The Make-or-Break Element in Writing

Leo Buscaglia once said:

Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey into the afterlife. The first question was, “Did you bring joy?” The second was, “Did you find joy?”

We often hear the advice “write what you know,” but we rarely hear “write what you feel.”

J. K. Rowling began writing the Harry Potter series because she said it was a story she would’ve liked to read herself. The writer C.S. Forester also said:

I formed a resolution to never write a word I did not want to write; to think only of my own tastes and ideals, without a thought of those of editors or publishers.

After Rowling finished writing her first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it spent a year drifting from one rejection to another (about twelve in total). It was finally accepted by Bloomsbury Publishing for an advance of £1500. Rowling, however, was warned to get a day job. Her story wasn’t commercial enough to bring in any substantial amount of money (and at the time she was “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain”).

Ironically, some of the supposed “noncommercial” aspects of Harry Potter were pulled directly from Rowling’s own life—not from things that she knew, but from things that she had felt.

In an interview with Oprah, Rowling talked about her sadness and grief:

. . . if [my mother] hadn’t died I don’t think it’s too strong to say there wouldn’t be Harry Potter. . . the books are what they are because she died, because I loved her and she died.

Rowling also struggled with depression, and to express that depression she created dementors:

I think I had tendencies toward depression from quite young . . . It’s that absence of feeling—and it’s even the absence of hope that you can feel better. And it’s so difficult to describe to someone who’s never been there because it’s not sadness . . . Sadness is not a bad thing, you know? To cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling, that really hollowed out feeling. That’s what the dementors are.

Rowling started writing Sorcerer’s Stone because she knew it was a story she wanted to read, but she finished writing it because of how it made her feel.

Her feelings of depression, despair, grief, and most importantly, her feeling of failure drove her to finish what she had started. In her famous Harvard graduation speech, Rowling said:

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 . . . I was set free, because my greatest fear [of failure] 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.

Rowling is one of the most successful writers in history, but for quite a while she felt like she was the world’s biggest failure:

The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew . . . You might never fail on the scale as I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.

Ask yourself:

Did you bring joy?

Did you find joy?

Perhaps writers get a freebie here because one answer can cover both questions: write what brings you joy and your words will then bring joy to others.

The only catch is, writing what you feel—inspiring others—requires you to be honest with yourself. You have to be honest about what what makes you tick and then you have to have the courage to share it with others. Anything less and you’ll be cheating yourself and all your readers.

Let your mantra be: Dig deep. Be brave. Bring joy. Find joy.

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