Aiming for the stars
The 50th anniversary of the first Moon landings is rapidly approaching. It’s set me thinking about various things, but I’ll stick to one or two here. I am old enough to remember the event, though I was a very small child at the time. My father insisted we be woken to come down and watch it on the television (black and white and a very grainy image) because to him it was so momentous; my mother believes to this day that it was all a fake. It set in train my love of astronomy, an ambition to become an astronaut and an enjoyment of sci-fi that endures to this day. Dad is also responsible for my love of Star Trek, allowing us to watch it when my mother didn’t think it was suitable. Thanks, Dad.
50 years on and I am not an astronaut, nor ever likely to be one. There is some small chance of my offspring one day having some involvement, but that’s it. Even had Britain pushed ahead with having its own space programme when I was young enough, every other possible thing would have been against me. Health, gender, culture at the time, you name it, it’d have counted against me. I have explored inner space instead, which doesn’t tend to make you throw up, or be late for your dinner, and very rarely gets you blown up. I am in awe of Professor Maggie Aderin-Pocock https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maggie_Aderin-Pocock for a dozen reasons and more and rejoice when she’s on TV. I hope that perhaps she may herself become an astronaut. I still try to watch The Sky at Night (though not if Prof Brian Cox is on, because his voice makes me fall asleep. Sorry Prof) and I love looking up at the stars especially if we are camping far away from light pollution.
But I haven’t failed. No, I’ll never travel the stars, not in this body anyway. There’s an old saying about “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” They’ve got it rather wrong, though. It should be “aim for the stars. Even if you miss you might land on the moon”. Because high ambition is only a problem when you are adamant that the only goal is the original one. If you ignore the journey and the experience and focus only on the destination, and the destination is denied you, then you’ll wind up disappointed at best.
I managed to let go that ambition many years ago. I think of it with fondness and a slightly rueful smile. I’m trying to do the same with another ambition, connected to writing, and lying in bed, awake, trying not to go down some grim rabbit holes (the last few months have been beyond brutal for so many reasons, and I was quite seriously ill over the weekend), I started to come to a point of peace with myself. Just as I realised in my teens that there was simply too much stacked against me to achieve the dream of space and that, really, that was OK, there was a quiet shifting in my heart that did the same for the writing. Every writer, pretty much, dreams of being The Next Big Thing. Of having a multi-million bestseller. Of signing hundreds of books at events. Some of that’d be nice, for sure. But quietly writing some good books, publishing them without a huge furore and fanfare for the people who do like them, and having a sense of satisfaction about it, that’s nicer still. I’m reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain at the moment. She wrote a number of books in the 1930’s, novels that got significant acclaim, and then her writing stuttered out. “In 1931,- even at the apex of her output – she was smitten by something close to depression at her inability to write. “I’ve gone dumb,” she wrote blackly to Gunn that year. “One reaches (or I do) these dumb places in life. I suppose there’s nothing for it but to go on living. Speech may come. Or it may not. And it it doesn’t I suppose one have just got to be content to be dumb. At least not shout for the mere sake of making a noise.”” But the words came back, sort of, and The Living Mountain, all 30 k words of it, was it. It sat in a drawer for decades, being published eventually in 1977, not many years before her death. It’s been taken up in recent years by other popular writers and naturalists as an essential book for mountain lovers. No, she didn’t live to see how much it changed nature writing, or how beloved a book it became. But she wrote it. You can feel the experiences she wrote about, powerful and vivid. It had to be written.
I do not doubt that there may be many, many books written that never see the light of day, many of which could change lives, enhance the world and be beloved if they ever did. The important thing is writing them. Because that is pretty much the only thing a writer has even the slightest amount of control over.