I’m watching a program on PBS about the history of Wernher von Braun’s attempts to design, create, and implement his impressive rockets. I’ll often leave documentaries like this on even in the background, while I do other things. I never know what might give me a story idea. I also know that details I don’t even think I’m paying attention to can take root in the niche of my brain that collects such scientific tidbits. They wait there to pop into the plotting niche just when I need them. Even when I don’t know I need them. Until, suddenly, there they are, fitting into an empty spot on the fly.

This time I learned that he used a double skin, as he learned by trial and error what would keep his prototypes from crashing and burning. Spectacularly. He needed a better way to keep his highly volatile fuel from going KABOOM! Again, spectacularly. When he didn’t want it to.  So he developed a system of using cold fuel running through the space between skins. The contained inferno of the fuels mixing, and kabooming when he did want them to, heated the fuel as it traveled to join the kaboom party. That helped eliminate the pesky problem of premature kaboom. Smart man, that von Braun. (Autocorrect keeps insisting he should be spelled von Brain. For once, I agree with it.)

Even if such an instance of rocket sciencery never makes it into my writing, I think it’s good for me to know about such things. I like learning about it and I do write myself into hard sf territory on occasion. The more I learn and understand, the more likely it is that what I write is reasonable extrapolation.

There’s another aspect of writing that this program kept making me think of as it progressed along with von Braun’s efforts. A different part of the writing
life. Rejection.

That man did not give up. He had to watch prototype after prototype get off to a promising start, then wobble, turn, and dive bomb itself into those impressive kabooms that must have torn at his ego, his intellect…and perhaps his secret heart…every single time. There were a lot of those fails. In fact, I was surprised that so much of the early part of the program covered crash after crash. I’d known of him vaguely as the brilliant mind behind Hitler’s ahead of their time rockets, then our own marvelous space program. I had no idea that he had faced such crushing, daunting failures, yet persevered to become known for his awe-inspiring successes.

Once I realized how many of his early creations were spectacular failures, before his equally spectacular successes must have wiped the sting from his memory, my thoughts turned to how hard rejection is for writers to deal with. Often regular and sometimes brutal, rejection is one of those things writers simply have to endure, with attitudes ranging from casual shrugs to stoicism to  somewhat controlled outrage. It’s tough. It is never fun.

However, as I watched the seemingly endless parade of failed prototypes falling to their flame throwing ends unfold in grainy black and white inevitability, a couple of very comforting thoughts kept making me almost smile.

The first was that even under the crushing weight of constant, extremely visible, undeniable failure von Braun did not give up. He ended up going down instead in history, known as one of the greatest scientific minds of the Twentieth Century, whose legacy as the father of the rocket age overshadowed his history with Hitler. That’s one heck of an ending for a man who could have so easily grown discouraged and disheartened and given up.

The other was that no matter how many rejections a writer gets, no matter how much they discourage and threaten to crush, at least writers will never, ever have their own creations, whether prototypes or masterpieces, literally, physically crash, explode, and incinerate themselves.

So I’ve taken note of von Braun’s incredible mastery of the art of perseverance and perhaps learned from it. And I feel my own incredible relief in knowing that no matter how bad rejection may be, it is at heart merely opinion. Opinions can’t crash and burst into flame. Those kabooms are silent, and mercifully more private than Wernher von Braun’s many failures that led to the ultimate success that we witnessed every time we got up early to watch one of our glorious space shuttles blast off into what was once the great unknown far above our heads.

That is the kind of failure I, for one, aspire to!

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