About the Author
Jessica Fox is a writer and film director. She has consulted for Harper Collins and was a resident storyteller and film director at NASA. Jessica's films have been shown at both US and International film festivals. She heads Mythic Image Studios and divides her time between the US and the UK. This her first book.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets Chapter 1
“The artist’s life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts, for two forces are at war within him; on the one hand, the common human longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life and on the other, a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire... there are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire.”– Carl Jung, THE SPIRIT OF MAN IN ART AND LITERATURE: Psychology section, third shelf on the right in the main gallery.
All stories have a beginning, or so it seems. Beginnings, middles and ends feel real, like supporting pillars that have always been there and will always be. If they were drawn on paper, their solid mass would look complete, finite and separate.
On taking a closer look, however, their true nature is revealed to be ephemeral. That solid dot that we have come to trust as “the beginning” is in fact like a cloud, made up of an infinite number of moments, any of which can be broken down again into smaller and smaller moments. This begs the question, is there really a start at all? Or do each of us, just by existing, bend the air with narrative threads so that every origin to any story resides not from without but from within? The “once upon a time” that looked like it had its origin firmly on the page is in fact a mirror reflecting that the true source is, and always has been, you.
The honks of cars and the hum of exhaust leaking from engines reached a crescendo. I sat in the car, baking under the Hollywood sun. At 25 years old I was convinced that this is how my brief life would end. I would be found in my car, my body half hanging out the window, still stuck in traffic, having died from heat and exhaustion on an LA freeway.
My eyes squinted in the bright light, as I strained to see a line of cars ahead of me. Silver Lake Boulevard was usually free from congestion, but today the traffic wasn’t moving. Hot and anxious, I looked out of the window. Next to me was the dwindling expanse of water that gave Silver Lake its name. Like most things in Los Angeles, the lake was not natural but man-made, a concrete reservoir that almost emptied, dehydrated, in summer and filled partially in winter. Looking at it made me thirsty. Seeing concrete where water should be was like seeing the feet of the wizard of Oz behind the curtain; an unattractive reminder that this was the land of make-believe, where lakes didn’t exist naturally but could be conjured up by money and imagination alone.
If pressed, I couldn’t articulate why I loved Los Angeles, but I did. My former Bostonian identity had disappeared as quickly as people here applied fake tans. After just a year in the sprawling suburb, I was already feeling part of the city, and the smog, the sun and the water, or lack thereof. Growing up in New England, it had felt like I had spent my whole life fighting against some invisible force that was as strong and elusive as gravity. In California, that weight had been lifted. There was nothing to fight against here – besides traffic – and even then there was little you could do but give into the slow flow of the river of cars.
My Toyota blasted cold air from its dust-covered vents. I leaned in closer, feeling the cool kiss of air against my neck. My forehead gently fell against the wheel and I hugged my arms to my chest, away from the sun. It had been a long day at work and I was tired, burnt out and I now felt my pale arms beginning to burn.
An emerging film director, I lived in a studio apartment in Silver Lake’s lush, tree-covered hills, a hipster haven tucked into a small valley far away from the ocean, west of West Hollywood. It had the feeling of a real neighbourhood, not the typical billboard-and-boulevard vista that one would associate with Los Angeles. Silver Lake was ideally located between Pasadena, where my work was, and West Hollywood, where films and my social life resided.
In my street the otherwise grey sidewalks were littered with colourful petals. Bungalow houses were sweetly tucked into either side, each different in shape and size but all boasting views of snow-capped mountains and downtown Los Angeles. We were high enough to rise above the pollution – sometimes on very smoggy days, I looked down on a dark sticky cloud that hung over the city like a moth-eaten blanket.
My studio, nestled into the back of one of the bungalows, was a detached guest suite that had been converted into two studio apartments, one stacked on top of the other. I lived in the bottom studio – the bigger of the two, with private access to the garden. Out of the window of my four-walled oasis you could see, if you really craned your neck, the Hollywood sign.
My fingers gripped the steering wheel as I made a left out of the traffic and up a shady, empty side street. The backs of my hands were covered with pen-scrawled lists of to-dos, now smudged by sweat. I would joke at work that this was my version of a PalmPilot. It was engineer humour.
My full-time job was as a storyteller and media consultant for NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I had been hired as a communication consultant to help NASA use narrative as a tool for knowledge-sharing practices. What did that mean exactly? I had been hired to help make communication between individuals, groups, departments and campuses within the whole organisation more effective. My base was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a place filled with some of the most brilliant minds in the world, where people fulfilled dreams – dreams they had had from childhood – dreams of astronauts and outer space and rockets. It was an intense, inspiring campus. I walked down the same halls as Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman and future history-makers.
It was an ideal job, one that made me constantly anxious to live up to the incredible opportunities it offered. In college I had studied both mythology and astronomy, and voiced an uncompromising desire to be a film director, and many had scratched their heads as to how I would combine these interests in my future career. I was nothing if not determined. By the age of eight, on realising I could not be Hercule Poirot or Indiana Jones, I had decided the next best thing would be to become a film director. Subsequently, my whole life plan had been geared towards that vision. In the fourth grade, while other children were playing on the swings, I would make my friends stay in from recess to rehearse plays and scripts that I had borrowed from the library. Out shopping with my mother as a teenager, instead of trying on clothes to buy, I would try on long gowns and practise my Oscars award speech in the changing room while she waited patiently outside.
This determination went beyond dreaming. Every moment I had, I worked hard towards my goal; internships at public television in high school, writing and making films and, on graduating from college, spending years without a holiday. I worked on Broadway, on films and in TV. I didn’t know what a life looked like without work. When The Devil Wears Prada came out, I couldn’t bring myself to read it, seeing it not as an entertaining escape but as a reflection of my own existence. I realised at this point that the hard work was gaining me experience but not the freedom I craved, so I took a risk. I quit my life in New York, putting most of what I owned onto the street with a sign that read “share the love”, and went to Boston to start my own production company. My first big break was filming for The Dresden Dolls, a punk cabaret band, as they went on tour throughout the US.
The call from NASA came a year later. It was from Ben Epstein at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. He had seen my first short film and loved it. A mutual friend had told him about my background in folklore, mythology and astronomy and for 20 minutes straight we talked about storytelling, space exploration and film. I was enjoying myself so much that I forgot I was on a job interview. Ben told me of his desire to use the power of storytelling for knowledge-sharing practices at NASA. He believed everyone in the organisation had important stories to tell, but because they did not generally have a way of sharing them, their often very remarkable knowledge and experiences were lost to the community. My heart had quickened with excitement. This was something I could do, I thought. Cosmology and mythology had been my passions in life, the reason why I made films. I felt born for the position he was describing.
After several emails back and forth, I had landed an interview at HQ.
I rolled down the window as my small car, like The Little Train That Could, reached the peak of the hill. A fresh breeze wafted in. It was cooler up here, under the shade of the flowering trees. I felt myself relax for the first time in a week. We were working on many projects, the biggest of which was hiring an old friend and colleague, Jay O’Callahan, the world-famous storyteller, to create a story for NASA’s 50th Anniversary. Nothing like this had ever been done before; we had taken a risk in hiring him, and I felt the weight of responsibility for both NASA and my dear friend firmly on my shoulders.
My car slowly circled the block again. This was a tough street to park on as few people had driveways. In my vision for the perfect Hollywood pad, I had forgotten to include a parking space.
Before coming to LA I had spent nights dreaming of my ideal place. It would be a small studio, with its own side entrance and private garden. In fact, my vision was so precise that I could see myself leaning against the sink, with a cup of steaming tea, looking out through a window at a flowering paradise. I never questioned whether it existed but rather how I would find it, and after weeks of Craigslist searchings and dead ends, I finally did. Discovering the small Silver Lake studio, hidden on the leafy hillside, had been the first good omen about my new life in California.
There had been great demand for the apartment. It was reasonably priced, in an ideal neighbourhood and very secluded. The trouble was there were a handful of equally competitive applicants who were equally convinced the place was theirs. I didn’t think I was going to get it. I had given references, sent them a full resume and examples of my work and dived in determined. After a rigorous interview process, the owner left a message that his boyfriend thought I had “nice energy”, so I had landed the apartment.
I popped open the trunk and removed my forlorn yoga mat, recently overlooked, and a bag of groceries, and felt glad for the walk uphill. My days had been filled with eight-hour stints staring at a computer. When I returned home, my second job would begin: running my production company. The combination left me frazzled, in that strange modern way of being constantly exhausted but under-exercised. However, my work had given me financial freedom for the first time in my young adult life. I had a car, an apartment full of IKEA furniture and, as long as I practised moderation, I could indulge in new clothes, shoes and a night out when I wished.
I looked back at my car, which was growing smaller as I climbed the street. Had I locked it? Crap. I couldn’t remember. I’d been so stressed lately that whatever new information came into my mind tended to push out the small, immediate things that I should remember. My brain was leaking, and a nagging voice, like a distant bell, sounded out how desperately I was in need of a holiday.
Lazily, I decided to continue up the hill regardless of whether it was locked or not. My MIT engineer father was the one who had insisted that I avoid all cars with automatic locks and windows. His insistence stemmed from the fear that in the rare event that I drove into a massive body of water (Silver Lake’s lake on a good day would barely cover my tyres), the electronic system would fail and I’d be trapped in the car and drown. Today, happily, I was safe from that eventuality – although I might have my car stolen instead.
Up ahead, the girl from the studio above me opened our gate. I felt myself quickening my pace. She was tall, blonde and an assistant to some big movie producer whom she always refused to name, which made me think he, or she, was quite a heavyweight. I took out my keys, shifting my bags to the other arm, and reached the gate, out of breath, just as she closed it and turned towards me. A smile appeared on her face as she fluttered her mascara-coated eyelashes. Before I could think of anything neighbourly to say to her, she disappeared into her car. I suddenly felt very alone. The elusive quality of LA people was deeply unsatisfying. I had friends but they were scattered throughout the city, and it took me at least a half an hour to drive to see anyone. Even then, it was rare that we’d get together in numbers of more than two. I craved a sense of cohesiveness. Other than on a film set, I had never been part of a gang or a group, and for some reason, at 25 years old, that feeling had suddenly become important. I was missing a sense of belonging.
Making my way down decking covered in potted plants and cacti, it occurred to me that I didn’t even know my landlord. He lived with his boyfriend and his two tiny dogs – with whom I waged a daily battle to prevent them slipping into my apartment – in the well-groomed, stucco-style main house next door; and, from what I could tell, he seemed like a quiet, nice man. Sometimes on my way out of the gate, I would see him in his small makeshift studio in the converted garage painting these beautiful, surreal landscapes. When our eyes met he would smile and gently close the door. I got the not-so-subtle hint that he felt that, even by looking, I was intruding on his privacy.
My phone buzzed in my pocket but my arms, filled with yoga mat and groceries, stood their ground. I leaned against my door, ferreting around in my bag for my keys, when it slid open. I stumbled into my apartment. My overworked brain had forgotten to lock my front door too. That settled it. Before I really lost my marbles – or any other possessions – I was going to take a break.
Besides a ruffled pillow and some papers knocked over by the dogs, who had clearly won today’s battle and whose muddy paws had left a trail on the floor, nothing in the studio was out of order. Deliciously savouring the idea of a full night with nothing to do ahead of me, I put my groceries onto the kitchen counter. I didn’t have much to unpack: canned soup, slightly melted ice cream and a chocolate bar that was now mostly liquid. I was not a chef. In fact, I despised cooking generally and had a talent for finding boyfriends who enjoyed it.
Flopping onto the couch, I took out my phone. I had a text. Probably from my friend Rose, the actress, who wanted to get together for dinner. I flipped open the phone. It was not from Rose. Instead, a horribly familiar number stared back at me and my hairs stood on end. I did not want to read it. My stomach lurched and I stood up quickly, convinced that I was going to throw up. I shut my phone and threw it onto the sofa. Suddenly, a night with only myself and the silence of my four walls seemed like a very bad idea.
Josh came to pick me up at 8pm. I waited outside my gate as the night grew dark. It was chillier now that the late afternoon sun had disappeared, and I rubbed my arms, my eyes scanning the street for Josh’s car. I had met Josh during my first week in Los Angeles when we sat across from each other at the OM Café, a sweet coffee shop that ...
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