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How Hamilton Helped Fuel My Passion for Writing
February 10, 2017
Before I listened to the cast recording of Hamilton, I had already made some progress as a writer. I’d written three books, put together several outlines (some physical, some just in my head) of other novels I wanted to pursue and something resembling a game plan of how I wanted to get it all done. But anyone who has ever written anything will tell you that it’s the actually doing it that’s the hard part. Thinking up ideas, creating characters in your mind, plotting things out….all of that is the fun part. Sitting down and actually writing it is extremely difficult and it’s easy to become quickly frustrated. For me, writer’s block usually looks a lot like me just unable to find the will to start typing--once I begin, it’s so much easier! But breaking through that wall, actually forcing myself towards bringing these ideas and characters to life and fleshing them out, that take a lot of discipline and determination.
And of course, most writers can tell you all about the disappointment and aggravation you feel towards yourself when you slip into a pattern of writer’s block, seemingly unable to harness the creative energy required to sit down and churn something out. For me, these stories feel so deeply intertwined with who I am, I feel like I’m betraying entire fictional worlds when I become less disciplined and don’t invest the time that I should into my writing.
I’d been going at this thing at about a 50% of commitment level until the past six months or so. Sometimes it was more like 80%, sometimes it was maybe 10, but I’d say it would probably even out to a solid 50%. And then came Hamilton.
I certainly wasn’t among the first to fall in love with the Broadway sensation, it had already thunderously entered the zeitgeist, won a Grammy and been nominated for multiple Tony’s (which it would later win) by the time I sat down and finally listened. I was definitely open to and excited about the idea but I just figured that even though I would probably never catch the show on Broadway, I’d see it eventually as it came to other cities and I didn’t want to ruin the songs for myself. I wanted to experience it fresh when I saw it live. Now that I know how fast-moving and intricately layered so many of these songs are, I’m glad I didn’t take the approach. When I finally do see it live, I’ll be so familiar with the material, I’ll be able to fully grasp and enjoy all that’s going on. On the urging of so many, I finally listened. And I completely fell in love.
In constructing the songs of Hamilton, it’s clear that Lin-Manuel Miranda wanted to touch on a number of different themes. Some of it was just a celebration of America, despite its flaws, being birthed in such a magnificently underdog fashion. The casting and music of the show celebrate what America has become since then, the diversity and freedoms it’s allowed for and, given both Hamilton and Miranda’s background, it’s no surprise that the role of immigrants in this country is highlighted as well. All of this is brilliant and these are themes that I’m very much inspired by as well. This is a musical with depth and heart and it lands every single note with succinct genius.
For me, personally, however, I was struck by the emphasis on Hamilton as a writer. Of course, Alexander Hamilton wrote a whole lot throughout his life and it’d be hard to tell his story without giving that a mention, but Miranda often says that he views Hamilton’s life as a hip-hop story because like so many prominent rappers from throughout the years, he “wrote his way out” of his circumstance. From an orphaned child in the Caribbean to one of the founding fathers working side by side with George Washington, Hamilton’s relentless work ethic and tremendous writing enabled him to rise above the situations he found himself in and experience prominence, success and a thrilling life far surpassing what he could have ever dreamed about as a child.
The circumstances of my life and Alexander Hamilton’s couldn’t be more different and I’m not looking to use my writing to help establish a new government, but this was an aspect of Hamilton’s life that Miranda, as a writer himself, clearly keyed in on and so this musical about America’s founding fathers also serves as one of the most heartfelt odes to the craft of writing ever composed. It’s impossible to listen to these songs and not be moved by them.
Much of the last ten years has found me rediscovering my love of writing and getting on a track that I never should have veered from. I have journals from when I was a child saying that I wanted to be an author when I grew up and it’s a desire that’s never left of me. It was so deeply ingrained that even when I wasn’t pursuing it, my mind would wander back to ideas and stories so often that eventually I just couldn’t ignore it any longer. But still, as mentioned above, this path is hard and full of sacrifice, rejection and a ton of time devoted to something that rarely leads to instant reward. But after listening to Hamilton, the ideas and messages and determination of these songs were unshakable and I found myself turning up “My Shot” as loud as my speakers would go and almost envisioning Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton shouting at me to not throw away my shot either. I mean, I’ve lived a blessed life but aside from having a lot of stories I feel I should tell, I’ve got some circumstances I’d like to write myself out of too, the biggest one being student loan debt (can i get an amen?).
So when I feel myself slowing down, I know I can listen to “Non-Stop” or “Hurricane” or just go back to “My Shot” and let lyrics like “I’m past patiently waitin’. I’m passionately/Smashin’ every expectation/Every action’s an act of creation!” push me beyond any kind of blockage. They weirdly act as some sort of fight songs for writers.
What I love most about Hamilton is that while it honors Hamilton’s craft and commitment to it, it also does what all good storytelling does and it reveals the flaws that lay even within his genius. Of course we see throughout the songs and history that Hamilton was prideful, arrogant and ended up having an affair and basically destroying his own political career, but even beyond that, Eliza’s “Burn” challenges Hamilton’s obsessive view of his writing. As brilliant as he was and as important as his writing still is, he cheats on Eliza and she’s burning his letters and there are parts of that song that are just a brutal takedown where she challenges his infatuation with his legacy. Points out that although he’s talented, his own writing often spirals out of control into this strange paranoia over how he’ll be seen by his peers and remembered in history. Throughout the show, we see that he often neglected his own family for his work and moments like this wrestle with the fact that though he had a gift and used it well and his determination was admirable, there’s a line that can be crossed where passion’s for one work and a pursuit of one’s goals can blind you to what really matters, causes you to neglect responsibilities. Even as I find myself being challenged and inspired by Hamilton, I love that this warning is sprinkled throughout the songs, a reminder of how quickly good intentions can be polluted.
That’s one of the other many reasons that Hamilton is such a terrific musical for anyone that loves great stories. It never shies away from the complexities of life. Although it’s Hamilton’s story and so Burr is naturally the villain, the show goes through great pains to make it clear that he’s really not. It conveys the similarities between the two men, the shared pain and hopes, the ways their philosophies differed and why the eventual end wasn’t as clear-cut as good guy vs. bad guy; it’s much more tragic than that. This is my hope for anything I write. That I never compose character or situations that are so black and white, I betray how complicated people and the world really are. Miranda did a tremendous job showing all the different shades of Burr and even if, in the end, I think him a bit of a coward and an opportunist, I also realize that he’s not as different from Hamilton and other great men than one might think. There are shades of grey in pretty much every person and circumstance and good writers don’t oversimplify.
I know I’m one of countless people who have gotten swept up in Hamilton mania and I’m more than happy to be on board a crowded bandwagon celebrating something this innovative, but it’s struck a personal chord too. From the content of the musical to the stories behind the show itself (I’ve got the book and loved the documentary) to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tweets, I feel like I’ve entered this powerful echo chamber full of motivational messages and calls for perseverance and tenacity even on days when finding my writing mojo is a little more challenging. I don’t want to live in a panic trying furiously write like I’m running out of time necessarily, but I do want to write like someone who knows I’ve got a lot of stories I want to tell and a finite amount of time to tell them.
The Day I Disappeared, my latest novel about a man who wakes up to find himself in a reality entirely different than the one he remembers, grappling with questions of identity, purpose, success and even alien abduction is OUT NOW.
Overcome Evil, a novel about racial conflicts triggered by a violent event in a mid-sized American city is COMING SOON.