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Valuable Small Actions Advice From a Big Author

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"We need to become absorbed in something bigger than ourselves," wrote J.K. Rowling, as part of a long and thought-provoking answer to a reader's question on GoodReads about her novel, The Casual Vacancy.

The site has her longer response to the reader's query, but here is a telling excerpt:

That doesn't mean that everyone should stand for Parliament (God forbid); it is a more subtle business than that. If we make decisions in small matters in the awareness that our actions can have a huge impact on others, we will begin to make a difference. If we choose to understand the other person's point of view, if we make the effort to understand before rushing to judgment, all kinds of different vistas might become apparent to us.

Rowling gets to the heart of what I think drives much of our society today, in the best way, when small actions have an impact on people. Yes, we will always have unfathomable horrors in the form of poverty, hunger, strife, oppression and intolerance. But the seemingly inconsequential actions in our everyday lives count for quite a lot in our overall journey.

This response was tied to publicity surrounding the paperback release of Rowling's first non-Harry Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, which received mixed notices but sold well.

But I thought of her response also in relation to the brouhaha surrounding a novel, The Cuckoo's Calling, which it turns out Rowling had written under a pseudonym, Richard Galbraith, and which caused nary a ripple when it was published in April. An old-school type of mystery featuring a down-at-luck detective and his new assistant, the book received no reviews (mysteries rarely do), and sold virtually no copies in Britain or America.

Until it was revealed that supposed first-time unknown author Richard Galbraith was actually the world-famous writer of the Harry Potter novels, whose books had sold in the hundreds of millions. Some people suspected that the whole thing was a publicity stunt, but judging by Rowling's response, after word got out that a lawyer at her law firm had let word slip out, she did not expect to be unmasked.

I believe her; she has integrity and writes because she loves writing. I think she must have found great joy in assuming a guise of anonymity, of assuming another author's fictional identity, to explore another area of fiction.

Once the book's true author was made known, of course, The Cuckoo's Calling shot to the top of the bestseller lists, and the little-remarked-upon book even got a rave review in The New York Times.

But Rowling didn't need to stage a publicity stunt to sell books. She doesn't need the money. I think she wanted to take a small action as a pretend-unknown, to find a freedom in being a writer without the weight of expectation on her. And to give pleasure to readers who might, in their own small ways, chance upon her book (which is, indeed, quite entertaining).

For her, the act of anonymity represented a big action -- she went to great lengths to remain behind the curtain of a pseudonym -- but it also was a way for her to appear small, and to give pleasure without the burden of fame.

We don't always have to do something to be noticed. But we should try to do something noteworthy, even if it remains unknown to others. Even if it's a book that one comes upon and treasures, without knowing who wrote it.

An upside to this is that Rowling will donate the proceeds to Soldiers' Charity, which helps the military and their families (the back-story for the pseudonymous Robert Galbraith was that he was an ex-soldier; the hero detective of her story is also an ex-soldier, who was wounded in Afghanistan).

Rowling said she had always intended to donate the proceeds of the book to the charity, but now she'll be able to donate that much more, thanks to the sudden notoriety of her fictional author. Her small action in protecting her writer's craft will also pay off in philanthropic largesse.