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The Writer

How I Write: Mike Mullane

Since when does a former space-shuttle astronaut show a natural narrative voice and poetically capture the beauty of outer space? And since when does an astronaut candidly admit the fears he felt on the launch pad? For readers of his memoir, Riding Rockets, Mike Mullane shows a lot of the right stuff ? literarily speaking. "He's a natural when it comes to voice and narrative," says Brant Rumble, his editor at Scribner's. Mullane's take on his brave occupation is memorable for its emotional honesty and crazy humor. A West Point graduate, he flew 134 combat missions in Vietnam, earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering and completed three shuttle missions. He retired from flight in 1990 and is now a successful motivational speaker.

Credits: He has also written a children's book, Liftoff!, and a space-fact book, Do Your Ears Pop In Space?

Why: I've always had this kind of a flicker of literary creation in my soul. I can remember that even in high school, English teachers would give term papers, and you know how most kids absolutely dread doing one. But I always liked the challenge of a term paper and enjoyed writing them. (But I also kept that secret from my classmates, knowing they'd beat the holy crap out of me if they knew I was enjoying it.)

Writing routine: First, I'm 60, my kids are gone from the house, I didn't have the distractions of "married with children." But I spend a lot of time on the road with my speaking business, and so my routine was to write on airplanes and in hotels. When I was home I'd write there, too.

Process: I tried initially to outline and go from there, but I found that I really couldn't visualize my book enough to outline it. I call mine the shotgun type of process. I would have in my head some very, very vivid Hollywood-movie-type images of certain events in my life. They were very easy to write because it was like I was there. And I would tend to sit down and write that scene, not having any idea what would follow or come before, but I'd just write that one scene that was so intense. As I did, it would bring up other memories that I could not conjure when I was attempting to do an outline. And I would then go from there backwards and write something that came into that intense scene, or proceed from that scene, and write from there. And I had all of this manuscript and then I could go back and see where I could move things around to make the story flow better, and break it into chapters.

Writing honestly: If you're going to write a memoir, be brutally honest. And then you're probably going to have some real fears about "Can I say that?" Let the editor and agent decide whether that's something you can say or should be in there.

When you're an astronaut, you really get a kind of fraternity where there are certain unwritten rules, and one is that you don't open yourself up, you don't reveal the gut terror that you experience in the business.

Advice: If I had the brain that could allow me to outline and synopsize, it would have saved me a lot of time. But I couldn't. So I ended up basically having to write my story from scratch. Go ahead and write it however you find it necessary to write. Keep a journal. It helped immensely in my writing of Riding Rockets. I didn't keep a journal in Vietnam (the people, the missions, the fear, etc.), and I deeply regret that; if I had, I would have already written another book. When we experience things in our youth, we think we'll remember them forever and don't write them down. Later, when we have time as old farts to write, we can't recall those memories.

More on why he writes: When it came to Riding Rockets, I wanted to tell my story about being an astronaut. I had read every other astronaut story that's out there. Some of them are very good, but I always felt like they didn't really tell the emotional side of it, the fear, the joy; didn't talk about the spouses all that much. Most of the astronaut stories I had read before were kind of on the mission, or the machine, and the people were kind of secondary to that. I just had this desire to tell my story as opposed to a mission or a program.

Actually, looking back on it, I can see I had an advantage in writing this in the sense that I wasn't a celebrity. No one had ever heard of Mike Mullane. I didn't blow up on my way to the moon, like Jim Lovell did with Apollo 13; Jerry Linenger was up on the Mir space station when they had a fire. Of course, the books they wrote centered around these specific events, but I didn't have any of that. Two of my three shuttle missions I can't talk about at all because they were classified military missions.

So I was kind of forced into writing about the human aspect of it because I didn't have much else. Looking back on it, I can see now that was an advantage because I started writing about my personal feelings of fear and joy, or talking about the inter-astronaut relationships, our relationships with management, a lot of the fun and crude stuff that men from planet Arrested Development get involved with. And it turned out that that's obviously what people like to read.

Writer's voice: I guess we all have that voice. I didn't know what my voice was. I didn't know what was going to come out when I sat down at that computer. I started writing and I just wrote in the voice that appeared and my muse brought to my fingertips. It was the only way I could write. I was concerned with some of these scenes. I'd think, "Oh my God, I can't say that. I mean, I can't say I got an erection in space or the thing about seeing the female anatomy in a pear." My wife would read it and say, "Can you say this stuff?" [Laughter.] And I felt the same way. That's the beauty of having an agent and editor there because I thought, well, I'll let them tell me I can't say it. So I kept most of it.

One of the things I was also very concerned about was I didn't want to embarrass other astronauts.

Describing the beauty of outer space One of the things I did after the missions was I sat down and made notes of some of the things I saw, to make sure I didn't forget them, like seeing the northern lights or the thunderstorms or city lights or whatever it was. I would describe it to myself in a journal, so I had that to fall back on. But again, I think it goes back to the fact that because I didn't have celebrity or something else well known that had centered my life, I found it easy to say, "Well, I'm going to describe what it was like, I mean, because I'm not distracted by describing, ?Oh, I had to look at this instrument to make sure that the burn was within 2/10ths of a foot per second,' " that type of thing. So I had the leisure, I guess, of being able to say, "Well, I am going to describe what it was like to sit there at that [spacecraft] window and look out in those quiet sleep-period moments and just describe my thoughts." I looked through a lot of photographs to remind myself. I actually read some other astronauts' descriptions of things they saw just to refresh my memory of things I had seen. I had plenty to draw the memory of it out.

More on rejection: You ought not quit at the first one. Maybe if you've tried it for 10 years and have had 50 manuscripts rejected, maybe at that point you throw out the white flag, but certainly not early in your career should you be quitting after being rejected.

When I first sat down to write many years ago, right after I got out of NASA, I wanted to be the next Tom Clancy. I wanted to write fiction, techno thrillers. So I wrote a novel titled "Red Sky," and it got rejected by virtually very publisher on the planet. So I knew what rejection was like.
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