Tag Archives: theme

What I Learned from Hamilton


Okay, so I’m five years late to the party. I put off watching Hamilton because it blew up, it became this huge thing, and I figured it was so big, it had to be some lowest common denominator action happening, something that was mindless and appealed to all. Big spectacle, catchy music, no substance. So I didn’t get involved. Didn’t listen to the soundtrack (inasmuch as I could avoid it), didn’t watch video clips of it.

Well, we finally watched it this past week. It’s on Disney Plus. Big Mouse. Big House. Much Exposure. I couldn’t put it off any longer. We watched it.

And at first watch? It’s exactly as expected. Big, catchy numbers. Wonderful choreography and storytelling. A thoroughly enjoyable musical theatre experience. Substance? More than expected. (It’s a historical dramatization, after all.) But then we listened to the soundtrack again on a long drive, and it got under my skin. If music has an infectious quality, this was that, exactly. My wife started reading articles, then ordered a book on Hamilton. I found myself searching for podcasts on American history (I always need more material for my morning runs).

But the more I thought about the story from a literary perspective, the more I felt hollow. See, from the theatrical perspective, the show is absolutely lights out. A rap musical? A stage full of performers at the top of their game? Multicultural cast appropriating a bunch of crusty old white dudes? Yes. This is the jam. Turn your brain off and drink it in. But from the perspective of actual story?

Man.

It hurts.

Because we like arcs. And we like themes. And we like characters that grow and mature and overcome their faults and save the world.

And Hamilton? Well, here’s where the spoilers set in. There’s none of that.

He starts as this brash, talk-too-much unstoppable force and … well, he’s that way for his whole life, never really gets that in check. It gets him killed.

He has all this incredible potential — a mind like none other, the wit to put his ideas into words and to convince people, but he blows up his political career (and in fact his whole life) because he can’t keep it in his pants. He’s a superman brought down, not by the nefarious dealings of foes who conspire against him, but by perfectly ordinary means: his own failure to master his impulses.

Even his death. He dies “throwing away his shot” — that is, wasting his opportunity to fire upon his opponent in a duel, believing that his opponent will also do the honorable thing as well. But he overestimates his opponent’s good will and takes a bullet in the chest. Of course, that’s tragic — until you remember the same thing happened to his son years before. The son had a duel, came to the father for advice, Hamilton advised him to do the honorable thing and throw away his shot … and his son gets killed by a less-than-honorable opponent. He learns nothing!

So he has this incredible life, creates (apparently out of whole cloth) the economic structure of a new nation, and dies because he can’t keep his mouth shut and trusts to the better nature of a man he believes to be a scoundrel.

I suppose it fits the mold of a Greek Tragedy more than anything else, but even in a Greek Tragedy the hero has that moment of recognition, where he realizes he was wrong all along. Hamilton doesn’t get that. He stays who he is until the last.

And while in real life that may be something worth boasting about, in a story, it’s unsatisfying.

So I find myself going round and round with this. What do I take away from this story, when the main character is so frustrating, and his end so abrupt and needless?

But that’s the answer. The play is very concerned with Hamilton operating like he’s on a timer: he writes “like he’s running out of time”, he can’t wait to assume command in battle and prove himself; heck, the closing number for the first act is titled “Non-Stop”. What stands out in the story, for me, is the fact that none of us knows how much time we have, that the timer is counting down for all of us. That death waits for all of us. And like Burr, the villain of the play, most of us seem to be waiting for something. Hamilton may do a lot of things, but waiting is not one of them.

We don’t know what history will say about us. We don’t get to decide who will tell our stories. All we can do is make the most of the time we get.

That’s the core message of Hamilton, I think.

As frustrated as I am with the rest of it, I can be moved by that.


The Thunderdome of Ideas


How do you make sense of the ideas that occur to you?

I’m talking here about stories, lyrics, visions, hell, even blarg ideas. They come from somewhere, and whether that source is some external stimulus like a news story or a fantastic article or a brilliant film or a gripping novel, they all end up getting filtered through the mire of neurons and synapses inside your skull. Which means that from the time an idea first strikes, it gets tossed into the Thunderdome that’s raging inside your head at any given moment.

Maybe I should step away from the second person (pardon me, second person) and stick to the first (oh, hi, me). It’s a Thunderdome in my head. Many ideas enter. Few survive to be acted upon.

Seriously. It’s a wonder I can get anything done. I’m as scatterbrained as they come, so when a new idea strikes for me, it’s thrown into the arena with the other millions of things I’m thinking about, which include, but are not limited to:

  • My kids and whether I’ve remembered to feed them / change their diapers / change their clothes / clean up their messes / set a good example for them / actually know where they are at the moment / OH GOD WHERE ARE THE KIDS
  • The dollars and cents flowing through all the metaphorical holes in my metaphorical pockets (because money isn’t real anymore you know, it’s all just ones and zeros on some bank program and okay this is not a conspiracy theory blog) and all the stress associated with that.
  • The fact that it’s winter, and in the four winters we’ve weathered in this house, we’ve had pipes freeze and burst in the walls twice despite our best efforts, so does winter number five mean that nightmare is coming around again…
  • The kids have been quiet for a while, WHAT IS MY TODDLER DOING
  • The scent of burning that’s coming from somewhere and I can’t isolate it… is it the neighbors burning leaves? A car burning oil? The wires in the walls spontaneously combusting and preparing to burn the house down?
  • The theme song from Thomas the Tank Engine just keeps bouncing around in there for no good reason; it certainly isn’t helping me to focus. (Sidenote: “shunt” is a fun word that sounds dirty but isn’t–meaning to shove aside or divert–try using it at parties!)
  • How the balls did my kid dump an entire two pounds of dog food into the water bowl without me hearing it?

And that’s just the past, say, thirty seconds.

So any idea I’m trying to have, whether related to my current novel or any other prospective novel I may ever conceivably get around to writing if I ever finish this one, has to step into the steel cage death match with these other thoughts if it wants to win my focus long enough to be pondered, let alone written down and saved for later. And these other thoughts take no prisoners. They have nailbats and rusty crowbars and spiked shoes. That Thomas theme song carries around a friggin’ garrote in its pocket and will dispatch an interloping idea without batting an eye.

Somehow… somehow… some ideas make it through the riot of distractions and make it into the novel. I’m working on weaving in a particularly good one that occurred to me a few weeks ago while I was writing a blarg post about how I was stuck for ideas about how to improve my draft. Did it arise out of need? Was it the strongest of a series of weak, malformed conceptions of various other plot points I could have used instead, and the strongest survived? Or did it blunder through, catching the toddlers during a nap and catching that Thomas theme song looking the other way long enough to escape into daylight?

I have no idea where the ideas come from or how they get processed. I feel like if I did I’d be a tremendously better writer, and I could therefore avoid unnecessary and cumbersome adverbs in my prose, like “tremendously,” to choose a particularly egregious offender completely at random. Also egregious offenders: “particularly,” “completely,” and “egregious” (not an adverb but still offensive).

See, the idea to sidetrack into all that nonsense about adverbs came from somewhere, I decided it was a good detour to make and I made it. Somebody (even if that somebody is me) sent that message, and somebody (probably me) received it and acted on it.

Where does that impulse come from?

Is that my authorial text-transcending through-line? Is it an undercurrent of subconscious thematic tendency? Or did whoever’s pulling the strings in my writerly Thunderdome take pity on the adverb idea and give it a set of poison-tipped spiked brass knuckles to help it in the fight?

I fear this is one of those unknowable things that philosophers might struggle with through the ages, though they’d perhaps do it more eloquently than with Thunderdomes and brass knuckles. And they’d certainly steer clear of Thomas the Tank Engine and any associated theme songs.

This post is part of SoCS. This week’s prompt was the diabolical homonym quartet of “sense / scents / cents / sent”, a series of words which basically describes why anybody learning English as a second language might end up banging his head against a wall. Because I’m a fool for pain, I used them all.

Shunt.


TheMe (a Quandary)


That’s right, enough screwing around. This post is all about THE ME.  The big ol’ me, in all my… whats that?  Oh.  OHH.

Theme.  *ahem.*

Yeah, I guess that makes more sense.

Now, I’m not here to get all heavy-handed about theme.  I may be an English teacher and a kind-of-avid reader and a self-professed almost-amateur writer, but I don’t think the world or any narrative starts and stops with theme.  Not even a rolling stop.  Not even an oh-I-didn’t-know-that-was-a-stop-sign non-stop.  It’s important, sure.  But there’s more to life than theme.

But not that much more, right?  I mean, for any narrative, there’s a theme.  Any story, any poem, any six-second video of a guy texting and walking into traffic and getting obliterated by a bus has a theme.  Theme bleeds out of the story’s every orifice, it leaks out through the eyes and the nostrils and the earholes like a thick Ebola slurry.  It infuses every chapter, every sentence with its rosy, heady fog.  It’s there and unavoidable, like a screaming baby on a 5-hour flight.  You can’t have literature without it.

But how do you create it?

No, I’m really asking.  How do you craft theme?  Or, maybe more importantly, should you even try?

Theme is bouncing around the inside of my skull thanks to a conversation I had a few nights ago with a friend of mine about a story she wants to write.  Interestingly, she and I come from entirely different schools of storybuilding.  Like, she’s been pondering this idea for weeks if not months, has characters and names and costumes and really specific details of the set mapped out, and I… well, when I have an idea, I get about as far as thinking, “maybe it’d be cool if this thing happened and there was a guy with a thing like that” and then I start writing.  She’s analyzing possibilities and eventualities and the implications of interactions between these two characters and the symbolism of this character’s color scheme and I’m wondering if in my story one of the characters can get away with another fart joke.

So I shared with her my particular thoughs on attempting to convey a grand message through the narrative: it feels wrong.  Or, rather, it feels wrong to start there.  I should further clarify that it feels wrong to start there for me.  I feel as if theme, much like the all-female non-reproductive dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, will find a way.  Like weeds in a garden or mildew in a bathroom, it’s always there, lurking just out of sight, waiting for you to neglect it for a scant moment so that it can spring forth fully formed.  Trying, therefore, to cultivate theme makes about as much sense as trying to grow weeds (not weed, STAY WITH ME PEOPLE).  Why put all that effort into something that’s going to happen anyway?  Isn’t it a waste of my time trying to encourage mildew to grow when I could conceivably be building entirely new bathrooms?

But then I take a moment and I wonder what my story is all about.  I mean what it’s about.  You know, the big about, the one that seems super-important after four or five whiskey sours and you’ve just gotten finished talking about how every speck of dust in the universe is connected to every other speck and THAT’S why the government puts those chemicals in the water, man, to keep us from being absorbed by the cosmic ether, even though that’s obviously the next stage in human evolution.  You know, what my story’s ABOUT, man.  And it’s about sticktoitiveness, it’s about determination and the will to overcome, it’s about magical typewriters and Greek gods and mobsters.  It’s about believing in yourself and accomplishing anything, as George McFly once put it.  Isn’t it?

I mean, that message is there, certainly.  It’s a part of the story like bones are part of a person.  It’ll shine through when the editing and the rewriting and the rebuilding are done.  Right?

But what if it doesn’t?  What if, like the tin man, I forgot to build the heart into this thing, and I’m trying to bring it forth into the world to rust and wander aimlessly following the whims of some tart from Kansas?  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  You can’t build a house without a blueprint unless you don’t much care about trifles like structural integrity or roofs that don’t leak or, you know, functional plumbing (there’s a joke in there somewhere about how my story is total unredeemable sharknado, but I won’t be the guy to make it).  I’m counting on the theme to spring forth like flowers after a spring rain, but I’ve salted the earth with my failure to plan ahead.  To nutshell all this, I suddenly feel a bit silly about professing any sort of “expert-ness” about any of this writing business.

At any rate, I dispensed all this “advice” to her.  Put thoughts of theme aside for now; focus on making the story compelling first and let the theme follow after.  Upon further review, I wonder if I sound like that guy at the party wearing the bellbottoms and insisting that they’re coming back into style.  What, after all, do I know about any of this except that I’m having a heck of a lot of fun giving myself headaches and tearing my hair out over whether this story is ever going to actually work.

So, I’m really asking.  Where does theme come from?  Will it bubble to the surface like a bath fart or does it have to be coaxed out of the darkness like a feral kitten?  Do you have to plan for it for a theme to resonate or does it just happen like water spots on your wineglasses?  What, in short, makes theme work?


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