Why Do You Write Like You’re Running Out of Time?

I avoided Hamilton was it first became a cultural zeitgeist. In 2015, I was mired in a depression and I didn’t want an uplifting piece of pop culture that I was sure I was never going to get to experience in person in my life. The musical (and everyone I knew that somehow managed to get tickets to see it in New York, and then on tour) was just a reminder of everything I didn’t have, hadn’t achieved, couldn’t do, would never be able to do. My kids were young enough that they didn’t really notice it, so I was free to avoid the hype, the songs, the cultural moment.

And then my daughter got to an age where you discover the existence of musicals beyond the Disney ones you grew up with. At the same age, I had discovered Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera, both frequently bringing their touring shows to Montreal. On trips to the Stratford Festival, I was introduced to Gilbert and Sullivan light operas, and musicals like Gypsy. When I went to London, I bought myself a ticket to see The Lion King. At every musical I had ever been to, the moment the first notes struck, tears would start streaming down my face, from the sheer beauty and awe of it, that I was able to be there to share in it.

When my daughter discovered musical theater, Hamilton’s moment still had not ended. Her friends were obsessed, so she, too became obsessed. We still did not have the soundtrack, and the original cast had long since left Broadway, with multiple touring shows performing around the country. It came and went in D.C. and I tried to get tickets, but they were sold out and I did not win the lottery. When it came to Baltimore, I signed up, became verified, waited in multiple digital waiting rooms for the chance to get her a ticket for her 12th birthday. I got the tickets, and we went together to see Hamilton, the first musical she had asked to see.

I went into the musical not knowing anything about it, about the story. I was like those first, stunned audiences four short years earlier, who witnessed the show for the first time, with little foreknowledge of what was about to happen on the stage. I couldn’t sing along, having never heard any of the songs outside of a few snippets on social media and in memes. I sat there, completely unprepared for what was about to happen, what this show was going to do to me.

I already get emotional at live performances – plays, concerts, musicals – and I have always gotten teary-eyed on cue during that part of the movie that is so transparently manipulative, but it always gets me anyway. My kids gently tease me for crying so much at these moments, but I let them see me cry anyway, and I don’t apologize. I expected to get emotional; what I didn’t expect was to spend virtually the entire second act trying not to audibly sob so loudly in the 5th row that the actors would hear me.

I struggled to pinpoint just what it was that made the show go from great to body-heaving sobbing. Yes, his son’s death was tragic, and it was beautiful and sad and touching how Hamilton and Eliza reconciled. I empathized as a parent, certainly, but it was more than that. When Hamilton is about to die, reliving his life, it was intense and powerful, but again, for me it was more than that. And Eliza’s legacy was perfect, but it was more than that. Why was I physically reacting the way I was?

And it wasn’t just the show. I immediately bought the soundtrack and my daughter would listen to it over and over again, and my body would be taken over by those same sobs at the same moments, and then other moments in the first act that hadn’t previously wrecked me. I had to stop listening to it on the way to work in the car because I would have to re-do my makeup I cried so hard at the end. The more I listened to it, the worse it got.

“Talk less. Smile more.”

This is the first piece of advice Burr gives to Hamilton when Hamilton arrives in New York. Hamilton literally wrote his way to New York so he could continue his education, with an entire island rallying behind his brilliance. Hamilton cuts into a conversation with people he’s never met, apologizes for being too loud, too outspoken. Hamilton has big dreams and a bigger chip on his shoulder.

How many times had I been told to talk less, to be more quiet, that I’d be prettier if I smiled? How many words did he write when he was younger? How many words did I write? I wrote myself into existence, I always say. So did Hamilton.

“I’ve imagined my death so many times, it feels like a dream.”

Hamilton never thought he would live for as long as he did, never thought about the future, never could imagine a time beyond the now. And then, he did, and he became obsessed with it, like the future had to be now, in that urgency and impatience. Who tells your story? What is a legacy?

I didn’t think I would live past 40. I couldn’t see a future for myself, convinced there was no place for me, and that I would just…disappear. I know that that is part of time-blindness, but I was also convinced that the thing that was wrong with me, whatever it was, was going to kill me, lead to my death. And then I woke up and I was 40.

I feel like I’m racing to make up for lost time, trying to get the story right, trying to leave something for my kids, especially now that I know I have ADHD, and I know how to manage it, how to potentially thrive with it. Trying to live a full life. What is a full life?

“He will never be satisfied.”

Angelica says this when she first meets Hamilton, in relation to his ambition and his appetite. And his capacity to love. And he never is satisfied, always pushing, always fighting, always writing, always answering when duty calls. He is all restless energy, restless ambition, always working, always busy.

I who was constantly criticized for not being happy or content enough with a husband and two kids. I who was told to relax, that I was too ambitious, in too much of a hurry, lacking patience and lacking tact. I didn’t know how to be satisfied; I always had something I had to prove, but also a restlessness that I didn’t understand and couldn’t control.

“How do you write like you’re running out of time, like your life is on the line?”

He wrote almost all of the Federalist Papers. We have a bound collection of them at home, a thick tome with onion-skin pages to save on space and weight. The words that convinced a population to accept the US Constitution. What else was he writing at the same time?

I write fast. I write a lot. I write with a focus and ferocity that I can’t explain. People ask, how do you write so much, and I say I just do, but what they don’t understand is that the writing has been happening in my head while I am not writing, already formed, ready to be put on paper, always already writing the next thing in my head while I write the one already done down. I don’t know how not to write, how not to just keeping putting down words one after another after another.

I don’t think that question is a rhetorical one; people really didn’t know how Hamilton wrote so much. I know. I know because I write the same way. I write with an energy coming through my body expressed through my fingers. Writing himself in a hurricane, out of a bind, writing a truth that hurts others, saves himself. Whenever something is on the line, he takes to pen and paper and writes.

I see myself in Hamilton. I see myself in his character, in his traits, in his behavior, in his reactions, in his actions. No, I don’t think myself as brilliant as Hamilton, but I see in him, in his story, so much of myself, of my life, of my struggles, and he his ultimately triumphant because of the people who loved him, the people he loved. I cry because maybe I have never seen anyone quite like me, in this way, on stage, on the screen, anywhere. And they aren’t the butt of a joke, but the hero of the show.

I cry because I am wondering what I should do with the more time I have. I still have time.

This is an original essay I wrote for my collection on mental health, Learning to Breathe.

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