How do you write like you’re running out of time? (Essay 10 of 52)

The original Broadway cast recording of Hamilton has been in rotation on my Tidal playlist since early January. That’s when I rode from Louisville to Maryland with a perceptive friend and theater professional who noted that the story being played out in Hamilton—and at that moment,  on the media device in her car—is one of a writer mastering his craft and coming to be recognized, rewarded, and even feared in his profession.

I use the soundtrack as a motivator—or at least, that’s my intention. I start the morning with it instead of NPR on my writing days. My favorite lyrics of the writing subplot are these:

Our man saw his future drip, drippin’ down the drain

Put a pencil to his temple connected it to his brain

And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

From there, the story of Hamilton as a professional is largely one of ascension. As the Broadway version goes, Hamilton writes his way out of poverty in Barbados to just-poor-student in New York. He writes his way into a wealthy family through letters to the woman who becomes his wife. He writes 51 essays in six months to persuade the public of the value of the new Constitution. (These documents would become the Federalist Papers.) While not holding office, he eviscerates enemies in print so thoroughly he’s deemed “a threat” “as long as he can hold a pen.”

Learned. Loved. Desired. Successful. Dangerous. Hamilton is the kind of writer, and to some extent (loved and desired) the kind of human, I want to be. My favorite track, “Non-Stop,” even provides a guide as to how to be just like him:

How to account for his rise to the top?

Maaaaan, the man is

Non-stop!

How do you write like you’re running out of time?                             

Write day and night like you’re running out of time?

True, the narrative is deceptively bootstrappy. An immigrant and bastard child-turned-orphan who came from nothing makes his way to America, gets an education, works hard, non-stop, day and night, with no help from anyone else, and purely of his own will and ingenuity, he achieves wealth and rises to the top in the profession of his dreams. He even gets the wife, two kids (maybe a dog, too?), and some lovers to play with before and after the wedding vows. The story leaves out the luck of timing—Hamilton wished for a war so he could become a decorated veteran and raise his status; the Revolutionary War happened—the luck of being born male so that a militaristic rise to the top was possible and pregnancy was not; the role of women/daughters in helping men attain wealth (that’s downplayed, not omitted); and the role of servants and enslaved persons who allow rich girls the time to become the types of cultured women who attract rising men and and become wives who are good showpieces, and who allow men the time to go to work or to war or to write.

So when the lyrics to “Non-Stop” ask,

How do you write like you’re running out of time?                             

Write day and night like you’re running out of time?

There’s a real, unsaid answer: dude is never running out of time.

But I still want to believe Hamilton’s writing narrative is possible for me, too. When I hear these lyrics from “Non-Stop”—

How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?

How do you write like you need it to survive?

How do you write ev’ry second you’re alive?

Ev’ry second you’re alive? Ev’ry second you’re alive?

—I think not about time management and all the help I wish I had but about passion, purpose, and obsession. There is a drive to do this thing, to write and make a living from it, a life out of it. To write my own testament to my pain and joy, to write responses to the issues of the day, to pen texts that are meaningful and influential, to write for the cause of freedom.

Why do you write like you’re running out of time?

Write day and night like you’re running out of time?

For Hamilton, as portrayed in the music, I think it was because he wanted to leave a legacy and he didn’t know how else to do it. For me, it’s because I have a lot [I want] to say, I say it well, and because I believe what I have to say is valuable to the world. As a teacher wrote when she autographed my copy of her book, my “story burns to blaze its own fire.”

But I am always running out of time. I told my thesis adviser last week that out of all the essays I’ve started since I’ve been in grad school, I’ve finished one. He asked why that is. I told him sometimes I don’t know how to start with revisions. Other times, I was working on something time-sensitive, and the time passed. Those things aren’t even necessarily reactions to current events; they’re often personal issues about which my feelings have changed, and what I was writing is no longer meaningful to me and therefore not worth completing. And for the things I do still want to finish, it’s always an issue of time management, work-school-creativity-life balance. Hands free to do my hair or for keystrokes.

I recently discovered that if something is in my head, and I really want to write about it, even sex isn’t enough to distract me from it. That confirms for me that my passion for writing is real, that I will pursue this writers life like I need it to survive. And I hope I’m able to say everything before time runs out the way it eventually does for all of us.


Author’s note: This essay is part of the #52Essays2017 series. Every week in 2016, Vanessa Mártir published one essay on her blog. After a phenomenal year of challenges and growth as a writer, she invited other writers in various communities she’s a part of to join her as she endeavors to write weekly, relentlessly, again in 2017. I’m in on the challenge because I saw how very little space I gave personal reflection in 2016. This is my thesis semester, and I expect some challenges and growth as I write it. The weekly essay challenge provides a space to document that growth (though I’m already thinking I might screw with the genre a little).

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2 thoughts on “How do you write like you’re running out of time? (Essay 10 of 52)

  1. Just keep writing! It’s wonderful.
    Also, as to the not finishing any essays point toward the end, I don’t think I know any writer (or creator of anything) who finishes anything unless they have a hard and real deadline. That’s just how it is, whether it’s an essay, a book, a poem, an article. This might be helpful for your thesis advisor to know, since he’s advising thesis writers!
    Keep at it — you’re great.

    1. Thanks, Briana!

      Yeah, my adviser is much looser with deadlines than I would prefer, but there is a hard deadline of May 4th to have the thesis printed, read by all, signed for approval, and submitted to whomever makes the decisions about whether it’s acceptable.

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