What I Learned about Writing from “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami

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When I picked up this book, I was expecting something like a memoir or a collection of essays on running. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was so much more than that, and I found myself highlighting numerous passages that gave me a fresh perspective on life and writing (as well as running). I read the book in three days, though I could have easily finished in one if I didn’t have other stuff going on. I also wanted to reflect on some of the great lessons I’d learned from it and apply them in my own life and writing habits.

In case you don’t know, Haruki Murakami started running the same year he decided to sell his jazz bar and devote himself to writing — he was thirty-three. For me, reading this book now at thirty-three, gave me motivation and encouragement, and it was like a sign that I, too, should start pursuing new goals. As Murakami says, “That age may be a kind of crossroads in life.”


In no particular order, here are some lessons on writing from the running novelist:

“I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly.”

Murakami explains that, while he is aiming to increase the distance he runs, speed is less of an issue, as long as he can run a certain distance. If he increases the pace, he shortens the amount of time he runs, but he lets that exhilaration he feels at the end carry over to the next day. It is the same thing that applies to writing a novel. This allows you to keep up with the rhythm and set the pace. This is especially important for long-term projects. You don’t want to burn out too quickly in the beginning doing too much, and not have anything left to continue and carry you to the finish line.

So, does it work? I’ve actually been trying to finish my first draft of a children’s book for the last two weeks. It is under 10k words, so I knew I could easily finish it in a week or two. But when I was at 3,000 words, I lost momentum and ran out of ideas. I took a few days off and had to let my brain rest. I had been writing for two nights straight, way past my bedtime, and I would often end up staring at my screen, rereading everything from start to finish (several times), even though I had nothing left to add. It was counterproductive and it wasted a lot of hours when I could have gotten a good night’s sleep. After I read this, I decided to try it out. I had a few ideas pop into my head and started writing again. I was quite sure I could have gotten more than 1,000 words on the page, but I stopped at around 700 words, leaving a note on where I wanted to continue the next day. Sure enough, when I got up the next day, the words just poured right out and I didn’t require a lot of time to get them all down. I had spent the previous night thinking about those ideas and how I wanted to go about writing them. Instead of forcing myself to write everything down that night, just going over ideas and sentences in my head, and even saying them out loud, helped me to organise my thoughts and ideas.

Stopping where you feel you can write more not only helps you set a pace for your writing, it also allows you to pause and gather your thoughts and ideas, so that when you return to it the next day, you can jump right in without much planning or thinking. I did this for three days and got my first draft done at just over 7,000 words. I think I’m going to continue using this method for editing, re-writing and maybe even blogposts as well. It may take a bit longer than usual, but you end up with better quality writing and new insights and perspectives you otherwise may not have in just one sitting.


On deciding to become a novelist

I gained a whole new perspective on writing when I read about how Murakami initially started writing. He describes his sudden desire to write a novel while watching a baseball game, and it was the moment the crack of the bat meeting the ball which echoed through the stadium that the thought came over him. He never had any ambitions to be a novelist. He didn’t even have a concrete idea of what he wanted to write about, but he felt that if he just started to write, he could come up with something. He went out and bought manuscript paper and a fountain pen and started writing until he had a 200-page manuscript — all handwritten. He didn’t even know what to do with the finished novel and simply sent it to a literary magazine to be considered for a new-writers prize. The most shocking part was that he didn’t make a copy before shipping it off! He was perfectly fine with the possibility that it may not get selected and might just vanish forever, and was simply content with having finished it than whether anyone would actually read his work.

I don’t know if many writers (new or seasoned) would ever do what Murakami had done, but that was in 1978, before the Internet took over the world and people didn’t rely on social media to communicate with people. Everyone of us can now easily send a 140 character Tweet to the rest of the world within seconds and get feedback just as quickly. Murakami had to wait months to find out whether his novel, which he spent long hours crafting, was even read by anyone. When he finally heard back from them, he had already completely forgotten he’d entered the competition in the first place. His novel won the prize and was eventually published that summer. Before he could get his head around what was happening, he was labeled as a new, up-and-coming writer.

So, what can we learn from his experience? We now live in a time where it is much easier to get published, but we often get distracted by what comes after your book is published — fame, recognition, status, etc. Murakami started writing with no expectations or ambitions of doing it professionally or turning it into his career; he simply started writing because he had a desire to write. He didn’t tell anyone or Tweet about it while he was writing, and everyone who knew him had no idea he had done it until after the fact. He was self-motivated and worked from start to finish — he was pleased with himself just because he was able to do it. I also had a desire to write something for a few years, but I was often held back due to a fear of not being good at it, being rejected, or being judged for it. I started numerous stories that never made it to the end. I gave up when things got tough and I started to doubt myself. I was worried about being a bad writer — before I had even completed a first draft. Murakami did not even think about what he would do with his novel after he had finished it. This mindset was what pushed him to the finish line. His mind was focused on just getting it done. Everything else that might come afterwards never even crossed his mind. The fact that he didn’t make a copy impressed me the most because he didn’t need any proof of his work, he didn’t need to read it again and again. He sent it to one competition without a backup plan, then he forgot about it and went on with his life and started writing other stories. He plunged into writing without expectations. I was not even halfway with my first draft and had given up when I started reading this book, and after reading this particular part, I got right back into it— forgetting about all the stuff that might come afterwards — just get it done. Done is better than perfect. You don’t need to be naturally talented to start writing either. Write because you want to write.


On setting priorities

Murakami, after deciding to become a novelist, started to change his daily routine so that he could focus on writing. He started to get up before 5 a.m. and went to bed before 10 p.m. He is a morning person and that is the time he can focus and work. After working in the morning, he has the rest of the day free to do other things that don’t take much concentration and he has been able to work efficiently for more than two decades. This lifestyle means he doesn’t have much of a nightlife and have had to turn down a lot of invitations. This is his way of prioritising how he wants to divide his time and energy so that he can focus on writing. Murakami worked out when he could work most efficiently and stay focused, and he rearranged his priorities and changed his lifestyle to do it.

This is definitely a challenge for me, as I have never been a morning person. I sleep late and wake up late. Even if I wake up early, I just stay in bed until I feel like getting up. This wasn’t an option for me when I was still teaching in primary school, obviously, but I fell back into this pattern soon after I left my teaching job and started freelancing. I would often wake up still fatigued, barely staying awake, extremely unfocused throughout the day. Soon after breakfast, lunchtime came around, though I would sometimes push it back until 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. So, I really only get about two to three hours of work done. Then, dinner time rolls around, and after dinner, I finally feel like I can work without distractions, so I stay up way past midnight, lying awake until dawn, and falling asleep when I should be up again. It is an incredibly unhealthy way to live, especially for freelancers. Although you don’t have set working hours, you still need a daily routine so that you have a work-life balance. I ended up sitting in front of my laptop from 11 a.m. to the wee hours of the night, and finding that I really only did about four hours of real work while the rest of the time was disrupted by mealtimes, social media, daydreaming, Netflix or other family interruptions. Wouldn’t two or three hours of focused, uninterrupted work in the early morning be better than twelve plus hours of scattered brain activity throughout the day? I have yet to really put this into practice, though. I just started setting my alarm for 7:00 a.m., which is a big improvement from getting up after 9:00 a.m. Let’s hope I can push it even earlier and begin a new morning routine. Even if I don’t end up working in the morning, I can at least get some much-needed exercise done so I can free up the rest of the day to do other things.

Murakami also valued certain relationships over others and the most indispensable relationship he felt he needed to build was not with a specific person but ‘with an unspecified number of readers’. He considered this ‘invisible conceptual relationship’ to be the most important thing in his life. As a writer, your duty should be to your readers. As long as there was one reader who was happy with your work, that should enough to motivate you towards writing the next thing.

This has certainly changed my whole perspective on writing and made me reflect on why I wanted to write in the first place, and to let go of those stupid fears of not being liked by some people. Could you be happy with just one satisfied reader? Would that be enough for you to continue? You can’t please everybody! Write for the one person who would like it and benefit from it, and would wait patiently for your next book. Write for that person.


The most important qualities a novelist has to have

1. Talent

Talent is what fuels a writer. The only problem with talent is that you can’t control how much you have. It has a mind of its own, which can well up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it.

Some people are naturally talented writers, while others need to work a little harder to get there. Some can write a novel in mere weeks or months, while others take years to churn one out. Murakami actually doesn’t consider himself to be naturally talented, yet, his work has become so popular over the years. He worked really hard to get there — he had to ‘pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole’ before he could locate his source of creativity. This gave him a motivation to dig deeper and deeper, and —  in a way — it allowed his creativity to last as long as it has. If people rely on a ‘natural spring’ of talent, they might suddenly be in trouble when they find that they’ve exhausted their only source. Being not-so-naturally talented may end up giving you an advantage, because you push yourself to keep going and improving, honing and refining your writing.

2. Focus

Focus is having the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever is critical at the moment. Without focus, you simply cannot accomplish anything of value. Focus can even compensate for your limited talent or lack of it. When you don’t think of anything else and just solely on your writing, you’d be surprised with what you can accomplish. Even if you are a writer with a natural spring of talent, you won’t be able to write well without focus or concentration.

3. Endurance

Writers of fiction or long novels really need endurance in order to concentrate on writing every day over a long period of time.

Murakami describes endurance so perfectly in this quote: “If concentration is the process of just holding your breath, endurance is the process of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs.” You need to continue to breathe while you hold your breath.

Endurance, like focus, can be acquired and sharpened through training. It is just like training muscles. If you do it consistently every day, you can gradually expand your limits and push yourself further and further than what you were originally able to do. It takes a lot of patience and self-discipline. This kind of training is extremely important and indispensable for a writer, as well as a marathon runner.


These are just some of the great lessons I’ve come across while reading this book. I highly recommend anyone who has a desire to write or run, or even just want a new perspective on life, to read this book. You are bound to find something that inspires you or change the way you think and look at life.

 

Get it on Amazon Kindle

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