Thursday, March 26, 2015

Failure and Imagination with Jo Rowling

 This is Jo Rowling's 2008 Commencement Address at Harvard.  Her subjects are failure and the imagination.  (Here is a link to the transcript, although the responses of the audience is important.)  The central graph:

"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 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. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

But not everyone has that certainty, or that big idea.  But there are other more general lessons:

"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 than any qualification I ever earned."

As for imagination, she wasn't only talking about dreaming up Hogwarts:

"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."

She talked about her experiences working for Amnesty International in her early 20s--a moving and real account that never gets mentioned in her bios.  And how it informed her as a person and a writer.  For everyone, denying imagination is dangerous: "I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy."

Empathy and compassion change our relationship to the world, and may change at least little parts of the world. "One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing."

This is turn can inform the imagination in its action in the world. "We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."

In this brief speech she does not overtly make the connection between her two topics, failure and the imagination.  Failure can drive you inward, and depression drags you down into uselessness.  There are other products of failure that are likewise overrated.  But empathy is the classic benefit of failure, if it results in something like humility.  She did mention humility as a possible product of failure: "Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes."

Perhaps my failures didn't impact my life enough, or perhaps what it revealed was an insufficiently focused and disciplined person.  Anyway I don't think I've dealt with failure all that well.  I still deal with the effects of it on myself every day. But in terms of acting from it, perhaps I have not felt urgently enough, or really faced, that so much of my life has been wasted.  Of course there may still be time for remedy, and if there isn't, soon enough none of it will matter.    

Obviously Jo Rowling has made a huge difference in a huge number of lives through her Harry Potter books.  I expect my writing has made some difference to some people, perhaps fewer than I hope but more than I know. And I suppose that I personally have made some positive difference, more than negative.  I may have to be content with that.  And with imagining better.

Update: It turns out that JK has adapted this speech into a book, with proceeds going to her charity for children, Lumos.