Friday, June 24, 2011

When I Grow Up, I'm Gonna. . .

In 1969, I sat in front of our tiny black and white TV set and watched the first humans land on the moon. From that moment on, I wanted to be an astronaut. In my mid-teens, a friend and I decided to follow in our fathers’ footsteps. We’d enter the Air Force and from there, we’d apply to the astronaut program, which would naturally accept us both, and we’d get assigned to the same missions. No question. I tried to get into the Air Force Academy my junior year of high school.
Turns out, if you have asthma, the government is disinclined to allow you to soldier in any fashion, much less to entrust billions of dollars of equipment to your care. So there it was. My ambition. Shot down in flames before I’d even gotten to basic training. Probably just as well for all involved. I don’t seem to be wired to having other people tell me what to do. Authority issues R I.
For the record, my friend DID go to the Air Force Academy. He did become a test pilot. He did work at an undisclosed location in the Nevada desert, though he still won’t get me alien photos, darn it. He did apply repeatedly to NASA. The astronaut program never worked out for him and he’s retired from the military after more than twenty years of service.
As for me, I bounced around, trying to come up with a new plan. My father, in an attempt to be helpful, said that when one dream is snatched out of your reach, you should go for the next best thing. Granted, Dad had in mind a career in engineering or astrophysics on the ground at NASA. I went to college at Evergreen State, and then left before I could spend four years getting a degree in nothing. I went to work temping, doing a bunch of different jobs to see where I might fit in.
Nothing clicked. But I learned to scuba dive during that time. Yeah, I know. It was weird, but it was also a good time. Began taking one off classes at a community college – again, trying on careers. My very first computer programming class was a HUGE failure. That one put a big dent in my smarts confidence. So I signed up to work behind the camera in a weekend workshop that paired techie types (behind camera) with wannabe actor types (in front of the camera). The two instructors auditioned everyone who applied to the class. This startled me, but I figured what the hey? I’ll read the bit they gave me and then we’ll talk about letting me get my hands on a video camera. The woman in charge of the actors refused to let me go. She declared I’d be in front of the camera. Oh. Two years later, I was auditioning for and accepted to the Acting Conservatory at Cornish College of the Arts.
Note that acting professionally was never actually a plan. It was an accident – a happy one at the time, and something I desperately needed. I had no emotional vocabulary prior to acting school and only a passing acquaintance with the fact that I actually, you know, felt stuff. I did bit parts here and there and promptly made more money as a singer than I ever made as an actor.
Another career change was clearly in order. I had a BFA in Acting and no way to pay student loans. Oh, look! Temping! Then along came Microsoft, where I found out I suck as a secretary (damned authority issues), but I was good at HTML and SQL. I trained up and went to work.
And yet.
One thing remained constant, from the time I was a little kid, through school, through dreams smoldering on the ground, through confusion, heartache, acting school and days spent tending my customers at work: telling myself stories. During breaks, down time, or, at school, whenever I’d heard the lecture one too many times, I wrote snippets of stories. Little things to keep my heart and mind active and alive. Early in my marriage, my husband challenged me to begin submitting. I’d never actually finished anything to that point, but I accepted his dare.
And got my very first rejection letter from Marion Zimmer-Bradley. I still have that letter. Somewhere. When the call came to say Berkley wanted to buy Enemy Within, it was my husband I called first to tell him that ten or twelve years later, his dare had finally paid off.


  1. Great story, Marcella!! I did the bouncing around thing a lot. For some reason, having a degree in History didn't turn me into the hot commodity I thought it would *cough* I still work at a job that's better than some I've had, but now I have my writing and it soothes me and gives me hope that my dreams are still attainable. Of course, if I won the powerball, I could get that dream a lot quicker *cough*

  2. "I wanted to be an astronaut, so I played one on TV."


    It's so fascinating to see how many of us take career paths that have nothing to do with our college degrees.

  3. Whenever someone obsessing over what to major in asks me for advice, I tell them to pick what they enjoy - it won't have anything to do with their job anyway!

    I wonder if our whole generation fantasized about getting off-planet, or if we're a special subset?

  4. Ah yes, off-planet. I wanted to be an astronaut in the worst way, too.

    Then I went to King's Island and realized that I was terrified of that stomach-in-the-ears drop from even the tamest of rides.

    Scratch that.

    But I think that there's a lot of adventure and adaptability in blooming where we're planted and making things work with the tools we have. It may not be the same thing as spacewalking, but it has its own allure.