Wednesday 18 November 2015

J. K. Rowling's Harvard Commencement Address

"...I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea." (J. K. Rowling)

On a Spring Day in 2008, J. K. Rowling delivered the commencement address at Harvard University. Her two themes were the fringe benefits of failure and an imagination.  She talked about how her parents, who shared an impoverished background, wanted her to get a "real job".  However, all she ever wanted to do was write stories.  While she wanted to study English Literature, they wanted her to study a more lucrative subject:  they settled on Modern Languages.  However, J. K. immediately switched to the Classics.  

J. K. said she didn't fault her parents for not wanting her to live in poverty.  As she explained;

"I cannot fault my parents for hoping that I would never live in poverty.  They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience.  Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships.  Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticized only by fools."

J. K. went on to point out that she suffered a failed marriage and ended up unemployed with a young child to raise.  She felt like the biggest failure.  However, ironically, out of her failure came her success.  She was more determined than ever to prove that she could make a success of her writing.  

"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 biggest fear had 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." 

J.K. went on to talk about her other point, the importance of having an imagination.  Of course, her imagination contributed immensely to the writing of the Harry Potter series.  However, having an imagination is important not only for a writer, but also for all human beings.  It gives of a greater gift:  empathy.  

"Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so.  Though I will personally defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation.  In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared."

Note:  To find out how the Harry Potter series came into being, visit


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