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 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.

What I learnt about writing from Bob Dylan

Nah, this isn’t some kind of stupid ass fan love-in. I’m not going to go on about the deep philosophical meaning of ‘Blowin in the Wind’ – Bob Dylan’s written some real rubbish you know? ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ is kinda funny, but it ain’t no deep and meaningful classic that’s for sure.

But that’s the point. He recorded a lot of pretty dreadful songs – his muse completely deserted him for long periods of his career – but he still wrote songs, he still recorded them, he still turned up for work, waiting patiently, putting in the hours until lightening struck again. And it did.

And when it did, he was still there, ready to put it down.

There are three elements to this philosophy of his (I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t call it that, but hey):

  • Just turning up is heroic. The Never-Ending Tour is symbolic of this. He does 100+ shows a year and of course not all of them are mind-blowing – but he still turns up, in case it is.
  • There is no such thing as personal creative genius, just hard work. Bob has shown us that it’s OK to have creativity problems (jesus, if Bob has problems then I reckon we can), but we’ve got to make sure we keep working at it.
  • The art work is a life commitment, don’t rush in, take your time, relax and it will come. When he didn’t include ‘Blind Willie McTell’ on Infidels, one of his diabolical mid 80s albums, Bob Dylan justified himself thus:

    Relax. It’s just an album – I’ve done thirty of ’em.

    Sure enough, it turned up on the excellent Bootleg Sessions collection – a much grander setting for one of greatest blues songs ever written.

How to win the Nobel Prize for Literature

So here it is, the answer to the question every writer asks themselves: how the blue blazes do I manipulate the Nobel committee into giving me a prize?

I copied the extracts (presumably the most representative quotes) of the Nobel prize for literature citations from the Wikipedia page. Then I copied it into the AntConc corpus program. These were the, revealing, results:

31 citations

Poetry/Poetic

22 citations

Art/Artistic
Human/Man

18 citations

Writing/s

16 citations

Life

13 citations

Work/s

11 citations

Drama/Dramatic
Literature/Literary
Novel/s

10 citations

Epic
Great
Narrative
Recognition

9 citations

Power

8 citations

World

7 citations

Deep
Lyrical
New
Rich

6 citations

Force
Imagination
Inspired
Spirit
Traditions

5 citations

Contemporary
Idealism
Style
Truth

4 citations

Brilliant
Clear
Condition
Freedom
Historical
Ideas
Lofty
Outstanding
Production
Realistic
Strength
Thought
Time
Tribute

Conclusions:

  • Write poetry – or, at the very least, literature in a poetic or lyrical style.
  • Drama and epic novels are next best.
  • Consider yourself an artist, produce pieces of art.
  • Write about the human condition and the world, ideally paying attention to historical truth.
  • Don’t stop: the Nobel prize rewards your life’s work, it will take time.
  • Force, power, strength and realism are rewarded.
  • But so are lofty spirit, deep thought, rich imagination and idealism.
  • Ideas are good, style is important – but neither are as important as narrative.
  • It is good to be contemporary, better to be traditional, but best of all to be new.
  • Your work should be great, inspired, brilliant, clear and outstanding – in that order.
  • If you follow these guidelines then you will claim recognition and tribute – and possibly freedom.

The Ideas Secret

What is it to write stories? How do you come up with them? Is there any secret?

No. You just have to wait and listen. Every minute of the day there’s a million things passing through your brain and if you’re ready and listening it’s not hard to catch hold of the tail of a story and just reel it in.

I don’t sit and plan, I don’t think hard with sweat and blood of something I want to say and then hack out a scenario to fit; no. I just feel around for a few words to start and then push the ball off the top of the hill. The story does the rest.

For example, Chemistry was just a couple of words that came to me as I walked up Wittenham Clumps: ‘The second time he came…’. I knew this wasn’t enough so I added ‘…I was ready.’ to finish off the first sentence. That was plenty to get me started when I sat down on a bench overlooking the woods of the Clumps. That suggested the forest location and the rest was just one word following another.

Last night a story passed through my brain as I was lying in bed. I couldn’t sleep too well and so I thought I’d just have a little play with some words, the beginnings. The beginning is always the best bit of composing. It’s just getting a feeling and a flow. If you get the beginning right then the rest tends to follow.

In terms of inspirational habits – I don’t think it is a case of inspiration. It’s a case of relaxing and opening your mind. Never go hunting for a story: you might catch one, but you’ll probably have to kill it first. Walking is very good, as is any exercise. Going somewhere else is very refreshing. I wrote a lot in Egypt, for example. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever written a story just sitting at my computer. That’s where having a little typewriter like the AlphaSmart Neo comes in very handy. Last night Snowcat came to me in a state of relaxation; after lying in the darkness, after reading a little fiction, after eating a little dark chocolate. Did these things help? Probably, but they’re not necessary.

How long is a short story?

My latest short story, Perched, is only about 850 words long. Yet I have put it into the Short Story section of my site – is this correct? How long is a short story?

So, to settle the matter with some hard statistics, I decided to interrogate my favourite short story writers: Ernest Hemingway and, firstly, Naguib Mahfouz.

From The Time and the Place (1991), we have:

  • Zaabalawi: approximately 5600 words, based on 400 words per page
  • The Conjurer Made Off with the Dish: 3600 words
  • The Answer is No: 1600 words
  • The Time and the Place: 3600 words
  • Blessed Night: 3600 words
  • The Ditch: 2600 words
  • Half a Day: 1600 words
  • The Tavern of the Black Cat: 4000 words
  • The Lawsuit: 2200 words
  • The Empty Cafe: 3600 words
  • A Day for Saying Goodbye: 3600 words
  • By a Person Unknown: 6200 words
  • The Man and the Other Man: 2800 words
  • The Wasteland: 3600 words
  • The Norwegian Rat: 2600 words
  • His Majesty: 1200 words
  • Fear: 4400 words
  • At the Bus Stop: 3200 words
  • A Fugitive from Justice: 3400 words
  • A Long-Term Plan: 3200 words

That’s 20 stories at an average length of about 3300 words per story. The range is from 1200 to 6200 words, but you can see the vast majority land in the 3200-3600 range.

Now for Hemingway. From In Our Time:

  • Indian Camp: approximately 1225 words, based on 350 words per page
  • The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife: 1050 words
  • The End of Something: 1050 words
  • The Three-Day Blow: 3150 words
  • The Battler: 3150 words
  • A Very Short Story: 700 words
  • Soldier’s Home: 2450 words
  • The Revolutionist: 350 words
  • Mr and Mrs Elliot: 1225 words
  • Cat in the Rain: 1050 words
  • Out of Season: 2100 words
  • Cross-Country Snow: 1925 words
  • My Old Man: 4200 words
  • Big Two-Hearted River: I: 3125 words
  • Big Two-Hearted River: II: 3150 words
  • L’Envoi: 150 words

That’s 16 stories at an average length of about 1900 words. The range is from just 150 to 4200 words, with most hovering around 1000-1200 mark.

So I don’t know what we can take from that, except that short stories can be anything from a few hundred to several thousand words long. It also seems that different writers feel comfortable at different lengths for their stories. Mahfouz’s short stories tend to be three times as long as Hemingway’s, but you wouldn’t say that one is preferable to the other.

I am pleased to note that my story, at over 800 words long, is longer than three of the Hemingway collection. So I shall be keeping it in the short story section because it feels like a short story.