Inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda
It happens at a Little Women watching party, a few days after Christmas.
My friend Brittany is down from Washington DC and invites a bunch of girls over to watch Little Women, my favorite movie of all time. Brittany and I have been friends for years but I have no idea we have this in common; I've only ever watched Little Women alone in my room, letting it fuel my writing dreams on rainy days. I can't wait to watch it with another woman who loves this story as much as I do.
I arrive to her sister's house for the watching party and gather with the other women around the most incredible themed spread - Brittany made food themed from the movie - stuffed apples and sausages, bread and butter, oranges and potatoes. We eat our perfect meal and laugh about the kinds of subjects that remind me I'm getting closer to 30.
Then, it happens.
Brittany tells us that on her drive from DC to to Florida she listened to the Hamilton soundtrack. She tells us her new goal is to learn the lyrics to the whole thing. She asks if we've heard of Hamilton. I say I've loosely heard that it was a spectacular new Broadway musical and am dying to know more, especially after seeing pictures of the cast, but haven't taken those extra steps to dig deeper because most of the things I'd read so far say it is sold out for forever and all eternity. I didn't want to get my hopes up, and somehow, it just felt far away in New York City. Unattainable.
She tells us that, in fact, she can give us a taste right here and now. Excitedly she tilts her phone sideways, with a look in her eyes as if she knows she's about to change my life, and plays the clip of the writer, composer, and lead actor in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, rapping what would become the opening number of the Hamilton musical at a White House event.
Within the first ten seconds I knew I would never be the same.
And I know that sounds dramatic. But it's true.
I've never - and I mean never, had art affect me like this in my life. EVER. And I'm not a casual observer nor a stranger to falling in love with art, with a performance, with someone's years and years of hard work. I love things deeply, and, at least I thought anyway, that I loved at capacity.
For example, while I'm more of a quiet person when it comes to conversations and almost never interrupt, I have been known to stop a conversation after a first bite of something new and wonderful to say: "I'm so sorry, can you hold on just a second, I need to give this croissant a moment because this is the most flaky and perfect croissant I've ever had in my life and it deserves it's own moment." I savor, and then resume the conversation.
I delight in other people's creations. It's why I write this blog. I know what it means to love someone else's writing, someone else's art - to let it wash over me, inspire me, change me, help me.
At least, I thought I did.
Brittany plays the video of Lin-Manuel - a Puerto Rican writer, like me - sharing his writing and music for the President, and something new inside me cracks wide open as I hear his words for the first time:
"...there’s a million things I haven’t done. But just you wait, just you wait..."
I want to cry. I want to run back to my car and hook up my iPhone to the stereo and buy the Hamilton soundtrack and listen to it all the way through while I drive to New York City and camp outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre until somebody has pity on me and lets me in.
But the song ends and Brittany turns her phone vertical and I remember we have a movie to watch. I take a deep breath and move to the living room with everyone where we sprawl out on couches and carpet to watch Little Women. Beth makes us cry and Jo makes us feel like striving and writing are good things. I hug Brittany tightly and thank her for one of the best nights of my life. I speed walk to my car and pull up the Hamilton album on Apple Music.
I listen. I weep.
I'm not sure you understand.
How. Much. I. Weep. WEEP is the word. Or maybe UGLY CRY. Yes. That's it.
But I don't just cry at the songs that are supposed to make you cry. It's not just the story that makes me cry, though it does. It's the writing. The care and time I can feel in every lyric. The music. The tiny crucial choices I can tell were carefully made, maybe even agonized over. The actors. The choices they make to sing something with a certain pace or inflection, to portray emotions so perfectly over audio that I feel like Oscars should be oozing from my car to their mantles with every note. The way Phillipa Soo scream-sings "Is he breathing is he going to survive this?!" The way Okieriete Onaodowan draws out the last syllable in the word "ruffians." I almost forget they are real people and not the character's themselves. But then, what makes me cry the most is remembering that they are real people. Hamilton is rooted in this idea - that there are real people behind every phenomenon, every statue: humans, normal people who try really hard, work really hard, believe really hard.
I keep playing the album.
Over and over and over again. For weeks. Months.
It's late February and the last line of the last song, one I can sing every word to now, fades out as I pull into a grocery store parking space. I exhale and say to myself: "okay, time to take a break from Hamilton and listen to something else."
I come back to the car thirty minutes later, sit my bags of milk and cereal in the passenger seat and hit play; Leslie Odom Jr.'s voice turns my car into a Broadway theater and for a moment it's like I have front row seats.
Each time I listen, something new inspires me. Each time, a different song makes me weep. Each time, a person looks at me weird at the stop light.
But I don't care. Because singing Hamilton in my car at the top of my lungs is helping me get through a tough time.
Two years ago I was rejected from Harvard after making it to a final round of doctoral interviews, and last week while driving on a bridge, listening to "Satisfied" I wept at how long the book I decided to write after Harvard was taking, how much farther along I'd thought I'd be at this point, how, if things had been different, I would have been one year away from a doctorate from Harvard, instead of fighting with a book that was breaking my heart.
I've been stuck for the past six months, lost for the past 6 weeks.
I'm in the slog, the time when you've invested so much of your time and money into something but realize there's still so much ahead and no guarantee. The time when you feel battered - the middle of the story - when you don't know the ending and can't tell if this slog is just a necessary part of the process or a sign that maybe this was the stupidest thing you've ever done.
A few weeks into my slog and Hamilton binge I pull up that YouTube clip of Lin-Manuel Miranda at the White House event to show someone, and I'm struck by something new, small gray print right at the bottom of the video. It looks like this:
Lin-Manuel Miranda Performs at the White House Poetry Jam
The White House
6 years ago
6 years ago.
I hold on to this "6 years ago" like I imagine Hamilton held on to his pen.
I have to know more. I find this article on Lin-Manuel Miranda on Smithsonian.com and learn more. The brilliant writer of the piece, Jeff MacGregor, writes about how Lin-Manuel often walks when writing lyrics: "He walked six years to write this show."
I breathe in the hope that maybe slog is required.
That maybe time and doubt do not disqualify.
In the beginning of the play, Hamilton admits to his future wife, wealthy Eliza Schuyler, that he doesn't have much to offer in terms of wealth; what he does have to offer, is "a tolerance for pain."
Were there days Lin-Manuel wondered if this was going to work out? Did he ever question this? Question himself? Were there days he cried? Felt pained by the slog? Doubted where this was going? Wondered if it would be worth six years?
I wonder to myself how Lin-Manuel got through those six years. What was year three like? Year four? When you're so close but still so far? How do you get through the middle, when motivation is waning and confidence is on its last breath? When you truly don't know if any of this will be worth it?
I dream of asking Lin-Manuel one day. But for now, after learning almost all the words to Hamilton, reading and watching his interviews, and listening to his other musical, In The Heights, and watching the documentary on it, I am going to pretend he might answer me like this:
Keep writing. Every second you're alive.
Yesterday Lin-Manuel tweeted a picture of his dog guarding his office while he writes. He's still writing. Who knows what will turn up in another six years?
I can't wait to find out.
In the meantime, I think about Lin-Manuel's dog this morning and smile as I take my puppy Stanley for a walk before I even put the coffee on - I see the clouds and I'm worried this is our only shot at the trail today before the impending storm. The wind looks strong and the clouds darkening, and for a second I'm worried the storm will blow in when we're stuck halfway down the trail.
I grab an umbrella and head out anyway.
editors note: little did I know when I wrote this that I would one day see the original Broadway cast perform Hamilton and go backstage and meet Lin Manuel Miranda. Don't meet your heroes? Yeah...okay. Don't meet your heroes if you don't want to be inspired. And don't meet your heroes if you want them to continue to feel light-years away, if you want what they have accomplished to forever feel impossible for you, something otherworldly. Don't meet them if you want to keep that illusion alive. Becuase the truth is, when you meet them, the illusions are shattered. They will never again be that mystical figure singing from your car speakers or on the risen stage. They will become human to you. A human who made a thing. An artist in your community. And you will never be able to ignore now the simple fact that you too are a human, an artist. And you too could make a thing. A new pressure will occur when you meet your heroes...or rather, it will shatter a few of your favorite excuses. Don't meet your heroes if you don't want to be reminded of what you are capable of.