The Bedford Talk: Journey from Bedford, Indiana to ‘Bold They Rise’


I had the opportunity to give a Bold They Rise talk recently in the community where I spent the bulk of my print journalism career. It was important to me to go back there and offer a book talk because my time there was very instrumental in me ending up working on Bold They Rise and I wanted to go back and tell them that.

So I titled my talk “From Here to There” and filled in the missing 11-year timeline from the time I left the community and the newspaper in 2003 until now.

The highlight was bringing with me their hometown astronaut Charlie Walker. His missions are included in Bold They Rise, so it was a privilege and an honor to do this talk with him.

So my talk started with this picture of Charlie Walker on the space shuttle in 1984.

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I told the people that while Charlie was doing this, I was doing this.

heather 84

In 1984 I was 4 years old and more into Minnie Mouse than I was astronauts and space.

It was important that people “get” that yes, I grew up in Huntsville, Ala., the Rocket City and home to Space Camp and Wernher von Braun and NASA, but I didn’t learn to appreciate space exploration because of that upbringing. If anything that upbringing caused me to take astronauts and space travel for granted.

It wasn’t until I moved to southern Indiana, to Lawrence County Indiana specifically, that I saw how the rest of the world viewed space. Three astronauts hail from this little southern Indiana community — more than any other county in the U.S. — and the people there are very proud of that. Their pride made its way into the newsroom where I worked as the paper covered space-related news and kept up with the comings and going of these space heroes and their legacies.

Writing about space-related things gave me a hearty set of clippings with which, upon my return to Huntsville,  I used to apply for a writing position at NASA.

I think those clips made a difference in my getting the job. My Bold They Rise co-author says they didn’t — he should know, he made the hiring recommendation — however I might not have even applied had I not felt that I had dappled enough in space writing to be able to do the job.

So in my talk, I told the audience that I went from here, my old Times-mail mug shot

tm mug

to here

nasa mug

my semi-official NASA mug shot; this photo accompanied a blog I wrote for NASA during my time there.

I briefly told stories of getting to do this, a reduced gravity flight

heather flying

and this, attending Space Camp,

heather space camp

and then writing Bold They Rise.

It was important to me that the people of Bedford, Mitchell and Lawrence County know that their community played a role in this book, and I wanted to bring it to them and share the book and its story as it relates to them.

After that I introduced Charlie who told his own “from here to there” stories about growing up in Bedford with his fellow “rocket boys” friends and his journey from Bedford to Purdue to McDonnell Douglas and to space as NASA’s first payload specialist astronaut.

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We’re all travelers, traveling from here to there, we just don’t know always know where “there” is until we get there.

This is a story of what it’s like for something to come full circle, because that’s exactly what happened. Extremely grateful I got to go back and finish the loop.

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Violence & Video Games


At the science writers conference I just got back from, I heard this really interesting science lecture on violence and video games. What I write here is by no means a case for or against the playing of violent video games, but just some things I learned and a few opinions I have based on what I learned.

To start the lecture, the psychologist went up to the podium and asked half the room to close their eyes and the other half to silently watch a slide show of images and then fill in the missing letters from the following words

k i _ _

g u _

h a _ _

r_ p e.

The group with their eyes open (of which I was a part) saw images of guns, knives and other weapons, and of military and police using weapons.

I, and the majority of my half of the room, filled in the blanks with

k i l l

g u n

h a t e

r a p e.

Then he had my half of the room close out eyes and he showed the other half of the room a different set of images and fill in the blanks. We found out later that the other side of the room saw non-violent images. Not necessarily happy images but just regular things. Office supplies. The outdoors. People smiling.

The majority of that half of the room filled in the blanks with

k i t e

g u m

h a n d

r o p e.

Hmm…

Interesting, isn’t it?

The point of the exercise was to demonstrate what the psychologist called the “weapons affect,” or the idea that the mere presence of weapons can make people more aggressive.

They did more tests where they assessed people’s moods and feelings before and after playing certain kinds of video games, and they found that after playing even just 20 minutes of a violent video game people report a tendency toward more violent or negative response in real life.

For example, a person who played a non-violent video game for 20 minutes was asked afterward how they would respond if they were in a fender bender on the way home. They responded much more calmly than the person who played a violent game for the same amount of time, who said things like they’d yell at the person or want to crush their skull in.

The most shocking to me was the revelation that violent graphic images, like those in video games, are used to de-sensitize military special forces to being able to kill without question or hesitation. I didn’t know that.

Also shocking was that we tell ourselves it’s OK just for 20 minutes or just for a few hours, it won’t affect our behavior. But if a 30 second commercial can persuade our behavior to buy a certain product, how much more will 20 minutes plus of shooting people in video games persuade our behavior as well?

Now I don’t know if I fully believe that playing these games will cause players to go out and shoot people. But I think the research supports that watching violence and playing out violence affects how we feel and may cause to react more aggressively just in general.

I kinda have to ask myself the question, why do people find it so entertaining to pretend to be violent in games, whether it be shooting a gun or fighting like ninja warriors? Is it a power trip? Do we feel stronger, more powerful, in control if we can outlive or kill? And if we do, then does playing violent video games create a false sense of strength, power and invincibility, all of which are sure to boost our ego, too, right? Do we then cross over how confident we feel in the game into real life, sometimes blurring the lines, so that if provoked to tap into our “violent side” this side of us is trained and ready to respond? Video game-like virtual reality simulators are used to train astronauts for space travel and soldiers for war, so it makes sense that our minds perceive the video game experience as a sort of training.

I don’t have the answers, and neither did this psychologist on this day. But he’s studying it and drawing interesting conclusions, conclusions that made me think, thus why I’m sharing it here to maybe make you think too.

Social Listening


I’ve acquired a new skill at work.

Actually, a skill I’ve always had has a new name, a name that sounds better than oh, being nosy or reading the Internet.

This new skill is “social listening.”

I had never heard of the term until several months ago but it describes well a very valuable asset that I bring to the table at my job and other areas in life too.

So what is it?

Well, it’s listening to the world around you by reading, monitoring, observing all the “noise” and gleaning the usable parts.

The cool thing? I love doing it, I’m a natural at it, and it’s pretty much something I’ve been doing my whole life just without the fancy name.

In my career story of how I became a writer I tend to start the story around 10th grade when my English teacher asked me to join the high school yearbook staff. It had a little to do with my ability to write a good essay so seems like a good place to start, and being on yearbook staff in high school certainly set me on track for a career in communications.

But what shaped me to be able to write a good essay by 10th grade was more than just education or a natural knack or God-given talent, though all of those are there too; it was that I loved reading. And not just reading books — although I read a lot as a youngster and still do — but reading periodicals.

I enjoyed reading newspapers and magazines and learning interesting things about the world around me. I would clip out articles about a new can design from Coke or some other new attraction or product … I was social listening, listening to the world around me, which at that time was a world in black and white, in print. Today’s “world around me” is via a screen and there’s so much to listen to, but there are amazing gems if we make it a priority to not just hear but listen.

I’ll be honest too, I have a little help — there’s lots of tools out there to help with this, right? Google alerts, hash tags, services.  Those are good and I use some of them.

But my best social listening has been just paying attention with good old fashioned investigative reporting, with a natural nosiness, and with time. Not a lot of time, but a little time dedicated to actually reading what comes through on the Twitter feed and having my ears perked up in all the listening situations, whether I’m reading, listening to radio or TV or mingling/networking.

Social listening is two things to me:

Fun — Like I said, I’m kinda good at it. I desire to know breaking news, to know new things and to share them, and social listening fits that to a T. It’s the satisfaction of learning about something, being the first to tell someone else, and then seeing them react and get excited too.

Valuable — This stuff works. I have story after story of good things that have started or happened because I heard about something, shared it with the right person and they were able to act on it or make good use of the information.

So there you have it. Social listening. Who knew?!

My Allume Experience: Kindred Spirits, Service Opportunities & Boss!


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Very early after my arrival at Allume I realized this conference was made for me.

Really.

Like, I felt bad for the other 500 women there, that they weren’t going to get anything out of it because it was so for me that they could’ve called it “Dear Heather …” instead of Allume.

But then I realized other people were getting stuff out of it too just not the same stuff I was getting. So it was like the conference was just for them too, which is just … cool! Or, as my fifth grader would say “that’s boss!”

I asked people why they came to Allume and a lot of people came to meet up with a certain blogger or tweeter or to network.

That’s not why I was there.

I went to check it out and see what it was all about and see if there was anything in it for me, anything that anyone had to say that would speak to where I am in any sense of that place. And hopefully to learn something I could use or apply in some way, to writing or to life or, ideally, both.

It’s a conference for a pretty specific audience: women Christian bloggers and writers, of which I am all of those.

The “big picture” take away for me was that I was amongst kindred spirits, that is — other people like me. Other women, many of whom are also moms, who are living the Christian life (or trying to), and have within them words or stories and the desire and/or talent to write the words or stories they have.

I took a lot of notes, and I learned things about myself, God and writing that I can see applying to life in general and in writing.

Here’s a few small takeaways that meant something to me:

“It doesn’t matter if we have big blogs or little blogs, we’re all regular people and God uses regular people.” — Sara Mae

“At the end of our life God’s not going to say ‘well written’ or ‘well said’ but ‘well done.'” — Lisa Jo Baker

“We all want to count. When you live for an audience of one, you know you always count.” — Ann Voskamp

“We scroll and scroll looking for affirmation. Nobody on Twitter is going to engrave your name on their palm. If they do you need to get a restraining order.” — Melanie Shankle, aka Big Mama, referring to Isaiah 49:16 where God says “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

Also from Shankle: God often teaches us the most important lessons in obscurity; It was in the pasture that David learned to be King, not on the throne.

One of the speakers talked about Jesus and this is what I wrote after her talk:

“The way she describes Jesus I picture his passion and ache for me, not someone passive that just takes it or leaves it but who is pursuing me. Who when I say no to what he has for me doesn’t shrug his shoulders and say “ok, do what you want” but who’s heart hurts that I don’t accept and embrace what he offers but settles for what I want when what He wants to do is so much better! God is *for* me, not against me so why do I resist what he’s trying to do? ‘He wants you turn in the thing that you love more than him,’ she said. ‘He is after you.'”

Other cool things …

The conference was held in downtown Greenville, S.C., which is definitely a place I’d like to visit again and take my kids. I had good local pizza and good local coffee and want to do the Mice on Main scavenger hunt, amongst other attractions.

The conference had a lot of cool service opportunities, two of which really pricked my heart. One is Sole Hope,  which removes jiggers from the feet of children in Uganda and uses recycled denim and tires to make shoes so they don’t get jiggers again. I’ll be having a Sole Hope shoe cutting party in the near future where we can take old jeans and cut the pieces needed to send to Uganda for the shoe makers to make shoes.

The other ministry I worked with that was kinda different and unique was Help Portrait. We actually brought in a group of kids from a local after school program, had a local beauty school do their hair and make up, and several professional and amateur photographers volunteered to take professional photos. The idea is to take photos of people who may not have opportunity to have their photo taken and then give them their photos. I’d like to do a local version of this too, and am looking into it.

So, Allume ended up being pretty awesome.

Or as the fifth grader would say — pretty boss!

Making Contact with Astronaut Charlie Walker


The space shuttle book is in its final, final stages, and a few months ago it was time to solicit cover blurbs and promotional quotes.

I really, really wanted to get a cover blurb/quote from astronaut Charlie Walker because he is featured extensively in the book as the first commercial payload specialist to fly into space AND because he hails from Lawrence County and Bedford, Indiana. My first real newspaper job was at the Times-Mail in Bedford, and the people there are super-proud of the three astronauts to come from their county. In addition to Walker, Lawrence County, Indiana, is birthplace to astronauts Gus Grissom and Ken Bowersox.

Having a quote from Walker on the cover of a book that I co-wrote will be significant to me in a very personal way. It’s paying a tad bit of homage to Lawrence County, Indiana, and The Times-Mail, without whom my career wouldn’t have taken the path it did and my participation in the book might not have happened. Too, it’s a little like an Easter egg or an inside joke because to most it will just be a quote by an astronaut on the cover of a book about astronauts. But to me, and a few close to me, it will mean more.

So, to go about getting a quote from Walker I contacted friends up there and was able to find a contact willing to contact Walker for me and ask him to contact me if he was interested.

Great!

Well, it wasn’t long til I got the following email from Walker himself.

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Wow.

I was floored.

I had hoped for something like “Yes, I’ll write a blurb,” so I was blown. a. way. that he was aware of the book and my Times-Mail history and that anyone ever, much a less a three-time flown astronaut, would use THE in all caps before my name.

Probably needless to say at this point, but I was all kinds of giddy.

And just for good measure, here’s a photo of Walker with my good friend Marla.

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I’m dreaming here, but maybe someday I can have a picture of me, Walker, Marla and my book!

Monte Sano Writers’ Conference: Tell Your Story


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This post should’ve been written months ago; the event was in April. But for one reason or another I didn’t get to it. There’s great stuff to tell though, so I’m writing it now. This post is part conference review and part a sharing of the writing advice I gleaned.

The Monte Sano Writers Conference was organized by Huntsville author Homer Hickam and held at Monte Sano United Methodist Church atop Monte Sano mountain in Huntsville, Alabama. You may recognize Hickam’s name as author of Rocket Boys/October Sky and other books.

I’ve heard Hickam speak several times in NASA circles, about writing Rocket Boys and about his career as a NASA engineer, but this was the first time that I heard him talk about writing.

He is a very engaging speaker; down-to-earth, humorous, full of wit and never-ending tales. He said many things, about writing and story-telling and how it came about that he started writing books (he first wrote for magazines, doing research on old submarines that captured his interest because of his diving hobby). The thing that stuck with me most, though, was something he learned many years ago in the third grade, while writing a newspaper with his friend about news in the small mining town where he grew up.

They initially wrote about the “what” — when the church choir practice was going to be held or the menu at the upcoming church picnic — but the paper really took off when Hickam and his friend wrote about the happenings of the people of the town. Hickam said he’d follow people around and write down everything they did and then print it in in their own little paper, which they called The Coalwood News. What he learned from that venture that has impacted his writing all these years is this:

“People aren’t interested in what …. People are interested in other people.”

Getting Published

The conference was more than just Hickam. It included a panel of 6-7 writers from the Huntsville, AL, area, of different genres, including memoirs (like Hickam’s), devotionals, poetry and fiction.

The morning keynote speaker Ami McConnell, who is an editor with Thomas Nelson and HarperCollins Christian Publishing, spoke to the sanctuary of writers and writer-wanna-be’s about the publishing industry and current trends.

In the Christian and/or inspirational genre, McConnell said there’s been a shift from inspirational books that used to talk only to others within the faith to talking to people outside the faith. The shift is not just in books but in the Christian culture, and writers and publishing houses are responding. People are getting inspiration from books rather than (or in addition to) the pulpit, McConnell said.

She recommended inspirational writers ask themselves two questions: 1) Do you have a story in you that invites communion, with the reader and with the reader and their community? and 2) Do you love your reader? Those apparently are the ingredients for a potentially great inspirational book right now.

Memoirs

The conference broke into workshops in the afternoon, and I attended Hickam’s memoir/novel writing workshop. I hadn’t actually thought of Rocket Boys as a memoir before. Hickam described memoirs as being autobiographies written with the writing techniques of novels, like composite (i.e. made-up) characters and made-up stories that help the story flow or make a point. Hickam: “Memoirs are like novels in that you tell the story in such a way that makes you turn the page.”

First: figure out who the narrator is — you in the current time looking back or you captured in a specific moment in time. Get inside the head of the narrator which — I loved this part — is not necessarily you now. That’s what Hickam did with Rocket Boys. He went back in his memory to what he knew and felt as a teenager and didn’t process his feelings through the lens of an adult but captured them just as he experienced them back then.

Two more gems from the memoir workshop:

“If the first paragraph of your story doesn’t hook the reader, 300 more pages won’t do it.”

and

ask and answer: What do you want people to extrapolate, i.e. self-discover, from your story/memoir?

One More Thing

An attendee asked what should you do if in telling your story you write hurtful things about others. Hickam knows this well because in Rocket Boys he wrote about the strained and distant relationship with his dad. Hickam’s advice: ” Just let it happen.” Earlier in the day, on the same subject, Ami McConnell quoted this tweet by author Anne Lamott:

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”

Beck McDowell

As I mentioned, there were several other Huntsville authors there as part of an author panel. The one I most looking forward to reading, though, is Beck McDowell, so much so that I bought both of her books: This Is Not A Drill, in which two teens try to save a class of first-graders from a gun-wielding soldier suffering from PTSD, and Last Bus Out, the true story of Courtney Miles, who stole a school bus and drove over 300 New Orleans people to safety after Hurricane Katrina. (Book descriptions are from McDowell’s web site.)

The Monte Sano Writers Conference is rumored to be an annual thing so I’ll look forward to next year and maybe even to being one of the featured authors one day. :)

“Finn’s Island” by Finn


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This is a creative piece Finn wrote for a school assignment. I asked his permission to publish it here. I was in the third grade, just a year or two younger than he, when I first took an interest in writing. All spelling and punctuation is just as he wrote it.

Finn’s Island

by Finnegan (age 9)

Once upon a time, I was on a deserted island. I was worried by sharks and rubies. My mom is not a building type of person. She can cook while I try to build a hut. We saw lots of animals on this island and people. There was a cook, cowboy, Indian, and a rich family. “I want to go tot he wierd island,” my mom says.”Let’s go to the capital of Hawii, no mom. The girl that can’t be quiet says she wants to go to Alaska. No!

We went to a mysteryes Island. I was scared. Oh I was scared of sharks. I saw People on the island. They built a hut for us so we would not have to sleep in thier hut. I wanted to go home, but we had some gas. We would be stuck, so we didn’t go. We have yarn and knitting needles to knit a blanket that says s.o.s. Ok then, we will get back to the place we came from which is Alabama. We took a radio to the shore, so we can get to our boat with the radio. This way we can get better signal. We went to bed in our hut.

It’s morning at Finn’s Island (That’s what we named it for now.) Our boat was gone. We were scared by sharks, rubies and other stuff that might kill us. It was rubies burning our boat. They tied us up on a stick. It was scary. We got saved by the Indian/cowboy. The rescue people did save us. That is how we got to go back home to Alabama!