Thank God JK Rowling was too shy to ask for a pen

As I’ve hinted, J.K. Rowling is one of the many people whose lives I’m studying for my book, because of the impostor-like way that failure turned into success for her. But I just came across a fascinating tidbit from her that concerns the process of imagining and thus writing.

As most of her fans know (it may shock you, by the way, that I myself have not yet read any Harry Potter books), she had the idea for Harry Potter on a train ride from Manchester to London in 1990. We’ve all had good ideas from time to time, so let’s see what happened next. From her online autobiography:

To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a functioning pen with me, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one. I think, now, that this was probably a good thing, because I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, and all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me. I think that perhaps if I had had to slow down the ideas so that I could capture them on paper I might have stifled some of them (although sometimes I do wonder, idly, how much of what I imagined on that journey I had forgotten by the time I actually got my hands on a pen).

This sort of thing has long fascinated me. At the beginning of my journalism career, I was always really anxious about note-taking, especially of direct quotes, and constantly afraid that I might miss something good or transcribe it wrong. I even tried to teach myself short-hand to be quicker.

But over the years, I’ve learned to relax and take fewer notes, whose purpose is now mainly to nudge my memory back to the actual scene. I’ve discovered that the more I relax during interviews or experiences, the more I observe and remember later. And as I’m writing my book, I’ve discovered that relaxation is also the prerequisite for imagination.

I was talking to my next-door neighbor, Michael Lewis, a best-selling author, once, and he told me about the time he nearly panicked when, deep into the research for a book, he lost the note book he had been using. I looked at him and said, “And the book turned out ….”

“Oh, much better,” he said. And we both cracked up.


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