By Carmella Van Vleet
She hates it.
Okay. Fine. So my agent might have said it wasn’t quite there yet - or something equally as gentle. There was probably some encouraging stuff in her email, too. But inside my head, all I heard was She hates it.
My debut picture book about astronaut Dr. Kathy Sullivan, To the Stars, has been a real labor of love. Translation: the kind of book that causes you to curl up in a ball and wonder if you’ve chosen the right profession. Lest you think my daughter-the-actor got her dramatic flair from her mother, allow me to share this tidbit with you: from idea to publication, To the Stars took me twelve years!
The finished product sits atop years of drafts
I’m gonna pause for a moment and let that sink in. Twelve years. According to Google, 2004 was the year Friends ended and Facebook started. Mean Girls was released as well as, um, a certain part of Janet Jackson’s anatomy.
I worked on the book so long that, at one point, my own mother suggested it was time to let it go. And you know it’s bad when your mom is telling you to throw in the towel.
But I believed deeply in the story. I knew it would work; I’d find the right angle eventually. So I’d pull it out of the drawer every once in a while and work on it. I wrote and published other books in the mean time, of course. And after my agent sold my middle grade novel, I got a burst of confidence and dusted off my “astronaut story” for the millionth time. (By then, I was certain my co-author, Kathy Sullivan herself, had given up on me or any hope of her story ever seeing the light of day.) I asked my critique group to help me polish it up. And then I sent it off to my agent. It was brilliant! It was going to be snatched right up!
It was...still not quite working.
I did what I always do when I’ve hit a creative wall. I threw a tantrum complete with crying and whining and the eating of donuts. But a funny thing happened on the way through Tim Horton’s drive-thru. I was complaining about how everyone seemed to want me to write about Kathy’s life at NASA and I just wanted to write about Kathy’s childhood. And my daughter said, “But Mom. She was an astronaut. You can’t skip the space stuff.”
And suddenly two images popped into my head: Kathy dangling her feet in the Breezy (an open-frame airplane she took a ride in as a teenager) and Kathy looking down at Venezuela between her boots as she did her space walk. Kathy had described this latter experience as reminiscent of dangling from your knees on a tree branch as a kid.
From there, I began matching up scenes from Kathy’s childhood to Kathy’s experience as a space pioneer. (She was one of the six women chosen for the first space shuttle class and the first American women to walk in space.) And it quickly became clear this back-and-forth storytelling format was the perfect way to express what Kathy and I had wanted to all along - that what you love as a kid can translate into life-long passions. And you shouldn’t worry about what you’re going to do “when you grow up” because your job may not even be invented yet!
Once I made this connection, the story shifted into place. It was like finally seeing all the colors match up in a Rubric’s cube. (Not that I’ve ever personally experienced this….stupid 1980’s puzzle.)
The point is, we never really know how close we are to finding that one, final piece that’s going to click everything into place. We have to stay open to the great Maybe.
MAYBE this approach will be the right one.
MAYBE this new reader will be able to see what I keep missing.
MAYBE down the road I’ll be a better writer and ready to tackle this project.
MAYBE I’m not being stubborn by sticking by this story. MAYBE I’m actually on to something.
MAYBE this time when I open an email from my agent it’ll say, “You nailed it!” Or better yet, MAYBE this time the phone will ring with great news.
I bet you have a “labor of love” story, too. Most writers do. Is it time to put it aside for a while? Or is it time to dig deep and keep writing? I wish I had a crystal ball so I could tell you. But here’s what I’ve learned by sticking with my “astronaut story” all these years: you already know what will happen if you give up. What you can’t know is what will happen if you don’t.
Carmella Van Vleet is the author of To the Stars! The First American Woman to Walk in Space
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