What Haruki Murakami’s Body Taught Him About Writing
The story of Haruki Murakami’s path to becoming one of the world’s most respected living novelists includes a jazz bar, a baseball game, and a whole lot of marathons.
I don’t have space to unpack that story here, but I’ll share this: When Murakami committed to becoming a writer at age 29, he realized how physically exhausting being a writer is.
“The whole process,” he writes, “sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track – requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine.”
He’s right. Writing consumes extraordinary mental bandwidth, which literally burns a lot of blood sugar. We can “burn out” our minds and bodies.
What we don’t talk about when we talk about writing is the body. We’re embarrassed to do so. If a writing instructor or professor starts talking about the body in the classroom, against our better gut sensibility we start squirm and inch toward the door. But I want to talk about Murakami’s response in the context of The Creative Body and the new new story of creativity. What he did and what he learned from his response is illuminating for any of us who admit feeling physically exhausted at being a creative day after day.
So, what did Murakami do? He started running. The title of chapter four of his memoir is telling –
Most of What I Know About Writing Fiction I Learned by Running Every Day.
In fact, Murakami was embarrassed by his habit at first. But he was never one to care too much about what other people – other than his readers and his wife and himself – thought about his priorities.
I’ll share a few observations from his remarkable memoir that is more a series of essay-like meditations on running and writing. It’s called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and I’ve referenced it in the past few years almost as often I referenced Walden when in my twenties. (Thank you, Alice Elliott Dark, for sending me a copy!)
You can apply most of them to writing as well as to running:
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you start to hunk, Man this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself.
I stop every day at the right point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow. The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed – and to get to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage.
What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself.
I run in order to acquire a void….The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky…The sky both exists and it doesn’t exist. It has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.
When I’m criticized unjustly (from my viewpoint, at least), or when someone I’m sure will understand me doesn’t, I go running for a little longer than usual. …[Running] makes me realize again how weak I am, how limited my abilities are. I become aware, physically, of these low points. And one of the results of running a little farther than usual is that I become that much stronger.
I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don’t get that sort of system set by a certain age, you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance.
But no matter how strong a will a person has, no matter how much he may to lose, if it’s an activity he doesn’t really care for, he won’t keep it up for long. Even if he did, it wouldn’t be good for him.
Being active every day makes it easier to hear that inner voice.
If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist [next to talent], that’s easy, too: focus – the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment.
Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life – and for me, for writing as well.
Personal Note: It’s cold today. My hands are trying to warm up by typing. But I’m going to slip on my running clothes, gloves, and hat, and then I’m going to run. More like a jog and then a dash. And that will be enough for me for today. Tomorrow I might push a little further. But mostly I just need to go out and listen in.
How do you engage your creative body? How do you contend with the physical exhaustion and demands that come with consistent creative work?
See you in the woods,