What Jonathan Larson teaches us about writing

I’ve been haunted by Tick, Tick … Boom, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical, since I saw it (twice) the weekend it was released on Netflix. It helps that my eldest son immediately decided to learn the stunning opening number, 30/90, on the piano. But beyond the background soundtrack to my afternoons, I can’t stop thinking about the lessons the film offers for academic writing. (Err, spoilers follow, but seriously, watch the film!)

Deadlines help and hurt

Tick … tick … boom opens with the fictionalized Jonathan staring down three deadlines: his upcoming 30th birthday, the public presentation of his not-quite-finished musical, and (the deadline the real Larson couldn’t know) the brain aneurysm that would take his life six years later. Tick, tick. The character Jonathan will hand over the score for the last song of Superbia on the morning of the workshop; he will turn 30 without writing a hit show but surrounded by his friends; and the real Larson will die just as his masterpiece, Rent, opens on Broadway.

Jonathan sets himself lots of deadlines … and misses every one of them. As “the future of American musical theater” (or so he tells people he meets at parties), he is already behind his own target: Sondheim staged his first Broadway play at 27! His musical lacks a solo for the leading lady: will he write it before the workshop is planned? before rehearsals starts? before the last run-through? No, no, no. Sound familiar? But does he meet the hardest of hard deadlines-the performance itself? Yes. Would he have written the song without the pressure of this deadline? Maybe not. Would it have been as good as “Come to Your Senses”? Unlikely.

Academics have a strange relationship with deadlines. We’re notorious for imposing them on our students yet ignoring them in our own work. Honestly, if I submit a journal review a few days late, I feel virtuous. My co-author and I breezed past the 2019 deadline we set ourselves for our textbook project. But my grades are due on the 20th, and they will be on time because my students depend on me. External deadlines can help.

Self-imposed deadlines are much more complex. Jonathan is obsessed by his 30th birthday just as some academics feel compelled to graduate before X, go up for tenure by X, and so on. If nothing else, Tick, tick…boom shows us how goals, accountability, and drive-all necessary-can too easily become obsession, disappointment, and demotivation.

Inspiration is fickle

One of the emotional climaxes of the movie finds Jonathan unable to write more than a single word on his Apple II, his power shut off, his girlfriend not returning his calls … so he goes swimming. As he churns through the water, the lines on the bottom of the pool-the actual pool Larson swam in-resolve into staff lines where the music and lyrics for his new song appear. Watch it (again): it’s wonderful.

This might be the only experience I share with Jonathan Larson: in college, when I was stuck on an essay, I would go swimming. Something about the sheer mindlessness of swimming up and down the same lane cleared my head, and while my undergraduate essays on seventeenth-century French literature were hardly the future of British literary criticism, I sometimes found I made more progress in my writing by not actually writing. Worth a try (once it’s safe again) if you’re stuck.

Write until you get it right

In the next emotional high point of the movie, Jonathan deals with his best friend’s AIDS diagnosis by playing a piano in the rain on the stage of the Central Park outdoor theater. As you do. The song, “Why,” charts Jonathan/Larson’s development from performing a Saturday afternoon matinee at the YMCA to writing the musical he will never stage. He (Larson) describes his (Jonathan’s) writing process with painful elegance: “Over and over and over / ‘Til I got it right.” Hands up if you can relate.

Choose your idols carefully

While Jonathan may think he’s the future of musical theater, he is well aware of the current master of the stage (ca. 1990): Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim both tortures and encourages Jonathan: the young writer feels inadequate next to his hero, yet it is Sondheim who pinpoints the crucial missing song and Sondheim who calls Jonathan after the workshop (the voice on the answer phone is Sondheim himself, not actor Bradley Whitford, a poignant Easter Egg). This isn’t romanticized idolatry: after Sondheim’s death just weeks ago, writers and actors lined up to tell stories of the encouraging notes that the great writer was famous for.

Find a mentor like Sondheim, and then be a giant like him. Children (and students) will listen.

Write what you know

Oh it’s trite, I know, but it’s true. The workshop is a hit, of course it is, but Superbia is a mess: even the actors don’t quite understand the plot, and it’s too cerebral, risky, and expensive to produce. Jonathan’s agent tells him next time he needs to write about what he knows (not more dystopic cyberpunk). We all know what happens next in reality: Larson writes Rent and truly becomes the future of American musical theater. The elements of Rent are strewn through Tick…tick…boom: the Greenwich Village setting, the Bohemian life, the unheated attic, the writer who needs to finish his own song, the artist who makes good and gets a real job, the AIDS epidemic, even the scarf. But Rent isn’t autobiographical: what Larson doesn’t know, he learns to write about. Academic writing, too, has to start with a deep knowledge of the subject: the literature review isn’t just ethos-building. That’s why reading, experimenting, talking to peers, attending conferences, and peer review are all part of writing.

Your reader can’t wait to see what you’ll do next

Back to the agent. It was wonderful, she enthuses! All the big name producers loved it, and they can’t wait to see what you’ll write next. Jonathan is briefly crushed, and then buoyed by Sondheim’s phone call, he celebrates his 30th birthday and starts writing the next show (Larson’s next show after Superbia was Tick…tick…boom, making this the meta-moment to end them all).

Academic writers face this challenge all the time, especially with the dissertation. It’s great! It’s revolutionary! It’s 300 pages long plus 20 pages of references, and no-one apart from your committee (and maybe your mum) will ever read it! The world can’t wait to see the next article you write. And then the book. And then the grant proposal. And then the next article. And that’s a good thing: even after rejection (another part of the academic writing process), the work goes on because there are other stories to tell, other studies to conduct, other theories to explore, other texts to analyze, other behaviors to explain. This is the life (bobo bobo bo).

There’s never enough time

Miranda seems drawn to historical figures like Larson and Hamilton who “write like [they’re] running out of time.” Both men would burn bright and die young, although there the analogy dries up. The opening number, 30/90, starts: “Stop the clock / Take time out / Time to regroup / Before you lose the bout.” That’s Larson writing with terrifying prescience as he faced his own 30th birthday, not a biographer writing with the benefit of hindsight.

Here’s what I take from this song: we can’t stop the clock, but we can and should take time out to regroup. And then dive back in to the work, write until you get it right, because here’s the message from Tick…tick…boom to those of us who are procrastinating: “It’s now or never land.”

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL, the Online Program Manager for the University of Delaware English Language Institution, and a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. He lives in Delaware in the United States.

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