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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Impostor Failure, Part II: J.K. Rowling

In my post on Steve Jobs, I suggested that his biggest failure in life turned out–certainly in his own opinion–to be a liberating event that made possible his subsequent success. In other words, his failure was an impostor, just as Rudyard Kipling would say. In this post, I want to suggest the exact same thing, with a different example: one that is female, creative, vulnerable, touching. The example of J.K. Rowling.

Rowling is one of the most successful book authors of all time, and the most successful by far of those alive today. Who knows? Her Harry Potter books may yet become classics that endure down the ages. Rowling herself would be thrilled, because she loves classics and studied them, to the distress of her poor (literally) parents, who wanted her to study something “useful”. As a classics fiend myself (in a world of blank stares whenever anything Greek or Roman comes up), I love her just for that.

But let’s get to her “failure”. Her commencement address at Harvard this year was, in its entirety, a paean to failure–its ability to help a young person navigate life and to liberate her imagination. For the first nine minutes, she reminds her audience of (mostly) successful Harvard graduates and parents of her own family’s crushing poverty when she went to university, but says that “What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.” Then failure came:

… by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

She did not see it at the time, but this turned out to be a liberating event, rather as Steve Jobs’ career disaster at the age of thirty had been for him:

Here are the key passages:

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

More disasters followed. She lost her mother, she thought of killing herself, she was depressed. But she kept writing–in caf├ęs, whenever her baby daughter fell asleep–and letting her imagination range freely as it now, after failure, could. The irony would soon be complete: several publishers turned down her Harry Potter story! Even her book, in other words, began as a failure. Then, one publisher took it. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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