So, I am very late to the Hamilton party. This isn’t surprising to me. This usually happens when some cultural phenomenon explodes, because I’m immediately skeptical of it. I worry that I’ll be disappointed and therefore unable to join in on the fun with the rest of the world. So I wait until curiosity inevitably takes over. Sometimes the outcome is favorable (Pokémon, Harry Potter, The Fault in Our Stars), sometimes it falls in the middle (Doctor Who), and sometimes it does, unfortunately, disappoint (Twilight, Game of Thrones).
Not only do I love Hamilton, but listening to it has been transformative for me. And it came at the perfect point in my life, exactly when I needed it.
Before I go on, I want to acknowledge who this musical is chiefly intended for: immigrants, particularly non-white immigrants. This musical, written by the son of Puerto Rican immigrants and performed almost entirely by people of color, tells the story of an American immigrant who overcame poverty and trauma to revolutionize our country. It is a not-so-subtle love letter to the oppressed immigrants of America working their asses off and getting little to no appreciation for it. No one involved in this musical thought, “We’ve gotta get this musical out there for the sake of white, non-immigrant, American young writers who might be listening.” With this blog post, I don’t want to claim that this musical was written for people like me, nor do I want to step on the voices of the people of color that the artists behind Hamilton held most prominently in mind when creating this masterpiece.
Beyond that, aspects of this musical appeal to so many kinds of people, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, etc. For those who haven’t listened to it yet, it has songs about becoming a parent, grief and loss, betrayal, overcoming obstacles, winning a lover, missing out on a lover, drama in the political sphere, loyalty…I could go on forever. The parts that grab me hardest, though, are those about ambition and those about being a storyteller.
Now for some background, if you haven’t kept up regularly with this blog or checked my about page. I am a young woman in my 20s with a lot of ambition and a desperate desire for people to see me as sensible and realistic (boy is that a fun combination). In my freshman year of high school, I started writing novels. I was consumed by writing. I felt like it was my calling. I felt it was the reason I was placed on this earth. I used it to tell stories I thought others would want to hear as well as to heal from my own wounds, to know myself better, to understand the world better. By the time senior year started, I’d written two ridiculously long novels that I was very proud of. Teenagers and adults who’d read my writing told me I’d make it, no question. I believed in myself. I knew getting my books out there would be hard, but I didn’t know the specifics yet, and I was confident I could do it.
I legitimately, no joke, thought I was going to be a published novelist by the time I graduated high school. I thought I would publish a book and it would leave a mark on the world. People centuries from now would read it and love it. I would be remembered.
Never mind that I hadn’t done anything beyond Googling “how to get a book published” and snapping my laptop shut when I discovered how difficult it was to write a query. I just thought it would happen somehow. Graduation came and went and, because I was a young person who couldn’t conceive of how long my life will most likely be (still can’t), I felt like I was running out of time. I’d already missed one self-imposed deadline (the end of high school). Maybe I would sell a book during college?
Ha, no. I only wrote one book during college, though to be fair, I was also devoting lots of energy to learning how to revise the novels I already had, and revising said novels. Plus, like…I was in college, and that took up just a bit of my time. I also learned how to query, sent out a few to agents, realized the book wasn’t ready for an agent (and neither was I), and started interacting with the writing community on Twitter. As much as these felt like steps in the right direction, there was this ever-present voice in the back of my head: You’re not published yet. You’re not published yet. Why aren’t you published yet?
Again, this might sound like whining from people who are older than me, and I recognize I’m looking at this situation from the bottom of a barrel that I’ve only ever known the bottom of. I know I probably have plenty of time, but I don’t feel like I do. And I’m afraid that if I convince myself I have time, I will come to a standstill and stop pushing towards where I want to be. I’ll start procrastinating–“eh, I’ll be alive tomorrow.” I can’t work like that.
This is not where the ambition stops. This is only one category.
Unless I produce some J.K. Rowling-level shit, I’m not gonna be able to support myself financially as an author alone. I’ve always known I would have to take on another job that would pay the bills, so for my preferred day job, I chose…a field that doesn’t tend to pay a lot and is incredibly difficult to break into! Like being an author! Because, I don’t know, I like pain?
The career in question here is: something in the publishing industry. In fact, my dream job is to become a senior editor at a large publishing house, and I’m seriously pursuing this. I love providing feedback on other people’s work, especially fiction. I’m fascinated by the behind-the-scenes aspect of publishing. I’m eager to learn about the business side of things as well as the editorial work. I want to learn as much as I can and make a difference in the lives of authors and readers.
I’m already plugging my ears in anticipation of the disbelief this is surely inspiring in people who know how difficult it is to land a publishing job, let alone a senior editor at one of the Big Five. “Who does she think she’s kidding?” “She must think that’s much easier than it actually is.” “She better come up with a backup plan.” “Maybe she should try something smaller.” “What if she gets the job and doesn’t like it?”
Oooh boy, that’s still not where the ambition stops.
When I was 4 years old, my family moved to New York City. All of my earliest memories are there, and every one of them is vivid. I melded my tiny heart to that city. That place felt more like home than anywhere else ever has, at a time when I had no idea how many people wanted to live there, or how many people came there for new opportunities. I just knew my family had moved there because of something to do with my dad’s job, and that I never wanted to leave. Then we moved back to California when I was 7, and I never got over it (cue: lots of not-entirely-deserved vitriol hurled by me at the state of California).
I planned to make it back to New York for college, but when the time came, I chickened out. I couldn’t imagine living so far away from my family at age 18, so I applied to colleges closer to home. It occurred to me that I viewed New York through rose-tinted glasses because when I’d lived there as a child, my life had seemed perfect. My family had enough income to avoid living paycheck-to-paycheck, which would never happen again. My parents were together, and I was ignorant to the problems in their marriage. I hadn’t yet exited my bold, confident, say-whatever’s-on-my-mind phase and transformed into the shy, uncertain pre-teen/teenager I became. I thought, hm, maybe New York isn’t as great as I remember it. Maybe I don’t need to be there.
Then I visited NYC at age nineteen, and hahaha, noooope. So much for that theory. It was perfect. It was everything I’d remembered it to be. I felt more like myself there. My childhood instincts hadn’t been wrong. Also, I thought, how convenient is it that NYC is the hub of the publishing world? I could live in my favorite city again and pursue the publishing career I wanted. I set my sights to move upon graduation…and, between junior and senior year, fell in love with someone a year younger than me. When I graduated, I had a choice: move to New York right away or spend one more year in SoCal while my fiancé finished school. My fiancé’s kind of insanely cute, so the choice was obvious.
Now here I am. My fiancé has graduated and is just as excited about New York as I am. We’re applying for jobs, figuring out logistics, all of that. It’s happening. I will be back home soon.
Aaaaand guess what? That’s right: more people warning me against moving to New York City, because by golly, it’s hard! Who knew!
Boy, do I love the comments I get in response to the fact that I’m moving to New York from people who live in Southern California.
“Wow, that’ll be a real culture shock!” Uh huh. Never mind that I lived there for three years and everything there feels normal to me. If your concern is that it’ll be different living there as an adult, I studied abroad in Dublin for four months, traveled throughout Europe, sometimes completely by myself, and also stayed in London for two months last year. I think I’ll be fine.
“New York is really expensive, you know.” Gee, New York City? Expensive? Next you’ll be telling me Texas is big and Alaska is cold.
“It’s gonna snow there! You’ll freeze!” I. Have. Lived. There. Before. I’m not some poor ignorant Californian who’s gonna skip out into the New York December wearing flip-flops and promptly morph into a glacier. Sure, it will be an adjustment, as I’ve acclimated back to California weather, but I’m prepared for that.
Long story short, following my dreams means three difficult things: publishing my novels, getting a job in the competitive field of publishing, and living in New York. To be fair, all of the above comments are well-meaning. That goes for the warnings about working in publishing and selling my book as well. People who care about me want to see me succeed, and by wanting such hard-to-get things, I’m making it more difficult for myself. They want me to be happy. They don’t want to see me fail.
I can’t change the fact that writing novels feels like the reason I’m alive. That the publishing world excites me. That I click my ruby slippers together hardest for New York City. But over the past year, while I’ve been feeling stuck in California and facing lots of rejection, I’ve let these comments get to me. For wanting all this, I’ve felt stupid (I’m not stupid). I thought, maybe my plans are ridiculous. Maybe I shouldn’t expect any of those dreams to come true. What if I never publish a word? What if I’m sitting on my couch when I’m 80 and thinking, I had so much to give and the world didn’t want it? Why am I hurting myself? Why am I trying?
Then Hamilton happened.
Some lyrics that are important to me:
“There’s a million things I haven’t done…just you wait…just you wait…” – [“Alexander Hamilton”]
“I am not throwing away my shot, I am not throwing away my shot, hey yo I’m just like my country, I’m young scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot–I’mma get a scholarship to King’s College! I prob’ly shouldn’t brag, but dag, I amaze and astonish!” – [“My Shot”]
Washington: “Nathaniel Green and Henry Knox wanted to hire you…”/Hamilton: “To be their secretary? I don’t think so.” – [“Right Hand Man”]
“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?–How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive? How do you write like you need it to survive? How do you write every second you’re alive, every second you’re alive, every second you’re alive–?” – [“Non-Stop”]
“Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you’ll never get to see. I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.” – [“The World Was Wide Enough”]
“Will they tell your story? Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” – [“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”]
For me, the most important song is the entirety of “Hurricane,” which I basically can’t listen to without crying. Do me a favor and listen to the whole song here.
Hamilton is a true story about someone who wanted to be remembered. Throughout the musical, his ideas and goals are dismissed as ridiculous. He’s told he’s reckless and obsessed with his legacy. He’s urged to slow down and take more time with his work. He is told he can’t. He’s asked over and over why he’s trying so hard. And he succeeds. He does it. He’s remembered. The musical is a testament to that.
The musical upholds the idea of a legacy, of ambition, of not throwing away your shot. It doesn’t frame a legacy as something best suited to a fairy tale, or use it to tack on a feel-good happy ending. Hamilton reminds you that you can change the world. You can have ridiculous ambitions and still meet your goals. You will receive pushback from so many people, but you have to steel yourself and trust your gut. You have to try, and there is zero shame in trying for something that feels so impossible.
To me, this musical says: I’m not stupid.
Right now, with my three hard dreams in mind, I am clinging to this musical like hell. Many of the songs move me in unexpected ways. For example, I’m a writer who almost always writes at night. As I query my manuscript, which features four main characters that mean so much to me, I have to suppress tears every time I hear “The Story of Tonight.” Lyrics: “Raise a glass to the four of us, tomorrow there’ll be more of us, they’ll tell the story of tonight.”
I want people to tell my story. I want to leave a legacy. I can do it. I can. I know it will be hard, but I can.
I hope I get to see Hamilton someday. It’s handy that I’m moving to New York, but considering how hard tickets are to get ahold of and how expensive they are, it isn’t likely anytime soon. I want to sit in that audience so I can send Lin-Manuel Miranda, and everyone else involved with the show, a silent thank-you. I needed this right now. I needed a reminder of why I’m doing this. I needed encouragement to go after what I’ve wanted so badly for years.
I promise I won’t stop trying.
*Avatar by Charlavail