Ms Rowling Speaks

by wjw on June 8, 2008

JK Rowling has given an utterly splendid commencement address at Harvard.

It’s twenty minutes long, but it’s worth listening to.

Thai June 8, 2008 at 2:47 pm

Agreed… I came across the speech on Gretchen Rubin’s blog and sent the transcript to my CEO–I thought it contained a number of lessons relevant to our company… The negative feedback from a few of the students were equally priceless.

halojones-fan June 9, 2008 at 9:07 pm

Exactly what lesson are we supposed to learn from J K Rowling? I mean, the moral of her story is “every now and then an utterly average person grabs the brass ring, and so it doesn’t matter how hard you work or how smart you are because success is entirely a matter of luck”.

Thai June 9, 2008 at 9:45 pm

I agree with her random view of the world by the way– The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness are nearly bibles to me (remember that whole ‘fractal’ thing I mentioned in the ‘fix publishing’ post?).

But I was referring to the following part of her commencement address:

“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 realized, 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.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.”

Bruce June 10, 2008 at 4:36 am

halojones-fan, that wasn’t the moral I got out of her speech.

What Rowling seemed to be saying is:

“When you have nothing to lose, you have everything to gain.”

or, perhaps, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

May I respectfully submit that “an utterly average person” doesn’t write novels when they’re penniless and near-homeless?

And that “an utterly average person” doesn’t usually have the grasp on story values to write a story that pushes enough buttons to sell, first to an editor and then to the public?

(Lots of people can, and have, quibbled with Rowling’s skill at sentence by sentence writing. But she does seem to have a definite talent for story structure, one that grabs a lot of people’s attention.)

Disclosure: I’ve never read any of the Harry Potter books. But I will say that reading her commencement speech impresses me enough to want to give them a try.

dubjay June 14, 2008 at 6:14 pm

Writers of fantastic fiction should canonize Ms. Rowling (as I heard Kelly Link say the other day).

As a result of the success of the Harry Potter books, there was created a vast audience for YA fantasy (and, pretty much, SF). It’s boom times in that field, as good if not better as the boom in SF that followed the success of Star Wars.

New YA fiction lines are springing up everywhere you look. Writers of YA fantasy can =actually have careers!= While the number of writers who make a living from adult SF keeps going down.

It’s the writers of realistic YA fiction that are whining now. Ten years ago it was the other way around.

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