Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"When I Wrote the Learned Astronomer" by Jamie Todd Rubin

"When I Wrote the Learned Astronomer"

When I wrote The Learned Astronomer, I never thought I would work so hard, take so long, and end up with a sale. Up until the moment I started to write the story, my biggest literary success had been a glowing rejection letter from A.J. Budrys for a story about a reincarnated Jorge Luis Borges. It was also, perhaps, my biggest failure. Up to that point, the hardest I worked was scrubbing burned lasagna noodles of the sides of cooking pans in the dorm cafeteria. This made me think twice about becoming a student again, or working in any other profession that involved lasagna noodles (including chef), and which resulted in me concentrating on my far simple vocation at the time: software development.

Tracing back the events that led to my accidental story and sale, it boggles my mind to think that it might never have happened if I had not been listening to that particular program on that particular day. And to think that it all started with that title. Well, not quite...


It all started with a poem.

Sometime in 1995, I was driving into work through Topanga Canyon, listening to KNX-1070 news radio and trying to come up with an idea for a story. Winding my way around the canyon curves, Charles Osgood's, "The Osgood File" segment came on the radio. I've always liked Charles Osgood, but this segment was a particularly good one. He was talking about astronomy and humanity's fascination with the universe, something that I had been interested in since I was a little boy. At the end of the segment he quoted, in its entirety, Walt Whitman's famous poem, "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer". I had never heard this poem before, and while I am not the biggest fan of free-form verse, I absolutely loved the poem and the sentiment behind it. I thought to myself: a poem about an astronomer? There has to be a story in there somewhere?

I wracked my brain, only half paying attention to the canyon roads. But no ideas were coming. Then I tried a trick. I decided to run through permutations of the title and see if that would jar anything loose. I tried two or three silly versions, and then just as the Pacific Ocean came into view, I landed on "When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer." I just loved the sound of it. But it had something more: it had outer space, it had romance, it was perfect!

But I had no story, just a title.


I am a huge Isaac Asimov fan, and back in the mid-to-late 1990s, I felt that I could write just as effortlessly as he could. This is embarrassing to admit now, as you might imagine, but it is nevertheless true. And write effortlessly I could. But no matter how effortlessly I wrote, I simply couldn't put a story together. Over the space of three years, between 1995 and 1998, I must have made half a dozen "effortless" starts on "Learned Astronomer" each one worse than the one that preceded it. My best effort came sometime in 1999 when, sitting out on the porch, I took my laptop outside and hammered out 10 pages of what I thought was really funny material, but which still had no story to it, and which, in hindsight, was really pretty terrible stuff.

At the same time, I was trying to write another story that I was calling "A Ship That Passes Through the Night". I started to write this story after I read a Robert Zubrin science essay in the August 1994 issue of ANALOG called "How To Find A Starship". The essay talked about the science behind detecting an alien starship (and the descriptions of that science in "Learned Astronomer" owe a debt to this essay). The story I was attempting to write contemporaneously with "Learned Astronomer" was about an astronomer who detects an alien spaceship, and has what is essentially, concrete proof of its existence, and yet the ship is so far away from earth, traveling between two distant stars that there is never any chance of catching up to it. I was fascinated by the idea of discovering the existence of aliens, but never being able to communicate with them in any way. So I worked on "A Ship That Passes Through the Night" and that story went even worse than "Learned Astronomer".


Beginning about 1998 or 1999, I got very busy at work. It was the Dot Com boom and it was an exciting time in the software industry. I put in longer hours and focused more and more on my work, winning a series of promotions but bringing my writing to a virtual stop. Only once or twice a year would I fire up the word processor for something other than writing a Requirements Document or Statement of Work. I did write a few stories, and continued to send them out. And I began to notice that my stories were getting better and better. But nothing happened with "Learned Astronomer" or "Through the Night".


Fast-forward to April 5, 2004. I had been through a period where I was attempting to write darker stories, which was pretty unusual for me. I'd written three stories in a row, all of which had a darkness to them. I sent out the stories to various magazines and I was getting better feedback on the stories, which means that my rejection slips were no longer form letters. Instead, they started saying things like, "Nice writing, but..." I felt like I was improving but I was also sick of writing dark stories. I wanted to write something cheerful for a change.

I was never a huge fan of Robert Heinlein. That is to say, I haven't read every one of his books. I've read, perhaps 10 of his books, and the only ones that I really like are the older ones, like Double Star or The Puppet Masters or The Door Into Summer or Podkayne of Mars. What I did like about Heinlein's stories was the optimistic tone that he captured. As an exercise--a kind of challenge to myself--I decided to try to write a story that captured a Heinleinesque tone. But I had no ideas.

Then, on April 5, 2004, I remembered "Learned Astronomer" and "A Ship That Passes Through the Night". And I had a thought: what if I combined the two stories into one somehow? The notions I had for "Learned Astronomer" were images of romping across the moon for some reason or another. Clearly, there would be an astronomer involved. And, of course, an astronomer played a key role in "Through the Night". Maybe I could make it work. But there was still one problem. All along, with "Learned Astronomer", I was having trouble telling the story. Maybe it was because I wasn't sure what story I wanted to tell, but I happened to remember two pieces of advice that Isaac Asimov had said helped him in his own writing:

First, he said that John Campbell told him that if you are having a problem starting a story, you are almost always starting it too early. Pick a point later in the story and start there.

Second, know your ending. Think up a problem and a solution, and then make up the rest, but always working toward your resolution.

With those two pieces of advice in mind, I began to combine the two stories together. In my diary for that day, I noted that I wrote 8 pages. By April 8 I had 5,000 words written and I was hoping that the story would be finished soon. I was very happy with what I was writing. I finished the first draft on April 16. After struggling for nearly 10 years with the idea, I had written the entire story in just about 10 days.

Over the next few years, I sent the story to various magazines. It was rejected here and there, but always with favorable comments and suggestions for improvements. I tried to learn from those comments and each time, I'd take the suggestion and try to make the story better and then send it somewhere else. By the time I sent it to IGMS in 2006, I felt the story was just about as good as I could make it.

But it managed to get a little bit better.


When Edmund Schubert, editor of IGMS, got in touch with me about the story, he told me he liked it but there were parts of it that didn't work for him. He was then kind enough to take the time to point out what he thought were the flaws in the story--things which were inconsistent or made the story hard to believe. You couldn't ask for a gentler critique of a story, and you couldn’t ask for a more perceptive one either. In each case, I felt that Edmund was right. He asked me for some rewrites and I agreed to do them.

I then sweated more than I have ever sweated in my life over a piece of writing. Now I was writing for an Editor and I didn't want to let him down. I made the revisions over a period of two days and then got them back to Edmund. A short time later, he told me that the revisions were good and he would be taking the story. I had made my first sale!

Up until that point, I had three things on my List of Things I Must Do Before I Die. Number three was to get my pilots license, which I had done back in 2000. Number two was to fly in space and while it hasn't happened, I'm still hopeful. Number one was to sell a science fiction story. And while I think I had a pretty good story to begin with, it was with Edmund's help that I was able to push it over the top, and for that I will be forever grateful.


My favorite part of the story is the ending. I knew how it was going to end, with both Danny and Audrey parting ways, but of course, I didn't know exactly how that would all fall into place. As I was writing the end of the story, I recalled the Walt Whitman poem once more (which I had committed to memory almost as soon as I heard it back on that day in 1995) and realized that the ending was right there. Audrey had left for the outer solar system and she was "out among the stars". Danny stood in his back yard looking for her. He "looked up in perfect silence at the stars". Those familiar with the Walt Whitman poem know that is the final line of the verse. In a way, the story became a tribute to that poem and what it represents.

In another way, the story is a tribute to my grandfather, Paul Friedlander. Most of my friends who have read the story suspected that Danny, goofy as he seemed, was a thinly masked representation of me, goofy as I am. But that was not the case. When writing the story, I tried writing Danny to be what I thought what my Grandpa might have been like when he was Danny's age. My Grandpa passed away in November 2004, but not before he had a chance to read and enjoy this story.


When I wrote The Learned Astronomer, I never thought I would work so hard, take so long, and end up with a sale, but as Danny says, it's the things you don't expect that make life interesting. Writing this story was a lot of hard work, but it was also a lot of fun.

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