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3 Lessons for Writers from tick...tick...Boom! & Hamilton

Over the weekend, Netflix released tick…tick…Boom!, the film adaptation of Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical.

Aside from being a long-awaited release for theatre fans, the movie unites two of the most influential musical theatre voices of the past thirty years.

The first is Larson himself. The second is Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton and In the Heights, who makes his directorial debut.

The story of Larson navigating emotional, relational, and artistic angst as his 30th birthday looms ahead, tick…tick…Boom! has a lot to say about the creative process and the source of a imaginative person’s drive to create.

When I heard that it was being made into a movie with Miranda directing, my head exploded. And I am so happy to say that the film did not disappoint.

Not only is Miranda’s direction flawless, but Andrew Garfield is phenomenal in the lead role. He becomes Jonathan Larson to the point where it’s hard to tell the difference between the real-life home movie footage of Larson and the recreation of the same footage for the movie.

It’s a first-rate production. And appropriately enough, tick…tick…Boom! and Hamilton not only bring Larson and Miranda together artistically, but also share some significant themes related to creativity, including some powerful lessons for writers.

As we close out National Novel Writing Month and the end of 2021 approaches, I think it’s important to explore three of the lessons these two shows offer to writers, especially those pursuing specific goals for their work.

So, welcome to the room where it happens. Don’t throw away your shot—sit back and let Miranda’s and Larson’s genius help you creatively come to your senses. (I’m done with the lyrical references now).

­Lesson #1: You (Usually) Have Plenty of Time

Unless you’ve been put on a strict deadline or you’re doing NaNoWriMo, you don’t have to “write like you’re running out of time” like Alexander Hamilton or Jonathan.

In fact, doing this can be detrimental to your work.

There’s nothing wrong with setting time-based goals. “I’m going to have a completed draft of this essay by the end of the month” or “I’m going to complete these revisions this week” are examples of healthy goals that have time frames. But these goals become unhealthy when one or two things happen: either you don’t have the time frame clearly defined or the goal itself isn’t achievable.

Achievable goals are specific, time-based, and realistic. If you are pressuring yourself to make your writing work, it might be because you haven’t thought through the parameters of what you want to accomplish.

And one commonality that the central characters of tick…tick…Boom! and Hamilton share is that they’re terrible at doing this.

It’s easy to romanticize the creative drive of both Alexander and Jonathan by considering that both lived tragically short lives. Both characters are also highly attuned to the fact that time is finite and we truly are “running out of time.” However…that’s true for everyone, not just those destined to die young.

And rather than run yourself ragged, it’s better to manage your time and resources well to produce the best possible results.

I know. I love the fact that “HAMILTON WROTE THE OTHER 51,” too. But massive creative output is not a consistent performance indicator for writers. Most of the time, it’s totally unhealthy and unrealistic.

Which brings me to…

Lesson #2: Your People Matter.

Another similarity between Alexander and Jonathan is that they both become so fixated on their work that they get tunnel vision, shutting out every other aspect of life in the process.

Sadly, this includes their families and closest friends. It even leads to massive rifts with their significant others, Susan and Eliza, who both feel marginalized.

In both cases, it also takes a tragedy for both Jonathan and Alexander to realize what they’ve been doing to themselves and the people they love.

For Jonathan, this knowledge comes when he finds out that his childhood friend, Michael, is HIV positive. For Alexander, it’s the death of his son Philip.

My favorite song in tick…tick…Boom! is “Why,” which Jonathan sings in response to finding out about Michael’s illness. The song surveys the history of their friendship, from entering a talent show as kids to performing in a high school production of West Side Story to the present day.

After years of collaborating on each other’s artistic talents, Jonathan continues to pursue a career in the arts, while Michael has abandoned acting to work in advertising. But despite their divergent paths, Jonathan recognizes that Michael has been instrumental to his career even though he’s frequently chastised him for “selling out.”

Something similar is achieved in the gut-wrenching Hamilton song “It’s Quiet Uptown,” where Alexander and Eliza reconcile in the wake of Philip’s death.

Yes, we need to be immersed in our work. We are pursuing something vital as creative artists that requires mastery of the craft, and that takes time and effort.

But that immersion shouldn’t be so deep that we shut out the people we love. In reality, they can be the X factor in what we make, even if they don’t directly show up in the work itself.

Lesson #3: Good Writing Educates.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. This isn’t a call for your work to be didactic. No writing that puts an agenda or moral ahead of its characters and plot can ever be good art.

But both of these shows illustrate that good writing teaches readers about something, and may even move them to action.

In the dramatic finale of tick…tick…Boom!, “Louder Than Words,” one of the characters sings, “Why does it take catastrophe to start a revolution?” Both this show and Hamilton treat issues like race, gender, freedom, and illness in explosive ways.

This is because both were conceived as the result of tragedy. For Jonathan Larson, it was the AIDS epidemic. Similarly, Hamilton illustrates many of Miranda’s views on what it truly means to be an American in the wake of many racial and social crises during the mid-2010s. And of course, events like the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have only heightened the intensity of the discussions surrounding Hamilton and tick…tick…Boom alike.

I’m not saying your work has to tackle social issues in order to be important. You have your own things to teach readers because of the unique place you come from.

For me, my book, The Goodbye-Love Generation, is about how the shootings at Kent State University on May 4, 1970 impacted my community and how reducing the event to binaries and stereotypes hurts the real people involved.

Sarah Warner, our featured writer from last month, creates work inspired by her experience as the mother of a stillborn child and her desire to help people understand what this is like for families.

Elizabeth Giger's inspiration comes from developing intimacy with God and showing others how her spiritual practices have impacted her life.

You have something to teach readers. You don’t need to shoehorn it into your work. You just need to let it show up on its own.

That’s the ultimate commonality between Miranda’s and Larson’s work. Hamilton, In the Heights, Rent, and tick…tick…Boom! are all characterized by unmitigated honesty.

The characters are human and relatable. They’re so relatable that you don’t even think about the lessons you’ve learned from them until the show is over and you think more deeply about what you’ve just seen.

That’s great writing. That’s how you teach readers what you want them to consider.

Want to explore these issues more? There are two things you can do.

First, we’ve got a holiday weekend coming up, so kick back and binge watch a double feature of tick…tick…Boom! and Hamilton. You can find the former on Netflix and the latter on Disney+.

Second, check out my Ultimate Writing Project Workbook. It contains tons of worksheets, writing prompts, activities, and other cool things to help you explore your current work in progress or begin a new one. Plus, it’s completely free. Download a copy here.

Also…what about you? Have you seen either of these films? What did you think? Feel free to drop your thoughts in the comments.

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