly—that wants to be recognized for something that I do well. To be part of the conversation.

All of this is complicated by my desire to parent a child. I’m in my mid-30’s, so the topic of parenthood is very much on the table. Often. With hot sauce. These days, I think a lot about why I want to be a parent, creating entirely unrealistic expectations for what that relationship might look like. I mean, I’m just spitballing, but .... is it too much to ask for my kid to dig Shakespeare but be able to articulate at an early age why Middleton is at least as good ... or for them to be a hilarious genius who will spawn their own hashtag when I tweet their adorable/unsettling quotes ... or to expect them to wear small versions of grown-up clothes—no cartoons—like a tiny baby hipster? I’m only partially making fun of myself here; like my writing career, I am approaching parenthood with unrealistic optimism[2] ... tempered, of course, with facts and real-life experiences from friends.

So I’m on the cusp—well, maybe not the cusp exactly; the kid thing is still a couple years away, Mom—of these two exciting, intimidating things: writing and parenthood. And the simple (and, to some, unpopular) truth is that, even when I am a mom, I am not going to give up my ambition to write. Children are a wonderful legacy but I don’t want my child to be my only legacy. At the end of my life, I want to leave something behind me—a body of writing—that’s just mine. Almost every day I think about time: how much of it I have, how I’m spending it, and how much I’ll need in the future to finish what I have in mind.

So when Alexander Hamilton talks about not throwing away his shot, I listen. This is my shot. I’m employed full-time in a job that gives me surprising freedom to write; I’m married with no kids and a supportive partner who cooks food for me when I’ve been at my desk and forgotten to eat. I’m not throwing that away.

The relationship between time and work is a recurrent theme in Hamilton. In “Non-Stop,” we learn that Hamilton writes like he’s “running out of time.” When Burr tells the audience about the Federalist Papers, he shouts out how many of the 85 essays Hamilton completed—“the other fifty-one!”—as if he’s throwing down the gauntlet. See what my man did? Beat that if you can! The chorus says Hamilton writes like “tomorrow won’t arrive,” like he “need[s] it to survive,” “ev’ry second [he’s] alive.”

Every writer can relate to Hamilton’s instinct to produce. He’s trying to write out his feelings—“a testament to his pain”—and to defend what he believes. Every time I listen to these songs, I want to go home and throw myself into a work-in-progress, to dedicate to it my time and energy and life-blood (entirely metaphorical, at least so far).

But Hamilton isn’t a one-man writing machine. He has conflicting forces in his life. His urge to write, to be remembered, is epitomized perhaps by his relationship with Washington, who tells him that once you’re dead—which can happen at any moment—“you have no control ... who tells your story.” But he also has forces reminding him to slow down and take it easy. His friend/rival, Aaron Burr, always advises him to “talk less; smile more,” and models caution, playing the long game instead of living with Hamilton’s urgency. And Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, wants him to recognize and appreciate “how lucky we are to be alive right now.” In “That Would Be Enough,” Eliza says that they don’t need a legacy or money to be happy, only enough time with each other.

The competing desires in my own head aren’t as easily personified, but they’re still there: the desire to parent, and the desire to write and publish. Right now, I’m worried more about giving up my dreams to write than neglecting my child for the work I want to do. The child is currently a hypothetical, and the culture of motherhood in this country is such that I’ll probably feel pressured to over-parent rather than to under-parent. All I can do to chill out about the future is to write hard now, and hope that these two desires won’t end up being as antithetical as I assume. Hamilton had kids, right? Yeah, says the other voice in my head, but Eliza was doing the parenting ...

So while I’m figuring out this writing thing, this life/work thing, this future child thing, I’m listening to Hamilton. To remind me to work, and to remind me that I’m lucky to have the present moment. To occasionally take the advice of Eliza and Aaron Burr and chill out, smile more, enjoy the moment, come upstate. And to remind me that, if/when the child becomes less hypothetical, I don’t have to give up writing. Like Hamilton and Burr, I may have, instead, a new reason to write (*sobs* "Dear Theodosia" *wails*). And I can pass on the worlds that I “keep erasing and creating in my mind” to my kid. (Who will LOVE it—I’m not going to give them a choice.)

[1] Thomas Middleton in Performance 1960-2013: A History of Reception—see, it even sounds boring!
[2] Which may be the only way you can approach parenthood. It’s too scary otherwise.

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