Saturday, January 24, 2009

Trusting the Muse: Reflections on Jo Rowling, Harry Potter, and Resisting Outside Influence

I'm not sure about the state of YA literature, but I have decided to ignore it. A few weeks ago, caught in a terrible funk, I picked up Melissa Anelli's Harry, A History. I know Harry Potter is passe, but I remain a loyal fan. One of the reasons is the story behind the story, both JK Rowling's astonishing journey and the phenomenon of Potter-mania that grew with her work. It is the stuff dreams are made of, not just for readers, writers, and artistic souls of all other ilks, but for anyone who believes in their potential, or hopes to reach beyond the limitations in which so many of us find ourselves mired.

Really, it's quite simply the Impossible Dream.

Anelli's book was, for me, a light and chaotic read. She swings between biography-- chunks of personal experience that sometimes appear out of nowhere-- and snippets of interviews done for her site, The Leaky Cauldron. Anelli founded it, along with a few other passionate Potter-heads. Her dedication to the site, the series, and the integrity of the fan community took her on an interesting journey, with some delicious moments including rather remarkable access to Jo Rowling, a notoriously private person.

What left me feeling uplifted, encouraged, and moved were the occasional glimpses into Jo Rowling's experience, and the genuine love her fans have for her books. Much of what has been written about the author has been exaggerated, overstated, spun. But she was a struggling single mother. She did search everywhere for a publisher. She has conquered the unconquerable: the publishing community's resistance to anything different.

Anelli puts it succinctly:

Harry Potter has actually been a very intimate phenomenon, the story of small groups of people acting in ways they shouldn't, doing things that usually wouldn't, and making the kind of history that, without Harry, they pretty much couldn't... They sold things that aren't supposed to sell, at a time when fantasy books weren't supposed to appeal to a generation of people who weren't supposed to care. At almost every step of Harry's early journey, things occurred in ways they shouldn't, confounded expectations, and nearly didn't happen at all.

The danger
for writers,
I have come to believe,
is in worrying
about trends

The danger for writers, I have come to believe, is in worrying about trends, reading too much industry-speak, and ignoring our muses. Jo Rowling's jumped up and down on her head on a train ride, refusing to shut up about orphaned boy-wizards and magical schools. She wrote a book that was gigantic, set in a world publishers found improbable and unmarketable, about a character they didn't think anyone would like. She wrote it anyway. Rather than pick up magazines or google young adult fiction incessantly, she sat down and wrote. And had the perfect storm, outlined in Anelli's book, not occurred, she'd still be teaching or working at Amnesty International. This would be fine, of course, except that we never would have experienced the wonder of her world. And I wouldn't have a hero, one who defied convention and just did it her way.

So often the best things in life happen because somebody refused to listen, or made an error and embraced the results, or just embraced, honored, and nourished a dream. Toll House Cookies were an accident. When Fred Astaire first auditioned the studio hack wrote "can't sing, can't act, can dance a little" on his card. And Jo Rowling wrote a book that nobody would want to read. But she wrote it. She loved Harry, gave him his story, and let fate take it from there.

Thanks, Jo.


  1. What a wonderful post Chrissy! Both stories are quite inspirational. I agree that we should write the story that is in our hearts. The ones we dream of. Write them for ourselves and hope others find the same enjoyment in them we do. Because after all, these are the characters we hold in depth conversations with when everyone else thinks we are simply zoning out. :) Shouldn't we share their story?

  2. It is truly inspiring and something to cling to when the publishing world seems a dark and gloomy place.

  3. good advice...and not just for writers.

  4. Thanks everyone. I do recommend the book. It has a little too much personal drama in it, but the access Anelli got and some of the sections about Jo's struggle to get the book out there... amazing!

  5. Yes, it's all about the passion, isn't it? A book written to the market is like something painted by numbers -- lacking surprise, excitement, power... (Not that I think paying attention to the market is a bad thing...but I think more and more that though it can be good to choose which of several projects will be next due to market forces, *changing* how a project will shape up for market reasons may be a mistake...)

    Anyway, this is the sort of thing that's been running through my head recently! So your post really fits in with my brain right now! :-)

  6. Oooh cool I have a brain thing going on with Cara!

    That's gotta be good. :)

  7. Anonymous10:11 PM

    I really enjoyed this post -- thanks! :)

  8. Beautiful and inspiring. Thank you for the heartfelt post.