J.K Rowling is the only author in the history of the world to have become a billionaire solely through her writing. With a feat that incredibly liberating, you never would think that such a successful author could have self-doubts. In creating Harry Potter, one of the most beloved novels in recent memory, J.K. Rowling reached the end of a long and desperate road in which she was forced to stare down her biggest fear of all- failure.
“What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure,” she remarked in her speech given to the graduating class at Harvard in 2008. “Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it.”
Just wanting to be a simple teller of tales
Joanne Rowling was born in 1965 just outside of Bristol, England and recalls writing stories when she was quite young. That was all she had ever envisioned for herself. Her family, however, had other ideas. Her parents had grown up in poverty and were not much further over that line as young Joanne grew up. They never took her dreams of being a successful writer seriously and urged her to study something practical, something that would allow her to make a real living. She had been rather close to her mother and younger sister, Diane, but never got on well with her father. That fractured relationship has haunted her until this day and the father-daughter relationship was never repaired or developed.
She tried to get into Oxford University but was rejected and recalled her teenage years as the most difficult and painful of her young life. Her mother was severely ill with multiple sclerosis and lingered in pain for ten years before her death.
Instead, she studied at Exeter University and graduated with a degree in French. In 1986, she moved to London to take a position as secretary and researcher with Amnesty International. She eventually had to leave that position, however, as she began having nightmares. The nightmares were frequent and unrelenting and her exposure to the horror of people’s lives who worked with Amnesty International had become too overwhelming.
So Rowling decided to move to Manchester and begin anew. While traveling on a train bound for Manchester in 1990, the idea for the Harry Potter novel seemed to literally leap into her head. She remembers being quite excited about it all and searched for her pen to begin writing down these thoughts. To her dismay, she discovered that her pen didn’t work. Since she had always been introverted and shy, Rowling remembers that she could not muster the courage to ask any of her fellow travelers if she might borrow a pen.
In the end, however, she thought it a fortunate turn of Fate as she just sat and looked out the window as the entire 6000 page novel began to materialize before her eyes. She allowed the story to come, allowed the story to present itself to her and immediately began writing the novel upon her return to her Manchester apartment. Later that year, in December of 1990, her mother finally succumbed to her multiple sclerosis. She was greatly, and painfully, affected by the loss and her pain began to make itself felt in her writing. It was then that her life was to take a serious detour toward tragedy and desperation.
Being visited by fear, failure, and desperation
Rowling then took a job in Portugal teaching English. There she met a Portuguese journalist whom she married and with whom she had a child, Jessica, but the marriage ended in divorce after about a year. During this time, Rowling suffered continuous abuse from her husband. On the final night of her marriage, she recalls him physically throwing her out of their house. She fled Portugal eventually settling back in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Her ex-husband, however, tracked her down in search of his daughter. Rowling soon obtained a court restraining order, yet the harrowing times she was now facing had cause her to slide into deep depression to the point of contemplating suicide on several occasions. She had no job and was living on poverty level government subsistence in a tiny and dingy apartment.
“I had failed on an epic scale”, she recalled. “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. I was the biggest failure I knew.”
She soon returned to Harry Potter. It had become for her the very meaning of her existence. She would wander into town, with Jessica in her stroller, and would find a quiet table at a local café in an effort to get the prodigious novel out of her head. She recalls going into town because the walk would help Jessica fall asleep so that she could write undisturbed. She also marvels at how she was able to make a tiny cup of coffee, or simple glass of water, last for hours.
Staring down her greatest fear materialized
By 1995, she had finished the first part of the novel entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (later changed to Sorcerer’s Stone by US publishers). She wandered around looking for a publisher and was rejected several times before finally finding one. The publishers, however, demanded that she use two initials with her name as they felt young boys would not read such a book if they knew it was written by a woman. So, Joanna Rowling became J.K. Rowling. Even this particular publisher was wary of the success of such a story. As fate would have it, it seems that the publisher’s eight year old daughter had read the manuscript and demanded that her father publish it so that she could find out what would happen next to Harry and his friends. Even despite that, the publisher advised Rowling not to quit her day job as he saw little chance of her ever making it as a writer of children’s books.
In the end, however, Rowling succeeded beyond any reasonable expectations. She has since remarried and had two other children. Her life, now, seems to her like some fairy tale ending but the fear of failure haunted her every move until she stared it down.
“Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one…I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.”
She remember staring at failure directly and seeing it for what it was and seeing how she was to overcome it and triumph in the end.
“…failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was. Had I really succeeded at something 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 was realized…and so rock bottom had become the foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”