Her books have captured the imagination of millions of children and adults around the world. She is widely regarded as one of the greatest living story tellers in the world.

The 21 minute video below that was given by J K Rowling to the graduations class of Harvard University in 2008 is based around 2 themes – the benefits of failure and the importance of imagination. (For a discussion of the benefits of failure see here).

On her website, Rowling described the how the idea of Harry Potter came to her in 1990:

I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head. I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one… I did not have a functioning pen with me, but I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me. Perhaps, if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them (although sometimes I do wonder, idly, how much of what I imagined on that journey I had forgotten by the time I actually got my hands on a pen). I began to write ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ that very evening, although those first few pages bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book.

When she had reached her Clapham Junction flat, she began to write immediately. In December 1990, Rowling’s mother died, after ten years suffering from multiple sclerosis. Rowling commented, “I was writing Harry Potter at the moment my mother died. I had never told her about Harry Potter.” Rowling said her mother’s death heavily affected her writing and that she introduced much more detail about Harry’s loss in the first book, because she knew about how it felt

In the video, Rowling elaborates that imagination is more than the uniquely human capacity to envision that which currently does not exist. Imagination comes from thinking that I discuss further in a previous post (see here).Or as Einstein has put it:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

It is in that sense Rowling broadens imagination to include the power that enables us to empathise with those whose experiences we have never shared. Her experience working for Amnesty International opened to her a world of suffering, terrible cruelty and inhumanity:

“Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone. Every day I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read. And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International that I had ever known before…My small participation in the process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.”

One of the important aspects of the gift of imagination that we have all been given is that it can be used for good or evil purposes –to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.”

But there is also a third way to exercise imagination and that is to choose to suppress and not engage it at all. In many ways Rowling argues this is just as destructive and deadly as using imagination for evil.

“They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully 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.”

So the power of imagination comes from, quoting the Greek author Plutarch, “what we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”

Although Rowling is addressing the graduating class of Harvard and challenges them to responsibly treat the unique privileges and opportunities their education has given them, I am sure the same could be said of each one of us. I will give her the final words:

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. 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.

What questions about imagination does Rowling’s speech raise for you?