Murakami on Writing and Running

A review of: ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is a writer (and runner). That, according to the final pages of this book, is how he would like to be remembered on his tombstone. And, according to the vague thesis of this book, writing and long-distance running are not dissimilar. In fact, Murakami says that everything he knows about writing, he learnt from running.

So what was that?

Writing and Running

Murakami identifies the three most important character traits for a novelist to possess:

  1. Talent.
  2. Focus. Murakami works for 3 or 4 hours in the morning. During this time he is totally focussed on his work-in-progress. He doesn’t think about anything else at all.
  3. Endurance. A novelist needs the energy to focus every day for 6 months, a year or 2 years at a time.

For Murakami, talent is innate. The other two traits, however, you can train, in the same way that you train your muscles for a marathon. Focus and endurance are trained by sitting down at your desk everyday and working hard. They are just like muscles, obedient work-horses who take pain with fortitude as long as you prepare them gradually and don’t give them a chance to relax and think the work is done. Murakami has a goal not to give his muscles more than 1 day’s rest at a time.

A fourth characteristic is needed in the training: Patience. You’ve got to keep up this training regime and have faith that you will improve – and you will – but it will be gradual and you may not notice anything for a long time.

The good news is that building focus and endurance can make up for a lack of talent – and can sometimes unearth it.

Murakami likens writing a novel to hard physical labour. Writing itself is a mental activity – but finishing a novel is more like manual labour. Murakami also suggests that writers have to deal with all the toxic elements of humanity, which is extremely tiring. To be able to do this for more than a few years you will need to have great physical strength.

With this in mind, the reason to combine running with writing is obvious:

The main goal of exercising is to maintain and improve my physical condition in order to keep on writing novels.

Writing

The story that Murakami tells of the start of his career as a novelist seems too good to be true. He describes the moment he decided that he could write a novel – he just had the idea. He was 28 at the time. Six months later he had finished his book. Then he sent it off to a competition, which is duly won and suddenly he was a published novelist. So he wrote a second one soon after the first and they were both short-listed for a prestigious literary prize.

The bare facts hide the hard work: Murakami worked late into the night – sometimes til dawn – to fit his writing around his work. Even today, he admits that writing a novel is still hard, hard work – like digging a deep hole. The only thing that has changed it that he has become more efficient.

Murakami also says that those two early novels were very different to the sort of books he felt he wanted to write. These early novels were simplistic and drawn from the life he witnessed as the owner of a jazz bar in Japan. This is not a sustainable way of writing, Murakami says: at some point you’ll run out of crazy stories to tell. He didn’t feel capable of writing a complex, intelligent novel whilst also working full time. So he quit and started writing longer, more sustainable novels.

His early novels were successful and enabled him to move forward as a writer, but now his life is totally focused around writing. He talks quite movingly about the decisions that he and his wife made, that they would wake with the Sun and go to bed not long after its setting. This meant losing out on a lot of social life, but these are the sacrifices that must be made, just as you have to sacrifice time in your schedule for marathon training. So now he gets up early, works for 3 or 4 hours and then spends the afternoon doing less taxing chores. Murakami also naps a lot. He takes a 30 minutes nap after lunch and has got so good at napping that he does not feel sluggish afterwards.

I found this passage particularly revealing about Murakami’s philosophy of writing:

As I write I think about all sorts of things. I don’t necessarily write down what I’m thinking; it’s just that as I write I think about things. As I write I arrange my thoughts. And rewriting and revising takes my thinking down even deeper paths. No matter how much I write though, I never reach a conclusion. And no matter how much I rewrite, I never reach the destination. Even after decades of writing, the same still holds true. All I do is present a few hypotheses or paraphrase the issue. Or find an analogy between the structure of the problem and something else.

Murakami shares one discovery that set him free in his writing: he realised that if only one in ten people who read the book absolutely loved it – then that was enough. This freed him to simply write the way he felt like and to stick to it.

Running

Murakami talks a lot in the book about the meditative aspect of running, as well as its physical benefits. He mentions one marathon runners’ mantra in particular: ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ He enjoys running for its lack of competition – the competition is with the clock and yourself, not the other runners.

He also talks about his philosophical attitude to age and its physical deterioration. He knows his times will never improve again, but he will carry on showing up until he can’t any longer. He is very proud of his record of successfully finishing the marathons he enters.

Encouragingly, he also says that he was never able to keep a diary for long – but kept up a runners journal. Incidentally, Murakami mentions that running is a great activity to do while memorising a speech: the rhythms get into the words and into your memory.

He tells us what motivates him to run when he can’t face it: ‘You don’t have to sit on a packed train with commuters or sit through boring meetings – don’t you realise how lucky you are?’ Compared to this image, running doesn’t seem so bad and he hits the streets with the air in his lungs.

Murakami has also run one ultra-marathon (62 miles). He says this event is:

An action that deviates from the ordinary, but doesn’t violate basic values – you’d expect it to afford you a special sort of self-awareness. It should add a few new elements to your inventory in understanding who you are. And as a result your life, its colours and shape should be transformed.

This was the case for him, after his 62 mile ultra-marathon he lost the appetite for running everyday. It wasn’t necessarily that he had run too much in one go – he lost interest in running everyday no matter what. He’d moved into a new zone, the amount of adrenalin he secreted during marathons went down – so he moved onto triathlons. Murakami would like to do an Ironman, but is scared that the training for it would interfere with his writing job. This is the same reason why he didn’t do more ultra-marathons. Remember, the reason for running is writing, not the other way around.

Murakami now does a marathon in winter and a triathlon in summer. This is how the rhythm of his year works. He is always in training.

And Me?

I believe a lot of what Murakami is saying and found his simple attitude encouraging. When I cycled to Bordeaux (547 miles) I felt strong and powerful, almost omnipotent. I was certainly transformed and was forced to shake up my ideas of what was possible. I felt I could do anything, anything at all. Surely, (although I don’t know yet) it will feel the same to write a novel – to finish a novel, that is. This is my marathon. When I finish, it will be done and my conception of what I am capable of will be transformed again and I will kick on to the next and the next and the next.

How to make a free and easy documentary video

  1. Get a YouTube account: http://www.youtube.com. Apparently other video sites exist, but I’m going with the market leader – why not? Assuming this isn’t going to be a magnum opus (YouTube is limited to 10 minutes) – just get it up and get it out there.
  2. Download a free lump of software, like this one: http://www.aquasoft.de/SlideShowYouTube_en.as?ActiveID=2124
    This is not a perfect piece of kit. Every now and again it will do funny things and time-slip your video. Live with it: it’s free and easy.
  3. Choose a topic for your documentary.
  4. Do a ton of research on your topic.
  5. Write a script.
  6. Search Wikimedia Commons for pictures relating to your topic and download them.
  7. Throw them into the SlideShow software. In some logical order please.
  8. Record your script with a microphone and Audacity (another free lump of software: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/)
  9. Edit and mess around with your sound file until it sounds good. Don’t worry about perfect, we’re happy with good.
  10. Export it as an MP3 file (you’ll need to download the MP3 Codecs for Audacity to do this bit.)
  11. Throw it into the SlideShow software.
  12. Make sure the pictures line up with your vocals nicely and that there are no ridiculous transitions (like the photo of your grandma doing a somersault whilst you talk about her hip replacement.)
  13. Upload the bugger to your YouTube account.
  14. Check SlideShow hasn’t done something very odd. If it has, mess around until you fluke upon the right timing.
  15. Publicise your baby.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw94Qtb7e-M

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3A2jQtzUbJo

How to Write: The Tools

To be able to write, you need the write tools.

As you appear to be reading this website, I will assume that you already have a computer. If not, then skip the next two items: they are for people with computers. I should say now that computers are not essential for most of the phases of writing, but they sure as hell save a lot of time later on (unless you have a secretary.)

1. Download this program: http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html

yWriter is an incredible (free) tool for creating whole novels out of thin air. You create Chapters and then Scenes in Chapters and then fill them up with words. You can also use all kinds of complicated extra things like Characters, Locations and Items – but I don’t bother. I just focus on the actual writing bit. You can even set a writing targets and the program will chilly-chally you until you’ve finished.

2. Use this website: http://750words.com/
Very very (stupid) simple website that practically forces you to write 750 words a day. You can use this to make sure you write a bit on your novel every day (you get points for hitting 750 words on a day, which then doubles up to make bowling-esque streaks) – or you can just use it like I do for a morning brain dump. Morning brain dumps will make you happier and healthier (apparently), encourage you to get writing and hopefully get all your rubbish words out in one fell swoop, leaving your gold-encrusted mots for the main event.

3. Buy books with blank pages.
This is not a facetious comment. You wouldn’t write in a book that had words in it, so why write in a book that has parallel lines all over the page? How on earth do you hope to write creatively cramped between ruled lines? It just makes no sense to me. Moleskine do nice ones with blank pages. They’re not too big either so will get filled up fast, leaving you with a great sense of achievement. Once you have notebooks, carry them around with you. Note how I use the plural for notebooks. Different notebooks for different occasions. I have little Moleskine ones for portability and big open-up-flat ones for my desk and – important – for my bedside. Always have a notebook by your bed. This is where your best ideas will come. There and on a long walk somewhere. Make sure you have notebooks in these two places.

4. Buy pens.
A lot of pens. Have pens everywhere, in every coat pocket, on your desk,  in your hat band – you do have a hat, don’t you? Pens are more important than paper. Paper you can improvise, pens you can’t (without getting blood everywhere.)

So those are your tools. Not too hard, not too expensive. To be honest, the tools aren’t the thing, the thing’s the writing.