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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Failure Is a Necessity

“The man who gets up is greater than the man who never fell.”  —Concepcion Arenal

Often, you have to fail as a writer before you write that bestselling novel or ground-breaking memoir. If you’re failing as a writer—which it definitely feels like when you’re struggling to write regularly or can’t seem to earn a living as a freelance writer—maybe you need to take a long-term perspective.

—J. K. Rowling

On Rejection: What If There Was No Dr. Seuss?

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! was published just a year before Dr. Seuss’ death and captures his indomitable sense of optimism and hope. If Seuss had ever meant to write an autobiography, this book would be it.

He was born Theodor Seuss Geisel. The name Dr. Seuss (actually pronounced “zoice”) began both as a cover story he concocted after getting caught drinking gin during Prohibition and as a joke directed at his father who always wanted him to get a Phd.

Ted to his family and friends, Seuss wrote his first children’s book in 1937: A Story No One Can Beat, which he later renamed And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street

Seuss attributed his now-famous style of lighthearted rhyming to his mother who would soothe him to sleep when he was young by “chanting” rhymes she remembered from her own childhood.

But success did not come easily to Dr. Seuss. The exact number is unknown, but somewhere between twenty and forty publishing companies rejected his first book. In fact, according to Seuss himself, he became so discouraged that one day he was walking home to burn the manuscript when he randomly ran across an old college friend who had connections to the publishing industry and helped him get the book published.

After this first long-awaited success, Seuss continued to work tirelessly throughout his writing career, locking himself in the studio of his old observation tower and writing at least eight hours a day—sometimes literally wearing a thinking cap. It wasn’t unusual for him to throw away 95 percent of his work and spend up to a year on one book.

Seuss’ hard work paid off: He earned two Academy Awards, two Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, and the Pulitzer Prize (among many others). To this date, his books have still sold more than J. K. Rowling’s and Stephenie Meyer’s.

But it wasn’t his fame and fortune that Seuss was most proud of. His greatest achievement, he said, was replacing the boring “Dick and Jane” books with fun, silly, and imaginative books. His greatest hope was to instill a love of reading in children.

Today, one in four children receive Dr. Seuss as their first book, and Seuss’ birthday (March 2) has been named National Read Across America Day.

Dr. Seuss became Dr. Seuss because he didn’t give up.

Who will you become if you don’t give up?