I’ve never read one of Murakami’s novels, but I recently picked up his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I just finished Stephen King’s On Writing, so when I spotted it in a bookstore it seemed like a logical thing to read next.
Murakami’s prose is simple and his attitude is unassuming. Basically the entire book is spent talking about running (his main pastime aside from writing). The way he writes sets up a kind of hypnotic rhythm that he builds over the course of the book. Mostly he talks about marathons: training for marathons, running in marathons, competing in triathlons, etc. But every so often the book is also interspersed with these great nuggets about writing and life.
One parallel that Murakami draws between writing and running is that both act as a sort of alchemy for the events and emotions in his life. Both writing and running allow him to take what happens to him – events, emotions, feelings – and transmute them in to another, useful, form.
“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. By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent. It also 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. If I’m angry, I direct that anger toward myself. If I have a frustrating experience, I use that to improve myself. That’s the way I’ve always lived. I quietly absorb the things I’m able to, releasing them later, and in as changed a form as possible, as part of the story line in a novel.”
One thing that I noticed reading Murakami he has very deep, zen-like thoughts on the nature of the mind and the meaning of life, but he says them so matter-of-factly that you might miss them:
“The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky as always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky. The sky both exists and doesn’t exist. It has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.”
He talks a lot about things that are constantly changing in form: clouds, the sky, and the water in the river where he runs. And he uses it to place himself in the broader picture of the world:
“The surface of the water changes from day to day: the color, the shape of the waves, the speed of the current. Each season brings distinct changes to the plants and animals that surround the river. Clouds of all sizes show up and move on, and the surface of the river, lit by the sun, reflects these white shapes as they come and go, sometimes faithfully, sometimes distortedly…In the midst of this flow, I’m aware of myself as one tiny piece in the gigantic mosaic of nature. I’m just a replaceable natural phenomenon, like the water in the river that flows under the bridge to the sea.”
A lot of writers talk about pain as the engine behind the creative process. Someone like Dostoevsky comes to mind. Murakami is in this camp as well. Here he talks about emotional pain:
“As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve gradually come to the realization that this kind of pain and hurt is a necessary part of life. If you think about it, it’s precisely because people are different from others that they’re able to create their own independent selves. Take me as an example. It’s precisely my ability to detect some aspects of a scene that other people can’t, to feel differently than others and choose words that differ from theirs, that’s allowed me to write stories that are mine alone. And because of this we have the extraordinary situation in which quite a few people read what I’ve written. So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent…”
Aside from just emotional pain, Murakami also talks about physical pain, which is a key part of his routine as a serious marathon runner.
“Of course it was painful, and there were times when, emotionally, I just wanted to chuck it all. But pain seems to be a precondition for this kind of sport. If pain weren’t involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sports like the triathlon or the marathon, which demand such an investment of time and energy? It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive…Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself. If things go well, that is.”
By the end of the book, he’s sort of established the rhythm of his life for us: he writes, he trains for marathons, he runs marathons. Rinse and repeat. He’s consistently doing things, but not always making visible progress.
He likens it to pouring water in to an old pan with a hole at the bottom: there’s always water running through it, but the pan never fills up. But the message he leaves us with, is that despite pouring tremendous effort in to these seemingly inefficient activities, it’s these very activities that have borne the most fruit in his life.
“Even if, seen from the outside, or from some higher vantage point, this sort of life looks pointless or futile, or even extremely inefficient, it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s some pointless act like, as I’ve said before, pouring water in to an old pan that has a hole in the bottom, but at least the effort you put into it remains. Whether it’s good for anything or not, cool or totally uncool, in the final analysis what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart. To be able to grasp something of value, sometimes you have to perform seemingly inefficient acts. But even activities that appear fruitless don’t necessarily end up so. That’s the feeling I have, as someone who’s felt this, who’s experienced it.”