Astronauts, writers and turning 52

Feeling ready to do something doesn’t mean feeling certain you’ll succeed, though of course that’s what you’re hoping to do. Truly being ready means understanding what could go wrong – and having a plan to deal with it . . . Being forced to confront the prospect of failure head-on – to study it, dissect it, tease apart all its components and consequences – really works. After a few years of doing that pretty much daily, you’ve forged the strongest possible armor to defend against fear: hard-won competence.
– Chris Hadfield, from An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Susan Ruiz, friend and fellow mom from our elementary school, recommended to me a book she’d read that provided valuable lessons in parenting. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth was written and published last year by Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut whose viewing of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon set his life path in motion as a then nine-year-old. His goal was to become an astronaut, even though at the time the Canadian Space Agency did not exist. He forged on at first on faith and then by exploring every opportunity that he faced or mined. I’ve only read 80 pages out of the approximately 280 pages of the book, but I already feel compelled to blog about it because something I had read on the plane on my way to our company’s annual conference this past Sunday struck a chord with me. It was a timely, serendipitous moment.

Philosophy in the clouds.

Philosophy in the clouds.

Acknowledging my stress
I’d finished proofing my manuscript the week before and updated the query letter that I would soon be sending out to literary agents. I’d already sent out the synopsis to a former classmate of mine, awaiting the green light that would allow me to send the entire manuscript to him. I was also getting ready for the conference. And lastly, I was turning 52, which happened yesterday – an event that was going to happen away from my home and my family. You could say I was a little stressed out.

So there I was on the packed airplane, having snagged a coveted window seat, with the book on my lap for uninterrupted hours of reading. By then, I had already acknowledged my stress over the fate of the manuscript. As I lamented to a few friends, in particular my friend, Jack, all these years I had soldiered on to finish the novel and write the best novel I could. Many times what kept me going, when I was despairing that I would never finish it, was the fact that I could beat down that despair and actually finish it. I visualized the moment when I would finish it and celebrate that victorious moment against all odds. Other times, and more often, I just kept going because I couldn’t imagine not going forward after all, not finishing after all.

I am also a control freak. And I relished being in the driver’s seat. I could control finishing it. But once it was done, I was left in that uncomfortable position of having to relinquish control. Now it would be up to a literary agent who may spend a few minutes poring over the query letter, synopsis, and the first few pages of the manuscript, and either get pulled in or not. A sick feeling formed in my gut, again, which I had remembered and resurrected, after forgetting that sensation the last time I had finished a draft and sent it out. It was not unlike the survival-of-the-species mechanism of forgetting intense labor pains in order to procreate again. Once you neared giving birth, you all of a sudden remember the pain from the first labor. The sick feeling was understanding that I would spend years working on something and being in control, only to give it up and let others decide my fate.

More clouds for thinking heady thoughts.

More clouds for thinking heady thoughts.

Words of wisdom: never lose attitude
And then the serendipitous moment occurred. I read a section of Hadfield’s book that put everything I was feeling into perspective:

“Getting to space depends on many variables and circumstances that are entirely beyond an individual astronaut’s control, so it always made sense to me to view space flight as a bonus, not as entitlement. And like any bonus, it would be foolhardy to bank on it. Fortunately, there’s plenty to keep astronauts engaged and enthusiastic about the job…. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t feel it’s a job full of dreams.

“Taking the attitude that I might never get to space – and then, after I did get there, that I might never go back – helped me hold onto that feeling for more than two decades. Because I didn’t hang everything – my sense of self-worth, my happiness, my professional identity – on space flight, I was excited to go to work every single day, even during the 11 years after my second mission when I didn’t fly and was, at one point, told definitively that I never would again (more on that later).

“It sounds strange, probably, but having a pessimistic view of my own prospects helped me love my job. I’d argue it even had a positive effect on my career: because I love learning new things, I volunteered for a lot of extra classes, which bulked up my qualifications, which in turn increased my opportunities at NASA. However, success, to me, never was and still isn’t about lifting off in a rocket (though that sure felt like a great achievement). Success is feeling good about the work you do throughout the long, unheralded journey that may or may not wind up at the launch pad. You can’t view training solely as a stepping stone to something loftier. It’s got to be an end in itself.

“In space flight, ‘attitude’ refers to orientation: which direction your vehicle is pointing relative to the Sun, Earth and other spacecraft. If you lost control of your attitude, two things happen: the vehicle starts to tumble and spin, disorienting everyone on board, and it also strays from its course, which, if you’re short on time or fuel, could mean the difference between life and death. In the Soyuz, for example, we use every cue from every available source – periscope, multiple sensors, the horizon – to monitor our attitude constantly and adjust if necessary. We never want to lose attitude since maintaining attitude is fundamental to success.

“In my experience, something similar is true on Earth. Ultimately, I don’t determine whether I arrive at the desired professional destination. Too many variables are out of my control. There’s really just one thing I can control: my attitude during the journey, which is what keeps me feeling steady and stable, and what keeps me headed in the right direction. So I consciously monitor and correct, if necessary, because losing attitude would be far worse than not achieving my goal.”

My room with a view in Orlando.

My room with a view in Orlando.

Applying wisdom to me
Now I will admit that I was skeptical when I read this section. I thought to myself, “Really? He had wanted to be an astronaut since age nine and I’m to believe that if he’d never gone to space he would have been happy with his life?” I think I even used the word “failure” when I told my friend, Jack, about the section. Granted, I was finishing up my first glass of wine at our company event last night.

I easily transferred his words and situation to my own. Was writing the novel victory enough because it took more than 16 years to finish? Was it enough to feel such a high and to feel empowered and truly happy when I was finding the right word, phrase, or sentence to capture the moment in the novel, to capture what my protagonist was feeling at the time, to capture the arc of the scene or the chapter? Would I feel a failure if a literary agent didn’t love it and fight for it, if a book editor didn’t excitedly shepherd it through the publishing process, if the marketers didn’t ensure its success by backing it with marketing dollars, if reviewers didn’t write glowingly of it in major publications, and if readers didn’t rush to buy it and share with their book clubs?

Years ago, Jack once quoted Hemingway, who said – and I’m paraphrasing and therefore likely butchering the original quote – that he wrote to be read, for what is the use if nobody reads your words? When I was much younger, I used to write but not want to show anybody what I wrote because I was too afraid of what people would think and fearful of criticism. Since then, I’ve written and continue to write, wanting very much for others to read it and get something out of it. That still means a lot to me.

Fortunately, the publishing world has changed dramatically since even late 2005-early 2006, when a version of the novel was rejected so many times. There’s online publishing. There are ways to get read. There are platforms, venues, and channels that upend the old way of being read. So do I need to go through the traditional route? Do I feel the need to face potentially more rejection and punishment? No. But am I going forth expecting such a reaction? Hadfield gave me new eyes into this part of the journey.

I love to write. Period. I know I will have an audience, but the size of the audience is not something I can predict. How do I want to get to the next leg of my journey? Hadfield stares fear in the face because it’s not really fear. For one, if you prepare yourself, you’re not facing fear. You are in control, and whatever the outcome, you will know how to react. And if you love to write and you have been writing for years, you have already led a fulfilling life. And you will continue to lead a fulfilling life.

As I turned 52 yesterday – not with my family but with my good friends and colleagues from work – I had given myself an invaluable, intangible but very real present (as did my friend, Susan!). Happy birthday, indeed.

My friends, or "frolleagues," celebrating my birthday in Orlando!

My friends, or “frolleagues,” celebrating my birthday in Orlando!