Heart Shaped Nebula

When The Stars Align: Writing Heart Shaped Nebula

by Marisela Treviño Orta 

Me: Hey, Tony. I’m happy to write a blog post for you guys leading up to the [Alcyone] festival.

Tony: Great. Write a blog post explaining why you decided to write play about astrophysics.

Why did I decide to write a play about astrophysics?

Short answer:

I didn’t.

Long answer:

And I do mean long. I didn’t mean for this blog post to go on and on, but it did.

As for answering the question, it’s going to be a bit of a challenge to see if I can do so without including any spoilers. But, dear reader, if you’re up for it so am I.

It started with an image.

This is how most plays begin for me, as a moment of visual inspiration. I was watching television. Yes, playwrights watch television. The broadcast was abruptly interrupted by an Emergency Alert and as its message scrolled across the screen an image arose in my mind: a girl and a man in a motel room.

I knew two things immediately. First, this image was a play. And second, I did not like the set up. Meaning, I did not want to write a play about a child in the clutches of a predator.

So then, why? Why were they in the room together?

And this, dear reader, is where we teeter very close to spoilers so you will have to forgive me for not giving you a direct answer. But I will say that I found my answer by turning to science.

I grew up with a lot of science in my life. My father taught Earth Science at my local Jr. High. So I participated in science fair from kindergarten to high school—and let me just say that volcanoes are not proper science experiments. Sorry, but after 13 years of applying the Scientific Method, I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder.

But yes, lots of science.

As a child I saw Haley’s Comet through a telescope in a dark Austin park with hundreds of others. I’ve walked the rim of a dormant volcano. Stood next to dinosaur footprints. Marveled at the beauty of stalagmites and stalactites. Was disappointed that Meteor Crater is fenced off and no, you can’t go down into it. Witnessed multiple lunar eclipses, solar eclipses and the Perseid Meteor shower.

The Perseid Meteor shower holds a special place in my heart. It happens every year mid August and the first time I saw the shower was a spectacular experience. I mean, the shower varies from year to year but the first time I saw it was special. Special because despite the light pollution in my small town (not a lot of light, but usually any lights from town or houses impede viewing) didn’t matter. That year there were so many meteors that streaked across the sky. Their tales were so wide I could hardly believe it. And they seemed so close, as if you could reach up and grab a hold of them.

Now, because Heart Shaped Nebula was using a scientific principle to explain why Amara (a 13-year-old girl) and Miqueo (a 36-year-old man) are in the same motel room, I decided that the third character—Dalila—was going to be an astronomer.

And that’s when Heart Shaped Nebula became a love story. And to be honest it’s a love story on many levels. I put my love for astronomy and Greek mythology into the play. I put my nostalgia [read love] for my home state of Texas into the play. And I put personal, almost autobiographical, love into the play.

So the long answer is, I didn’t “decide” to write a play about astrophysics. It was almost as if the play sorta made the decision. And more than once it’s felt like the stars were aligning for this play in a mysterious and wonderful way.

For example, the title Heart Shaped Nebula. When I first began writing this play I struggled with figuring out a potential title. But then while working on a monologue for Miqueo—a muralist—I found myself describing one of his murals. I was scribbling notes when I wrote down “heart shaped nebula.”

Is there a heart shaped nebula?

That’s what I wondered as I looked down at the phrase. I mean, I knew there was a horse head nebula. A crab nebula. So I immediately went online to do a google search. Lo and behold there is a Heart Nebula.

Gift number one from the Universe.

But not only is there is a Heart Nebula, there’s also a Soul Nebula, too. And it turns out they are both located in the Perseus arm of the Galaxy.


As in the Perseid meteor shower. The meteor shower has that name because the meteors appear to come from the constellation Perseus. And coincidentally both the Perseid meteor shower and the constellation Perseus are important elements in the plot of the play.

Gift number two from the Universe.

I mean, it sounds like I planned it. Like I knew in advance. But I didn’t. Instead I merely uncovered the connections that already existed. And all on chance. All on the happenstance of stringing three words together: heart shaped nebula.

Turns out those three words unlocked the play. And as the tumblers fell into place it felt like the entire Universe opened up to me in that moment and gave me a brief glimpse of something very special. I hope you’ll come see for yourself.