The Lake and The Shed: Rowling Reveals Her Writing Process

Here is a Christmas present for all serious readers of J. K. Rowling!

In a pre-recorded Christmas Special episode of BBC4’s ‘The Museum of Curiosity,’ during which not a single reference to Christmas is made (how long ago was this interview recorded?), Rowling donated ‘Inspiration’ to the imaginary museum for sale in their virtual gift shop. Along the way, she revealed bon mots about a book she was writing when inspired on the train to write Harry’s adventures, about her love of Dickens and his thoughts about ghosts and ideas, about why Harry Potter shouldn’t be taught in schools, and about why she couldn’t make a living as a strip-tease artist. Did I mention Rowling is writing a children’s book featuring a newly invented world, a work in progress, half-done?

Most important, though, she spoke about how she thinks about her writing process, a two-step journey of inspiration and perspiration, what she describes as ‘The Lake’ and ‘The Shed.’ I don’t doubt that listeners in the US and UK may have tuned in to see if she was going to comment on the Tweet Heard Round the World and the subsequent controversy (she does mention, with respect to an unrelated matter, having to turn in her “feminist card”). No luck there as this radio show was recorded ages ago, but her ‘Lake and Shed’ comments I’m confident will be referred to from this point forward in all discussions, popular and academic, of Rowling’s craft as writer.

As a gift from the Orthodox on the Feast of St Spyridon to the great horde of heterodox Gregorians on their ‘Christmas Day,’ I give y’all a transcript of Rowling’s remarks on this ‘Christmas Special’ radio show that never mentions Christmas. After the jump! Joyous Noel, Serious Readers!

BBC Radio’s The Museum of Curiosity’s 2019 Christmas Special

In this transcript, I will leave out the laugh track hilarity and the comments made by the other two guests on the show. Rowling’s comments are introduced by ‘JKR’ only once. I have highlighted the comments I think especially interesting; your mileage may vary.

Time: 4:30 – 11:10 

[BBC: Tell us about the life changing event you experienced.]

JKR: I was on a delayed train from Manchester to London when I was 25 and I had an idea for a children’s story, which I then went on to write. I wrote seven of them.

BBC: What are they called?

They’re called Harry Potter and various things.

BBC: Jo, you’ve got an amazing imagination, but could you have ever imagined this on that train?

No. Who would think that? I was writing something completely different at the time that Harry Potter came to me. And for awhile I tried to write them both simultaneously. And then there just came a point when Potter just took over and I knew it was the thing that I loved and wanted to do.

BBC: When you were on the train, were you sitting at a window, or were you so…

Well, I always say that I was looking at some cows. I’ve said this so often I’m not sure any more if it’s true or not. You know when you say something again and again and again you think “Well, did I really see that or was it something I imagined?” and I think that was it. I think I genuinely was vaguely staring out a window. It was a packed train, really, really packed, I remember that. Lots of people standing. And I had managed to get a seat, having been standing some of the way.

And I sat down and shortly after I sat down I had this idea.

And I didn’t have a pen. I didn’t want to ask someone for a pen. Can you imagine, I need a pen, I’m about to…my magnum opus has just come to me. So I just sat there and I actually think that it was amazing that I didn’t have a pen. Because all these ideas were teeming into my head.

And a ton of things that went into the books came to me then. Not the whole structure of the story, not the whole plot, but a lot of detail, and it was coming so fast I don’t think I could have got it down. And I remember thinking “Am I going to remember this?” and I thought, “Well, if it’s worth remembering, I will remember it.”

And I think that’s true sometimes. If you forget the idea, probably it wasn’t worth much.

BBC: It’s true about remembering things though because you often work …on stage in front of people. And you often meant to say some things and you don’t end up saying them because they’re irrelevant….So Jo Rowling, what’s the top thing it’s given you do you think?

First of all, the achievement of something I’ve wanted to do all my life. so just knowing that I’d published a book was massive to me. It also gave me a place to go when things were really rough. so I know that Hogwarts and the world has been a refuge for people which is a connection I have had with a lot of readers. And I do feel quite strongly that it was that for me for years. And then it became that for other people and that’s always been the most incredible thing to hear. Whether it was children or adults, that it was a place that people could go to escape.

And it gave me incredible opportunities. I met people and went to places I would never have dreamt of being. I’ve stood in the Oval Office – I was shown the Oval Office by Barrak Obama…

BBC: Oh, you went there at the right time.

Yes, I did. So obviously that would be up there. One of the astronauts on the space station, the astronauts who were up there for months, they get to request things. And one of them said, could he have a chat with me? So I spoke to someone on the space station and I got to ask him all about life on the space station. So all these incredible things and experiences that on your death bed what are you going to take with you. Well, these are the things I will remember. It’s been incredible.

BBC: One of the things you’ve done without question is change the world. A lot of children wouldn’t read if it weren’t for Harry Potter, I think.

I’ve said “No” every time the Department of Education has asked me to do things with them. I always felt I didn’t want it to be prescriptive, I wanted it to be something people were reading under the bed covers with a torch, and I didn’t want it to be used as a part of reading initiatives or literacy initiatives. I just wanted it to be something that people found for themselves I suppose.

BBC: There were studies that found that people who read the books had more empathy and were more tolerant. Was that something that was quite a surprise?

It’s an amazing thing to read and those themes are deeply embedded inside the books. Ideas of being different, racism is obviously there in allegorical form, and there’s totalitarianism in there, because Voldemort is obviously a totalitarian – I wouldn’t say he’s a populist – I suppose he’s a kind of nationalist. So, yeah, these ideas are all in there and it’s an incredible thing to think that people would have softened in their attitudes because of reading these books.

BBC: You get some flack in the States, I think, because people say it’s Satanic…

Well, it is, John, it is Satanic and I think that now is the night to say it. Thank you for enabling me to say that at last. It’s a great relief and a liberation. I have to say I have a PR person here with me tonight. She’s sitting with her head in her hands at the moment.

BBC: You also write the best-selling Cormoran Strike crime novels under the pen name Robert Galbraith.

I know – I love being Robert.

BBC: Is it different — because in Harry Potter you’re making up an entire universe and Robert Galbraith essentially inhabits a real world — is that a different cast of mind as a writer?

It’s not really a different cast of mind in the writing, but I always wanted to write crime. So this is a long-standing ambition. But I love doing the research, I love going to real places, and I think that is definitely a reaction from the fact that previously I made everything up. And it’s nice to be in the physical world and describe that. But I have a half-written children’s book where I’m going back into a complete invented world that I’ve sort-of got half finished. So I sort of move between the two.

BBC: How would you do if it hadn’t been leaked. Was it a solicitor … or somebody leaked it.

It was a lawyer who ironically had drafted a confidentiality agreement. Would you like his name and address?

BBC: Who is Robert Galbraith?

Yeah, he’s an ex…I had a whole CV…this is true. A friend of mine who is ex-army and was going to go into the publisher and shake hands as Robert, you know, just so ..

BBC: …so that he’s a physical man…

And he’s a large bloke and he really looks the part. He was quite disappointed; He’s that kind of guy. I had to ring him up and said, “You’re not going to do this, this is not going to happen.”

BBC: A quote from Roald Dahl “Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.”


The last class I ever taught, this kid said to me, “Miss, this is our last class with you, eh?”

And I said “It is, yeah.”

And he said, “Are you gonna be on the dole now?”

And I said “No, I’ve actually got another career.” Which was such a lie. The Philosopher’s Stone was about to be published, but “career” was really stretching it. I had not seen a penny from this book and he said, “Missy … you a stripper?”

BBC: Did you take it as a compliment?

Do you know what, I did. I know I have to give back my feminist card for this, but I looked at this kid and I thought, “Can I be bothered to give you detention? I’m leaving today.” So I said to him, “Sean, I’m so flattered that you think anyone would pay me to take my clothes off.” And he went bright red, and I thought, “Revenge is mine!”

BBC: Jo – what would you like to donate [to the Museum of Curiosity]?

I would like to donate inspiration.

BBC: I’d like some of that, please.

Well, that was my thinking because one of the reasons I would like to donate inspiration is I thought “I get asked all the time where do you get your inspiration from?” So I thought, “We’ve got a museum shop, right? So we could.” As it’s infinite, we could bag up little bits and set it in the shop.

BBC: That’s wonderful. The thing is where will be get it from?

Well, I brought it with me. Yes.

BBC: I wanted to talk a little bit about that because, where do they come from, do you think, when you have these ideas?

Well, I’ve never said this before because I always think it sounds so bonkers, and, although it’s something I think about a lot, I’ve always been a bit wary about articulating it to anyone else.

But I envisage my process thus: I feel as though I go through a lot of trees which are my day to day concerns, what we all deal with all the time, and those I see as trees inside my head and then I get to a place which is my work place where there is a lake and there’s a shed. And this is my process.

I feel as though the inspiration is the thing that lives in the lake that’s very mysterious, that I never see. But it hands me stuff. And then I have to take this unformed stuff – sometimes it can be reasonably formed, sometimes it’s very blobby like molten glass or something, and then I have to take it into the shed and there I have to work on it.

And because I’ve had this metaphor in my head for many many years, when I read something that I’ve written I have a sort of shorthand that I say to myself, “too much lake, not enough shed.” When I go back over something – I should have spent longer in the shed.

And then there are some bits you think, “Oh that’s too sheddy. I’m not sure you added a lot out of the lake that day.” And in a dream world, obviously, the lake gives you something good, but then you work on it properly in the shed and you turn out the finished product. And I even apply this to other writers. I’ll read something and I’ll think “This is pure shed.”

BBC: When the stuff is in the lake, do you have to put a net out and then swim?

See this is the sort of question I’ve always anticipated and this is the reason I’ve never… so, no, I don’t. This is the thing.

I think as I’ve gone on as a writer, I think that the growth has been that I trust that that thing that lives in the lake will give me stuff. so I don’t panic. So I think as I’ve gone on I’ve realized all I have to do is be still and sometimes the smart thing to do is to actually lock up the shed and start walking away, and then you hear it splash, and you go back and there it is.

So it’s often a question of … you never put a net in. That will ruin everything. The thing that lives in the lake, this is my inspiration, whatever is in there doesn’t like nets. Don’t ever disturb the lake just wait and my inspiration if that’s what is living in the lake will give it to me.

What I find fascinating about inspiration and I love hearing other creative people talk about their process… I’m always fascinated by it. I think that people who ask the question “Where do you get your inspiration from?” often don’t understand that it’s a process. So although I’m talking about the thing that lives in the lake as that’s where I get it from, I know the thing that lives in the lake is me. It’s just a part of me that deep down is subconscious, it’s my unconscious that’s processing things.

BBC: The process for you is to visualize this…

The process for me is sometimes simply to think “Okay, you’re not going to work this out in the shed. It’s time to lock up the shed and walk away.” Sometimes that’s just what I’ve got to do. And then it will come. Almost always the thing hears me walking away, whatever is in that lake, and says, “Come back, I’ve got something…” So I’ve learned to back off and not to keep prodding.

BBC: Obviously everyone’s got a different process … Talking of teaching earlier, this is JRR Tolkein who was a teacher and he got bored marking exam papers and he says, “I was marking school examinations in the summertime, which is very laborious, unfortunately also boring. I remember picking up a paper and nearly gave it an extra mark or an extra five marks actually because one page on this particular paper was left blank. Glorious. Nothing to read. So I scribbled on it, I can’t think why, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’”

That’s amazing.

BBC: Is your lake quiet, and the shed?

Yeah, but actually , ironically, I can write literally anywhere. Because my apprenticeship was waiting for the baby to stop crying.


BBC: I love this [quotation] from Charles Dickens “An idea —

[Rowling interrupts him] “– must be’s like a ghost…” I’ll tell you how I know this quotation. In the loo, all over the walls are written my favorite quotations about writing and about life. And that one’s on my wall in my loo. That quotation is: “An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.” That’s so beautiful.

[John: Endnote — ‘Thank you’s to Beatrice Groves and to J. E. Preece for sending me the link to this BBC show and to my wife Mary for typing it up. Please do listen to the whole thing (only available for 28 more days) and share in the comment boxes below anything I’ve missed along with your thoughts about her comments, especially The Presence’s Process, ‘Waiting on the Thing in the Lake.’]


  1. I think too that every story is a slightly different genre, a slightly different medium (or majorly so on both counts), and you only ever get the story right on its own sake. And then you eventually give up and try the next story (or don’t) in search of that white stone, that new name George MacDonald preached on.

    In this way, stories are like people themselves: search for the vocation, the word, that they alone can offer the world. They may or any not be realized, but like life itself there’s valor in the attempt.

  2. Minerva Kolb says

    Was the statement „It is satanic.“ real or was ist meant to be ironic? Greetings from Germany

  3. Beatrice Groves says

    Very pleased to share this with you, John, and thanks to Mary for the transcript. (It was recorded on 8 June 2019.) I think the interviewers, live Radio 4 audience, and the emphasis of this programme on humour and ideas – curiosity, indeed – helped get such a startlingly in-depth answer to the question about her process which she had pretty much just dismissed as something she hates to be asked! (The comfortable context also lead to the joke about Satanism, which she felt confident would be taken by the audience as intended – as it was, it made them laugh a lot – though it does sound rather bald in the transcript!).

  4. I find Rowling’s metaphor of the Lake and the Shed fascinating for a very interesting reason. This is not the first time I’ve heard the creative process described in very similar terms.

    I know of at least two other writers who have utilized the same lake or pool image to describe their relation to the Imagination. The only real surprise is that one of them is Stephen King, of all people. In the acknowledgements section of his non-fiction study, “Danse Macabre”, King recalls an English class teacher he had as college student. His name was Burton Hatlen, and according to King, it was this same Lit 101 professor who first expounded to him the idea of “a myth-pool in which we all bathe communally (xxxvi)”.

    It’s also an idea that King has come back to time and again in his own work. He even utilizes the image in one of his novels, “Lisey’s Story”. His description of it in that work goes as follows: “It’s the pool where we all go down to drink, to swim, to catch a little fish from the edge of the shore; it’s also the pool where some hardy souls go out in their flimsy wooden boats after the big ones. It is the pool of life, the cup of imagination, and she has an idea that different people see different versions of it (437)”. It’s pretty clear that even a basic look at the above narration that what the author is describing is a series poetic images that, when taken together, attempt to present an idea of both the nature, function, and identity of what Coleridge referred to as Imagination. The idea of writers as fishermen who try to “catch” stories is maybe not the best description out there. However it does manage to hit an apt note, for lack of a better word, and can therefore be considered passable enough in terms of workmanship.

    Critic Patrick McAleer is able provide a better commentary than I can about King’s use of this lake/pool metaphor in his study “Stephen King’s Modern Macabre”. There he states that, “In…this place exist the healing and damning waters of the myth pool. And the pool is not just a place of words or a place of myths: initially, yes, the catches of phrase, the inheritance of story and language. But the myth pool goes deeper. The myth pool can hurt us or heal us in the same way. Ronald T. Curran cites King’s use of a “myth pool” in both “Danse Macabre” and “Bare Bones” as a “place from which fairy tales come and argue for the existence of an archetypal dimension that they occupy (190)”.

    I bring all this up because of the striking similarities it shares with C.S. Lewis’s concept of the Wood between the Worlds. This can best be seen when you turn to the opening page of Beatrice Groves’ “Literary Allusion in Harry Potter”. She notes that “Rowling has spoken of the Wood between Worlds () as a place where ‘you can jump into the different pools to access the different worlds. And that, for me, was always a metaphor for a “library”…that, for me, is what literature should be (v)”.

    What we have then is a remarkable use of the lake or pool imagery by disparate authors to describe the creative process itself. That more than one author can describe the Imagination as a reservoir one either has to fish or dive down into in order to get at a story is a recorded fact that offers a lot of room for speculation on just why they would choose to view it in this way. I suppose one possible answer comes from taking the literary historical perspective, where the image of an enchanted pool could stem from place like the geographic countryside of Glastonbury, or else the Lake District of Coleridge and the Romantic Poets.

    More than anything else, it does tell me there is a shared sense among artists that the art of writing is equal parts waiting for the Imagination to speak, followed by finding out if they have it in them to “tell” what they either see or hear.

  5. Wayne Stauffer says

    Now we have things to think about regarding the Champions’ dip in the Black Lake in Goblet …

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