Advice for Astronauts and Artists

Window to the World (NASA, International Space Station Science, 02/10)

Window to the World (NASA, International Space Station Science, 02/10)

NASA is currently accepting applications for a new class of astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. Giving a glimpse into the NASA life, current astronaut Stan Love shares some advice for applicants.

Most surprising for me? How much of Love’s advice could be applied to writers.

I know. Usually when we talk about STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) careers, they’re at the opposite end of careers in the arts. STEM careers are stable, money-makers. Arts careers are an unstable crapshoot.

But Love’s description of life as an astronaut suggests that the two career paths are way more common than you’d suspect. He talks about the ups and downs of having one of the coolest jobs ever:

“It’s hands down the coolest job on or off the planet…The cherry on top is actually strapping into a rocket and blasting off to orbit around Earth (or, starting in a few years with Exploration Mission-2, the moon). You’ll float peacefully in weightlessness and gaze out the window as our amazing planet rolls by underneath you at 25 times the speed of sound.

Unfortunately, most of an astronaut’s time isn’t spent in space. It’s spent working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas…At my house, an astronaut takes the trash out to the curb every Tuesday morning.”

I don’t know much about being an astronaut, but that totally reminds me of being a writer. Writing is awesome–nothing beats being totally immersed in a story, understanding the characters and their motivation and riding along with the plot.

Center of the Milky Way Galaxy (NASA, Chandra, 11/10/09)

Center of the Milky Way Galaxy (NASA, Chandra, 11/10/09)

But that’s not most of writing. Sometimes it’s you, staring at your computer, writing a sentence and deleting it, or deciding that the last chapter isn’t going to work. It’s finishing a draft and going back to revise it for the fifth time. It’s querying and going on sub and getting rejected and getting bad reviews. It’s balancing your writing with your family and friends and other jobs and that laundry that somehow hasn’t learned to do itself.

Come on, you think. Anyone with a STEM background automatically gets a great job! What does someone at NASA know about rejection? Um, a lot, it turns out:

“In our last selection in 2013, we had more than 6,000 serious applicants. We hired eight of them. That’s just slightly better than one-in-a-thousand odds…I started sending in applications – and updating them regularly – in 1991. I did that seven times in all. I got an interview (an exciting milestone, since it means you’ve made the short list) in 1994. I interviewed three times before finally getting hired in 1998. I like to joke that I didn’t so much impress the Astronaut Selection Board as wear them down.”

Kind of like the querying/submission process, right? One rejection doesn’t mean you’re not a worthwhile candidate or that your career is over. It means maybe not right now. It means keep trying.

Love also talks about managing expectations with regard to the application process, rejection, and not framing your life around trying to game the system:

I met some folks who had dedicated their whole lives to becoming astronauts. They learned to fly, not because they love airplanes, but because they heard that the Astronaut Selection Board likes pilots. They learned to scuba dive, not because they love the sea, but because they heard that the board likes scuba divers. I observed folks doing these things, and then not getting selected (the likeliest outcome), and then becoming very, very bitter and disappointed people.

I didn’t want to follow their example, and I recommend that you don’t either. Instead, just do what you love doing.

I was drawing pictures of airplanes and spaceships in first grade, so when I had the chance to earn a pilot’s license, or take elective courses in aerospace engineering…or take a job as an engineer working on spacecraft optical instruments at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I jumped on it. And I had a blast.

Now, all of those things were also good for applying to be an astronaut, so I went ahead and included them on my applications. But because I was doing what I loved, I would have been perfectly happy where I was—even if I hadn’t been picked as an astronaut.


Space weather forecast from @ISS: Moonless with a chance of #Perseid meteors! – photo by Astronaut Scott Kelly

There’s no way to know what a publisher will like, what kind of book is going to be the next major bestseller, or what kind of book will be in print for the next fifty years. You can try to write a book that you think has all the elements of being a bestseller (vampire dystopian quirky romance!), but there’s no way it’s going to resonate with anyone if you don’t write it out of pure love. Sometimes the story you love is also the story that’ll sell a gajillion copies and get you a castle next to JK Rowling’s. If that’s the case, awesome. But you get there because you’re writing the story of your heart, not because you’re writing the story you think will sell.

For artists and for astronauts, you have to deal with a lot of rejection. Maybe someday you’ll see your book on a shelf or see the Earth from orbit. Maybe not. But the work you do should be what propels you forward–even when it’s not fun and when it really feels like work. Because when you put yourself and your passion in your work, that comes through to editors and to the Astronaut Selection Board.

I get super motion sick, so I won’t be applying to the astronaut class anytime soon. But I’m glad to take a little astronaut advice into my writing life as we all explore new worlds.

Friday Fifteen

Happy Friday, guys! I’m powering through revisions and am emotionally unprepared for how cold it’s going to get over the weekend here in the Boston area. In the meantime, here’s a look at what I’ve been reading and writing in fifteen words or under.

Reading: The Martian by Andy Weir
Fun and funny and loved how it embraced science. Mentally cast Anthony Mackie as Watney.

Writing: “…pretend that I have a little more creativity than spiking the punch at College Night.”
Character has standards for his pranks.

That Old Black Hole

Love this video of a second grader asking Neil deGrasse Tyson about black holes colliding:

I like that he takes the question seriously and talks about how cool the physics of this situation would be without condescending to this boy. Kids at that age are just starting to learn about the universe, and it’s a great time to get them inspired by astronomy. I remember doing an astronomy unit in second grade and it was the best. More funding for science and space research/education, please!

Also, now I have this song in my head:

Do the black hole, everybody!

(via swissmiss)

The Eureka Moment and Why Breaks Are Important

You know how you can sit in front of your computer, struggling to figure out how to get your main character from point A to point B, and then it hits you when you’re in the middle of brushing your teeth that night? A new study confirms you’re not alone.

Apparently, study participants were given a challenging task. Some participants were allowed to have a break, and others weren’t. The ones who had a break performed better at the task afterward than the ones who had to work straight through the allotted time. This suggests that breaks are actually helpful in getting your mind working in new ways.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can skip the work, just take breaks, and expect results:

“The implication is that mind-wandering was only helpful for problems that were already being mentally chewed on. It didn’t seem to lead to a general increase in creative problem-solving ability,” says [research team leader Benjamin] Baird.

So get to work, but also feel free to give yourself a little time away from the desk if you’re stuck on a particular issue.

Write Your Own STEM Haiku

What happens when you combine the sciences and the arts? STEM haiku at STEM Friday! The idea, in celebration of National Poetry Month:

  1. Select a STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) topic.
  2. Brainstorm a list of words about your topic.
  3. Count the syllables in each word.
  4. Use the words to share a short STEM thought using the haiku format.

What a cool way to combine poetry and science. My example:

A siren wails.
It approaches, wavelength shifts–
Wave farewell, Doppler.

Try out your own science haiku and share below or in the comments at STEM Friday.

Understanding, Not Fear

Brain Pickings has a great roundup of quotes from famous scientists about what science is. One of my favorites, by Marie Curie:

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

A fantastic philosophy for life in general, and I think one writers should keep in mind as well. Part of writing and reading means opening your mind to other possibilities and ways of life, even if they’re uncomfortable or scary. The more we understand, the better.

Science in a Second

When I was in first and second grade, I was really into books that explained different scientific phenomena or natural events. (Why does the moon change shape? Where do fish go in the winter? How do birds fly?) Of course I can’t remember the titles of these books, but they were a nice introduction to science. Similarly, Just a Second by Steve Jenkins is a cool combination of science facts and great illustrations based around what can happen in nature in just a second. The review at Brain Pickings shares some images from the book, like this one:

Books like Just a Second impart information, but I think they’re most valuable as tools to get kids excited about science and the world around them. I see this image and immediately focus on the whale because, come on, whales are freakin’ amazing. Maybe someone else will see this and think “Light is intense!” and investigate more about physics. I wish I could have added this one to my book collection in first grade!