I write things. Maybe you'll read them.


In a little more than three weeks, the seventh installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be released. Millions of readers, myself included, eagerly await this final year at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to see how the boy wizard resolves the destiny chosen for him when he was only a baby, and whether that resolution will cost him his life.

Though the first book was published a decade ago, each new release rekindles the controversy that surrounds the books. Many people see the books as promoting the occult and non-Christian values and some have gone so far as to organize protests, petitioning for the books to be banned from schools and libraries. To many parents, Harry Potter is evil and should be avoided at all costs.

These people are, as Ron Weasley might say, mental.

Harry Potter is, first and foremost, a brilliant work of fiction (that means, to people who are not familiar with the term, that the stories are made up) and bear only an acquaintance with the world we know. The elements of muggle life that Rowling incorporates (e.g. Dudley tossing his PlayStation out the window) only serve to add a touch of verisimilitude to an otherwise fantastic tale. Rowling herself is not a witch, nor does she want anyone’s child to convert to witchcraft, wave sticks around, and speak nonsensical words in the hopes of levitating some object. Like any storyteller, she only wishes to entertain. The values she promotes in the books are admirable regardless of faith–hard work, courage, friendship, and love. There is evil in the books, but in the same context as other novels beyond count in the form of the antagonists such as Voldemort, Professor Snape, and the Malfoys. Harry’s battles against these forces are not a fight-fire-with-fire scenario, but a good-versus-evil struggle comparable to many tales found in Christian works. If children, or at the very least parents, cannot differentiate between true occultism and the portrayal of magic in the Harry Potter series, then the problems lies with the environment of the reader, not with the tales themselves.

Another objection some find to the Harry Potter series is the lack of Christian morals in the books. Even beyond the portrayal of magic in the books, the rule-breaking and mild swearing sometimes employed by Harry and his friends is seen as sending the wrong message to impressionable children and teens. Children whose parents hold this view will miss out on volumes of great literature that do not promote this idealistic view of the world–The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to name a few–and will find themselves living in a vacuum of their own faith. To further the point, the Bible contains many tales of Christian heroes–Moses, David, Solomon, and others–who often do not show what we would today consider Christian values. Are we to deny these children the Bible because of the examples set by these and other characters within? Perhaps that is best, considering how biblically illiterate most Christians are. In a 1997 survey, only 34% of Anglican priest could name all Ten Commandments without help. In a survey of American Christian teens, the Bible Literacy Project found that less than half of those polled could identify the event that led Jesus to change water into wine. Given a choice of four quotations, nearly two-thirds could not identify a passage from the Sermon on the Mount. If people are not reading the Bible, are not even familiar with what it says, how can they speak out against a book that, in their uninformed opinion, promotes anti-Christian values? Many of the people who speak against the Harry Potter books are less familiar with the actual content of Rowling’s stories than they are the Bible and have no factual knowledge on which to base their opinion, which is similar to protesting the Bible because it has stories of rape, murder, and incest. Uninformed opinions are much more dangerous than children’s books. Bear in mind that so-called “Christian values” brought about the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witchcraft trials, and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. While I believe in the moral lessons demonstrated by Jesus in the Bible–forgiveness, compassion, and love for your fellow man–I truly wish the interpretation of Christian values could be left to more reasonable minds.

Violence is another complaint often given when discussing the Harry Potter novels. Throughout the series, Harry and his friends are forced to battle the forces of evil through various means that, in some cases, leads to injury and death. While I admit that the books, particularly the later books in the series, may not be appropriate for younger readers due in large part to the increasingly pitched battle between good and evil, I offer the Bible as another example of a book rife with violence of the sort that makes the passages of Harry Potter look like a quiet outing. The Old Testament, often overlooked by Christians except when defending creationism, is full of harrowing stories of mass murder, rape (including sodomy), theft, and horrific battle. Again, those who attack the Harry Potter stories glaze over this aspect of their religion, the founding and preservation of which was secured through spilled blood and savage warfare much more than universal love.

Others argue simply that the events described in the Harry Potter series are too fantastic; nothing in the novels could really happen in life. As one person told me, “I can’t believe any story where someone turns a stick into a snake.” When I reminded said person of Moses turning his staff into a snake in Egypt, I was met with a blank stare. “But that’s different,” the person argued. In truth, it’s no different. If a person can suspend their reason for elements of the Bible in order to establish his or her faith, why can that person not suspend their reason in order to be entertained by a creative story? Regardless of whether the events in the Bible happened just as they are portrayed (highly unlikely, considering they were often recorded centuries after the actual events took place), a person who cannot imagine the magic in Harry Potter probably cannot truly imagine Jesus walking on water or raising Lazarus from the dead. These people, with no imagination and no true belief, seek only to satisfy their social need to be Christians rather than actually committing themselves to what they are taught to believe.

Not so long ago, I challenged a co-worker of mine to read the first Harry Potter book. This person was one of the most devout Christians I knew at the time and I was prepared, when she finished the book, for the argument that I knew would ensue. To my surprise, she loved the book and has subsequently read the rest of them because she understands that Harry Potter, like Atticus Finch or Mickey Mouse, are fictional characters. They exist only in the mind of J. K. Rowling and in the minds of the readers, who must interpret the characters based not on what they believe, but on how they would react in the setting in which they are placed. Harry Potter is not presented as an infallible beacon of ethics and morals. Such a character would not only make for a poor story, but would also make for an impossible standard for the imperfect souls that read the novels. Harry’s struggles, not only with the forces of Voldemort, but also with his own temptations, desires, and sins make him more realistic to the average reader and, more importantly, more representative of Christians who continually face such obstacles themselves. Rowling never says in her novels that Potter is a Christian–to do so would be pretentious and would create more controversy by far than the omission of religion has done–nor does she say he is not. What she does is portray Harry as an orphan who struggles to find his place in the world, then learns that the fate of his people rests in his, in his opinion, ill-equipped hands before accepting his responsibility and charging toward his destiny head on even if it means his death. If that story sounds familiar to Christians, it should if they have read the tale of Moses in Exodus.

I am not comparing the Harry Potter series to the Bible here. I am not advocating someone start the Church of Harry Potter and hold services every Sunday and Wednesday. There are events in Rowling’s work that allude to events in the Bible, but that can be said for a great many books by authors from Twain to Faulkner, none of which have gained the infamy of Harry Potter. What I am advocating is that people form their opinions based on what they know rather than what they think they know. To do otherwise makes a person seem ridiculous and ill-prepared to defend their half-formed ideas. I welcome any debate on this or any other topic, but only if my opponent has a clue about what they are speaking about. William G. McAdoo said that “It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in an argument.” Therefore, if you wish to display your ignorance, steer clear of me. I only fight battles I can win.

I’m convinced that everyone has a muse. Every person has that spark, that divine inspiration that allows us to seek creative release in whatever form suits us–painting, music, gardening, or, in my case, writing. Most of us, however, have starved our muse, have neglected it like an unwanted mongrel dog, chained and penned and forgotten in the backyards of our minds. The hectic modern lives we lead leave us no time to enjoy the simplest pleasures of engaging in the act of creation or the therapy we could find from them.

I believe most of us imprison our muses at about the same time. Thanks to our educational system, we are taught that some forms of creation are good, others are bad, and that we must all follow certain rules to be accepted by the grade-giving gods of the English department. Throughout high school and college, we are conditioned to speak a certain way, write a certain way, and think a certain way, yet a study of the true geniuses of the literary world tells us that these iron-clad rules are negotiable. Hemingway’s sentences are structured barely beyond what my seven-year old reads for her first grade class. Faulkner, on the other hand, could not end some sentences, letting them run and ramble like hyper-caffeinated toddlers. More recently, Cormac McCarthy, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for The Road, apparently cannot find the apostrophe or quotation marks on his keyboard. While these authors are literary giants, and rightfully so, any student or unknown wishing to emulate their various rule-breaking styles would be pounced upon by most English teachers who so rarely see true talent in their lives that, should it arrive, they might not be able to see it amidst their desire for ordered sentences and clean punctuation. Any originality we wish to show gets bent, changed, disguised to produce work we think we’ll please our “wardens of words” instead of coming forth proudly in our own original style.

I fell victim to this as well. For years, I was told to study Hemingway and Faulkner and so many others who bent the rules as they saw fit to enhance their storytelling, while being told to structure my own writing so tightly that a quarter would bounce off it without regard to what I was writing. To put it another way, the way I wrote became more important that what I wrote. To me, this was a tragedy and, by the end of my college days, I was burned out on writing. For several years, after being somewhat prodigious throughout my school years and gaining much praise from my teachers and peers for the quality of my writing, I left the art behind. I took my muse to an abandoned corner of the yard and chained it there with no food, no water, and no hope.

The years passed. I got married, had kids, got divorced, got remarried, had more kids. I worked my way up in retail management with various companies, but never truly loved what I was doing. Some element was missing, regardless of how much money I put to the bottom line or how much my staff enjoyed working for me, or how high an opinion my bosses had of me. I felt incomplete. Then, one day in 2000, that all changed.

I was working with an office supply chain and had volunteered to go to St. Louis to help out a store there with some much needed inventory management. I spent two days there, working third shift to revamp the store, and on my way home I stopped at a bookstore in Fairview Heights just on the Illinois side of the river. While browsing the shelves, I came across a new work by Stephen King–On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft–and was immediately intrigued. I had been a casual fan of King’s work, had followed the news of his near-fatal automobile incident in the papers and online, and knew I needed this book. I purchased the audio version and listened to it on the long ride home to Kentucky, hearing how King developed into the writer he became and his general advice on the writing life. When I returned home, I listened to On Writing over and over–while cleaning house, while mowing the lawn, during my hour commute to work–until I could nearly recite every line and my wife grew very weary of King’s odd voice. All the while, I was preparing myself for a recovery mission, a quest to retrieve that part of me that was lost amidst the term papers and writing portfolios required to complete my education. Finally, in the summer of 2005, I had enough King-driven confidence and the sudden flash of insight I needed.

I was discussing with a coworker, who also bore an interest in writing, various story ideas that we had both thought of over the years and this discussion led to talk of imaginary friends. That’s when the lightning of inspiration struck. It was there all at once, like a mountain appearing from nowhere, and I knew that my muse was breaking free of the bonds I had set upon it. What if, I said to myself, a person received a letter from their imaginary friend? When I got home late that evening, I sat down at the computer and wrote a few hundred words. It was a taxing three hours that produced very little for my effort. I went to bed exhausted, but happy, because I, despite my difficulty, was creating.

The next night, I repeated the ritual. In his book, King urges the new writer to set a goal and suggests that 1000 words a day is a good place to start and so I adopted this goal. He suggests writing every day so the story does not go cold in the author’s mind, but I disregarded his advice. I wrote every day, for it seemed that my muse-unchained had no desire to return to its isolated corner. There were times, due to other requirements of my time, that I was forced to put off my 1000 words, though very little would interfere with my output. Some nights, after working my full time jobs as manager, parent, and husband, I would simply collapse without setting down the next installment of my story, those these days were thankfully few. At first the going was slow and painful, much like a runner starting from their couch to train for a marathon, but as the nights passed, the story came easier and easier. My three hours shrank to an hour on many nights, some nights less, and I would often get down 2000 or more words before stopping. I developed an instinct for knowing when to leave off so as to not risk my fatigue negatively influencing the story. After three months, I had 120, 000 words and, in my opinion, a pretty good fantasy novel. A FINISHED fantasy novel.

In the two years since I began writing again, I am happy to say that the art has filled that missing piece of my identity that plagued me before I found my way back to the blank page. I still stick to my 1000 word a night rule, though I’ve had extended periods recently where that was not possible. During these droughts, I do not sleep well and feel disoriented, which only serves to strengthen my commitment to my muse. In addition to the first novel, I have written several short stories, have completed about half of another fantasy novel, and have begun what I believe will be my best work yet–a semi-horror novel that I am eager to complete. When I write, I use no notes, no outlines, no diagrams. I sit down and write what I see and that seeing has grown easier the more I have done it. Just like King said it would.

I owe a great deal to Stephen King. Besides setting the standard to which every would-be popular novelist aspires, his memoir gave me the push I needed to realize that I CAN write–no, that I SHOULD write–and the simple, but direct, vote of confidence that I needed to understand that the stories I have to tell are good and worth telling. Kings says that writing a novel “is like crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub–there’s plenty of room for doubt.” That is true, but there’s always less doubt with someone else–in my case, Stephen King–to help you row the tub along.