What Can JK Rowling Teach Us About Creativity and Resilience?

(Source: Walter Lim via Flickr)

Instead of my usual roster of drunken, hedonistic, broke-ass losers, I thought I’d write a more uplifting post about an artist who has actually had some great success from their work- even when they were mired in the depths of despair. Yes, JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series of books. OK, so she’s not exactly Marcel Proust. And although I don’t consider her really a wild “Bohemian” like some of the other misfits I tend to profile in this blog, she is still, first and foremost, a writer- and a very successful one at that. Not that money is the be all end all of everything, but I do give her massive credit for hooking a new generation of kids back into the pleasure of books and reading. And her true life story is certainly one of quite prolific creativity, resilience and personal inspiration. Sometimes, we all hit rock bottom. As in, falling-on-your-ass-in-the-gutter-rock-fucking-bottom. So the only place you can possibly go from there is up, right?

Born in England in 1965, JK Rowling seemed like she was on her way to a somewhat interesting, educated Middle Class life. She graduated from college, and was working in London as a researcher for Amnesty International. It was on a trip to Manchester via Kings Cross station that she became delayed on the train and the inspiration for the Harry Potter books were born. Harry, his sidekicks and the plots of the other 6 novels pretty much “just came to her”. She started simply by scribbling her ideas out by hand onto scraps of paper whenever she could. But, this was only a small seed, and it took many years and a series of traumatic struggles before her novels would finally come to any fruition at all.

About six months into writing the first book, Rowling’s life started to go wrong- really wrong. Her mother died of multiple sclerosis at the age of 45. Her mother’s death deeply effected her, and probably led to wanting a fresh start in life somewhere different. So, Rowling moved to Porto, Portugal to teach ESL English for a while and soon met her future husband, a Portuguese journalist. They were soon married, and after an earlier miscarriage, Rowling gave birth to her first child. But her marriage, by all reputes an abusive one, didn’t last longer than a year and she soon divorced her husband, and fled with her daughter back to England along with the first three chapters of Harry Potter in her suitcase.

Back in the UK, Rowling made the journey up to Scotland where her sister lived so she could get back on her feet and restart life with her new daughter. But, luck was hard to find for her in these times and things only went from bad to worse. She found herself a broke, single mom, unemployed and on the dole. This situation remained unchanged for a good number of years during her time in Edinburgh. In her words: “I never expected to mess up so badly that I would find myself in an unheated, mouse-infested flat, looking after my daughter. And I was angry because I felt I was letting her down.”

Rowling also admits to feeling near suicidal depression during this time, as well as her ex seeking her out and having to file a restraining order against him. “I was definitely clinically depressed. And that’s just characterized for me by, a numbness, just a sort of coldness and an inability to believe that you will feel happy again or that you could feel light-hearted again,” she said. “It’s just all the color drained out of life really.”  

Whiling away her days in a nearby cafe, Rowling would continue writing her first novel with her sleeping child in a pram by her side. It was only this artistic outlet, and her young daughter that kept her impassioned to simply try to improve her life in any way that she could. At this point, it was all she had. She had to make make it happen. There was simply nothing left for her to do. Failing at writing: what difference did it make? Her whole life was up to that point was one big succession of failures and disappointments, one after another. So what if she tried and failed again: there was absolutely nothing to lose, was there?

Well, we all know the story from here: the first Harry Potter novel was eventually published and became the runaway international success story most of us are familiar with. JK Rowling went from being a battered, stalked, welfare mom, living in a freezing cold apartment to being, as rumor would now have it, “richer than the Queen herself”. The Harry Potter books have become the best selling book series in history, somewhere in excess of 400 million copies. Rowling now no doubt lives a life of comfort, ease and well-deserved financial security. She has also been a prolific philanthropist, using her newfound fame and fortune to aid single parents, anti-poverty charities, and fight multiple sclerosis.

I think the point of all of this, in terms of the creative process, is that you gotta produce. Even when life has shit in your scrambled eggs, and then kicked you down in the dirt some more. Hell, even if life is pretty good: if you’re a painter, a sculptor, a street busker, an aspiring actor- create something. Anything. Make it happen, you never know where it might lead. Even if it’s crap to begin with, you can always fix and edit it later on. I’m a firm believer in simply getting started no matter how tough it is, and then worry about how it looks later on down the line. Get over that hump in you life: whether its poverty, depression, breakups or clogged drains. Probably success will not reward you the same way JK Rowling found it, but if your life sucks right now, you have nothing to lose do you? So go make it happen, any which way you can.

What’s your opinion: Does hitting rock bottom light the fire under our asses to make better art? Do we have to suffer to become great?

4 thoughts on “What Can JK Rowling Teach Us About Creativity and Resilience?

  1. We start out as human babbling brooks and life creates the Grand Canyon in us if we feel it to the depths and heights,suffer,feel joy,create a meaningful life. I love the story of JK Rawlings. Such an inspiration from a deep, wonder filled woman who gives back with her wealth and talent to us all.

    • Post Author Greg Goldblatt

      Yes, no doubt. I admit to guiltily enjoying the Harry Potter books even as an adult (as I guiltily admit to liking most fantasy generally…) Its not like Rowling was trying to reinvent the wheel or become the next James Joyce or anything, but credit must be given for getting kids interested in reading books again, especially in our modern age of iPhones, tablets, Facebook etc. So, power to her and a fight worth winning. Good that she remembers the struggles of others as well, and has given back a lot of her wealth to anti-poverty/pro-family programs as well (among other charitable causes).

  2. It is the elements of darkness and true struggle that makes the Potter stories so engaging. It is likely they would not have been so clearly elucidated had Rowlinv not had some real demons and darkness to deal with on her own life.

    • Post Author Greg Goldblatt

      Yes, I think Rowling herself commented that the Dementors, the horrible soul-sucking demons that drain you of all your life’s energy in the Harry Potter books, were inspired by the years of depression that she went through. No doubt, those who’ve had an easy breezy life, probably don’t write very good books about struggle and the fight against evil.

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