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.

Friday, December 04, 2015

SevenEves: 600 pages of info-dump leaves little room for plot

Neal Stephenson doesn’t shy away from big concepts, long timelines, or larger than life events. His most recent novel, SevenEves, begins with the moon blowing up. Readers never find out what blew up the moon, because all too quickly humanity discovers that the Earth will soon be bombarded by a thousand-year rain of meteorites — the remnants of the moon as they collide with each other in space, becoming smaller and smaller — which will turn Earth into an uninhabitable wasteland. Humankind has a 2-year deadline to preserve its cultural legacy and a breeding population. The solution is to make extended life-in-space a possibility. The first two thirds of the book follows a group of astronauts and scientists who are among those who will form the new colony orbiting Earth, waiting a few millennia for it to become habitable again. The last third shows us what has become of humanity after 5,000 years in space, as they begin their slow return to the surface of the planet.

From the first sentence of the book (“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason”), I thought this concept had brilliant potential to be both scientifically and emotionally compelling. But about 200 pages in, I realized that not much had happened yet … well, you know, other than the moon exploding. Further, I realized that I still didn’t really have a strong sense of the main characters. I flipped back through what I’d read and saw that for each single line of dialogue, there were about two dense paragraphs of exposition — essentially infodumping — usually geared towards explaining complex engineering or physics problems with which the human race was now faced.

Infodumping isn’t a dealbreaker for me, nor is a little educational material in my fiction. Some of my favorite facts come from fiction, such as the idea of a tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time, the curvature of space and time as explained in Michael Crichton‘s Sphere, the explanations of seventeenth-century trade and economics in Stephenson’s BAROQUE CYCLE, or literally anything about rabbits from Watership Down. But when I’m reading fiction, I also expect to equally enjoy other aspects of the prose, such as, for instance, character building, internal and external conflict, scenes, dialogue, or even just “events that are happening.”

The first 400 pages of SevenEves, on the other hand, functioned mostly as a lecture to the reader so that a) they could appreciate how hard the task of creating long-term self-sustaining space habitats is, and b) marvel at how Stephenson, a scientist himself with a background in computing, geography, and physics, had come up with workarounds for the problems inherent to the task. Part of me wanted to say, “Well, goody for you, Neal; you figured it out. Can we please get back to the task of creating a story now?”

One of the reasons I never connected to the characters is that Stephenson spreads himself too thinly by following a few different point-of-view characters, instead of one particular character. This strategy works for a lot of books, but in such an information-heavy novel, which already skimps on character development and scene-building, it would help to at least anchor the readers with one p.o.v. character. However, since SevenEves didn’t do that, I felt relegated to the surface of each of these character’s interior lives, instead of getting to know one of them more deeply. I wasn’t sure why Stephenson chose to follow the characters he did, either. One of them (a clear reference to Neil DeGrasse Tyson) didn’t contribute much of essence to the plot. While he was intelligent and relatively sympathetic, he ended up playing the role of a very highly-educated observer. His life and efforts neither helped nor hindered the plan for human survival. However, Julia, an appealingly Machiavellian former U.S. President who cheats and manipulates her way up to the space colony instead of dying on the surface, was not a p.o.v. character. I would have liked to hear her internal monologue, especially as she ended up playing a large role in the eventual outcome for humanity.

Around page 400, things really picked up and conflicts exploded — political, personal, practical — across the page. The second half of the book had a plot that I would even deign to describe as “rip-roaring.” As if the moon blowing up and destroying life on earth wasn’t enough, after a few years in space, the survival of the human race is put up against odds that are practically insurmountable. The last third of the book occurs 5,000 years in the future and we get to see how humanity has met those odds, succeeded, and (most thrillingly) evolved. And there are wonderful surprises waiting, too, that Stephenson has seeded into the plot from the beginning. The end of the book made me want to cry, not only because of feels (*sob* “Life really DOES find a way!” *sob*), but also because of the beautiful way in which Stephenson wove his ending together.

This does not, however, erase the fact that the beginning of the book also made me want to cry from frustration and anger that such a great idea had been squandered.

It pains me to say anything bad about Stephenson’s books. In addition to writing lots of books that I love, he wrote Anathem, my favorite book. And the ironic thing is that, for many readers, SevenEves may not feel that different from Anathem, which also has lots of infodumping, in this case regarding philosophy and theoretical physics. Much of Anathem consists of philosophical lectures in the form of dialogue between characters. But the concepts Stephenson expounded in those lectures ended up being thematically central to the plot of the book, whereas in SevenEves, I felt like it was too much engineering talk for a book that was not really about engineering.

Maybe I’m being condescending to the practical sciences here. Why can one book be “about” philosophy, and another one not be “about” engineering? Perhaps Stephenson, and other readers, might argue that the book isabout engineering: all of the human knowledge and ingenuity that is devoted to guaranteeing the survival of humanity. It’s for those readers that I’m loath to give SevenEves a low ranking. I believe that many people will love this book, perhaps with the level of fervor that I feel for Anathem. However, despite the impressive ending, I felt largely frustrated and let down by a sub-par execution of a fantastic story.

This review originally appeared on, where I gave the book 3.5 stars.