This is an excerpt from the new book The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea, at the Right Time by Allen Gannett.
It was 1990.
J. K. Rowling was stuck on the train from Manchester to London. The train was delayed, and it was looking less and less likely she’d reach London on time. Her mind started to wander. Then, as she later told The New York Times, “It was the most incredible feeling… out of nowhere, it just fell from above.” Suddenly the ideas for the characters inhabiting a magical world began filling her brain, starting with Harry Potter. “I could see Harry very clearly; this scrawny little boy, and it was the most physical rush of excitement. I’ve never felt that excited about anything to do with writing. I’ve never had an idea that gave me such a physical response.”
Rowling continued, “By the end of that train journey I knew it was going to be a seven-book series. I know that’s extraordinarily arrogant for somebody who had never been published but that’s how it came to me.”
Image Via BeInspiredChannel.com
Harry Potter’s origin story has become a legend. It has informed how thousands, if not millions, of people think about creativity. And it has lent credence to the idea that creativity is a mysterious, spontaneous, almost magical (no pun intended) process where earth-shattering ideas drop fully formed from the sky. Rowling’s story of dreaming up the Harry Potter universe in an instant has made her a poster child for this “inspiration theory” of creativity.
But the story has it totally backwards. Rowling’s story doesn’t prove that creativity is uncontrollable and random. On the contrary, the real story behind the creation of Harry Potter persuasively demonstrates that creativity is a learnable, improvable skill. Let me show you what I mean.
The Crafting of Harry Potter
J. K. Rowling got off the train when it reached London, feeling inspired. If she had believed in the inspiration theory of creativity, she might have gone home and sat at her desk, waiting for yet more revelations. Instead, motivated by the vision she’d already mapped out in her head, she began planning her books methodically. Rowling spent the next five years engaged in creative iterations, developing the plots of all seven books, and writing the first book. Five years!
Her story is not one of sudden inspiration leading to overnight success. In fact, Rowling is one of the most organized and driven fiction writers I found in my research. Once, during a television interview, she showed a journalist her papers. Among the troves of boxes were fifteen variations of the first chapter of book one alone, as well as a chart that included every single character in Harry Potter’s class at Hogwarts that Rowling used to develop her plots.
One of Rowling’s early plot charts | Image Via Mental Floss
It didn’t stop there. Rowling published on her website a plot table she created to plan her fifth book. On the left-hand side, she listed every chapter, followed by a column for each subplot, and a map that helped her organize how various plotlines would unfold throughout the book. Her original agent, Christopher Little, described to me how obvious her planning was when the two of them first met. “What was quite extraordinary was that she had a very clear picture in her head of seven books,” he said. “If you asked a question about a particular scene, where you go down a corridor, and you turn into the third door on the left, she knew what was in the first door and the second door on the left.”
Rowling was more than just a visionary; she was also a voracious planner who exerted immense effort.
The True Nature of Creativity
One of the things I love most about Rowling’s story is the colossal gap between the public perception of her creative process and the reality. She didn’t just get struck by lightning. She didn’t win the creative lottery.
She toiled for years to create something great. Rowling planned, outlined, and developed reference materials, going through endless iterations and drafts to get her story and her characters just right. She built the universe subplot by subplot, draft by draft, and scene by scene.
And the result, of course, was Harry Potter.
The true story of the creation of Harry Potter should leave you feeling empowered. The way to create something amazing isn’t to wait for it to be delivered to your brain fully formed. Creativity isn’t something that magically drops from the sky, it’s a muscle that can be trained through hard work and dedication. You don’t need to be a wizard to create something great. You just have to be willing to work your wand off.
Adapted from THE CREATIVE CURVE: HOW TO DEVELOP THE RIGHT IDEA, AT THE RIGHT TIME © 2018 by Allen Gannett. Published by Currency, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Featured Image Via The Wrap