Monday, October 4, 2021

Don't Blow Yourself Up: The writing of a memoir

Miss Harper Lee famously refused to write a sequel to her To Kill a Mockingbird because (and I'm paraphrasing here) she didn't want to screw up her masterpiece. After she was too addled by age to stop it, one did sort of come out but it was quickly (and thankfully) forgotten. She would have been glad about that.

When I pass, I know very well that despite writing many books, my literary contribution will be centered around Rocket Boys, a memoir that resulted in a movie they titled October Sky. With that in mind, I somewhat emulate Miss Lee in her opinion although I've already written two books that are set in Coalwood, the home of the Rocket Boys memoir, one an "equal" titled The Coalwood Way (which takes place right in the middle of the Rocket Boys story and includes them in all their rocket-building glory) and the other Sky of Stone, set in Coalwood a year after the boys built their last rocket. I also wrote sort of a prequel, such being the novel Carrying Albert Home, and one a post 9/11 inspirational piece set primarily in Coalwood titled We Are Not Afraid.

But a true sequel? Even though many readers of Rocket Boys wanted to know what happened to that boy after the last great rocket of the Big Creek Missile Agency and asked how it was he came to work for NASA and did some other things like getting caught up in the war in Vietnam, I resisted writing a sequel just like Miss Lee and for just about the same reason. However, things change. During this past year, sequestered by a virus running wild throughout the world, it came to me that maybe it was finally time to write it if I ever was. And so I did.

To explain how I approached the work, here's the Introduction in the book which, after some contemplation and pretty much driving my publisher crazy with proposals for what the title should be, we finally settled on Don't Blow Yourself Up: The Further True Adventures and Travails of the Rocket Boy of October Sky.




If you’re reading this, likely you’ve also read about my adventures as a young rocket builder in the little mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia. I wrote about that in a memoir called Rocket Boys (which was made into the marvelous movie October Sky) and then followed it with two sequels, The Coalwood Way and Sky of Stone, both set in my hometown.But there was a bit more to my life than I wrote about in those books. After Coalwood, I went to a tough engineering military school where I famously built a cannon, and then I fought in a war, and then became a scuba instructor, dived on some deep shipwrecks, and unraveled the history of a giant battle along the American coasts. Along the way I worked for NASA, and then I wrote a famous book, had a movie made that was based on it, and did some other things. More importantly, I had a lot of great friends during all of it. And a few enemies, too. Such things happen in a long life.

 After enough people asked me when I was going to do it, I decided to sit down and write about some of the things that happened in those years after I was a Rocket Boy in West Virginia. This memoir is the result. There isn’t room to write it all down, but maybe I can hit some highlights up through the time Rocket Boys was written and October Sky was made, a stretch of nearly forty years. A lot has happened since, but endings are as important as beginnings. When I teach writing, I tell my aspiring writers, especially ones interested in writing memoirs, to think about where they’re going before they go there. If you just write down everything that happened without running a thread through the piece that ties it up at the end, you may not ever figure out how to get there or when you’re done. There’s also a Bible proverb I’ve always admired that says, “It is the glory of God to hide a thing but the honor of kings to search it out.” What I think that means is our Creator didn’t just hand us all the answers but left it up to us to seek out what is true and real.That’s what this book is mostly about, stories about times in my life when I’ve learned truths about myself or other people or even the world that I think my readers might like to think about. Or, almost as important, those times that caused smiles or tears. I hope you enjoy my choices.


It was after I'd finished the memoir that I wrote the Introduction and was therefore easy at that point to say "hope you enjoy my choices." But it wasn't easy when I started. After all, there were 60 years worth of life after that last Coalwood rocket. How to choose what to tell and what to leave out?

My first choice was to simply cut out twenty years, those being the last I've led. The reason for that was after I wrote Rocket Boys and the movie was made, my life changed. It wasn't better or worse, just different, because I was pinned on a board like a butterfly of a distinct and rare genus, Authorus Who-us Wrotus Thatus Bookus Aboutus thoseus RocketBoyus. It colored nearly everything I did from that moment on which was fine but it also meant what happened before and after were distinct. After making the decision where to stop, such being the year 2000, it was time to consider both the beginning as well as the ending of the work to allow them, in some manner, to touch.

An important, perhaps critical part of writing is thinking about what you're going to write before you write it. On this foundation, to salve my conscience during idleness, I have spent many hours happily thinking about thinking about what I'm going to write. This inevitably leads me to think about everything else until, to my happy surprise, in the midst of some reverie about nothing to do with writing, out pops a tiny seed of an idea that I consider, turn this way and that and then, if it seems to have promise, plant through my fingers onto a keyboard to see if it will grow. It doesn't always but sometimes it does, enough for this writer to raise a garden of words that turns into a book. There's been nineteen of them so far, including this latest one, so my approach must at least work in some fashion.

The seed that came to me after thinking and not thinking about this memoir was the moment I left for college with my mother seeing me off from our back yard that led to an alley and then a long road over many mountains and years. Considering that, I recalled that almost exactly forty years later, I found myself back at that yard with my mother during a celebration of Rocket Boys/October Sky with the governor of the entire state of West Virginia and lots of friends and fans in attendance. Those events, I decided, were the bookends of the story. All I had to do was fill in all that happened between. But—wait—all?

All was not possible nor even wise. What was needed was a good story well told, one that would cause the reader to want to turn the page to see what was going to happen next. More decisions were therefore needed, decisions that required more thinking that led to . . . well, same story as above, to seeds planted that became words fashioned into stories of people and places and events across those chosen decades.

In the end, I decided to divide the story of my post-Rocket Boys years into five parts that had distinct story arcs and time frames.

The five parts begin with these titles and photographs:

Part 1 - Everybody's Favorite Cadet

Part 2 - American Soldier


 Part 3 - The Purposeful Adventurer

Part 4 - NASA Man

 Part 5 - That Author Feller

As I write this, it's the first week of October, 2021. During the count-down to the book publication (the 26th of October), I'll blog over the next several weeks about each of those five parts, how I approached them and some of the decisions made. Whether you're interested in writing a memoir yourself or simply the writing process or just wonder about the back story of the work, I hope you'll come along with me during the book's journey.

 - - Homer Hickam