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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
Photo by Gregg Segal for an interview with Murakami in Runners World.