YMMV: Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

It turns out I wasn’t entirely wrong to have avoided Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. A number of people recommended it to me after I posted last week about hoping that I can learn to approach my writing in the same spirit as I do my running: focused on my own goals and the intrinsic satisfaction of reaching them, without comparing myself to others, without feeling inadequate because I don’t run faster or further. I knew Murakami’s book was out there, but because I also knew that he ran marathons, I had figured it would probably provide just one more potentially demoralizing comparison of my own modest efforts to someone else’s much more impressive accomplishments.

To be honest, to some extent that was how I reacted to What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The book made me feel a little bit defensive, a little bit apologetic, a little bit embarrassed not to be pushing myself harder and achieving more–not just as a runner, but as a writer. After all, it turns out Murakami doesn’t just run marathons: even when he’s not running in races, he runs for hours at a time, and in addition to marathons he also does triathlons. And, of course, he isn’t just an obscure writer puttering away, doing his best and trying to find satisfaction in that, but an internationally renowned, best-selling, prize-winning writer. Gee, thanks, everyone! As if my Salieri syndrome doesn’t flare up enough quite on its own.

That wasn’t the entirety of my response to Murakami’s book, though: there was also a lot about it that I liked. Above all there’s Murakami himself. I was amused and a bit touched by his remark that he thinks most people would not like his personality very much:

There might be a few–very few, I would imagine–who are impressed by it, but only rarely would anyone like it. Who in the world could possibly have warm feelings, or something like them, for a person who doesn’t compromise, who instead, whenever a problem crops up, locks himself away alone in a closet? . . . I just can’t picture someone liking me on a personal level. Being disliked by someone, hated and despised, somehow seems more natural.

Later in the book he describes his own “nature” as “individual, stubborn, uncooperative, often self-centered.” “I’ve carried this character around like an old suitcase,” he goes on,

down a long dusty path. I’m not carrying it because I like it. The contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. I’ve carried it with me because there was nothing else I was supposed to carry. Still, I guess I have grown attached to it. As you might expect.

Maybe it’s because I recognize something of myself in these descriptions that they didn’t alienate but rather charmed me. I also appreciated that his self-deprecation doesn’t come in the rather arch form that seems common in some kinds of personal essays these days but instead seemed (surprisingly, given his accomplishments) quite sincere. At one point he describes himself as a teenager staring at his naked body in a mirror and adding up all his (perceived) flaws. His evaluations of his own character here don’t seem immaturely judgmental, the way he now knows that earlier exercise was; it seems as if he has simply assessed himself as honestly and dispassionately as he can and learned to live with what he found.

In a similar way, he talks about both his running and his writing without flourish or posturing. There’s no false modesty, but also no braggadocio. Further, though he does talk a lot about training and personal bests, he never seems competitive against anyone but himself. He certainly has a different relationship to running than I do, an interest in pushing himself and seeing (literally but also metaphorically) how far he can go as a runner, but he does it because it suits him: for him, it’s a way of expressing himself, not proving anything. In fact, sometimes what he seeks and finds in running is humility: when he feels he has been “criticized unjustly,” for example, he runs “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.

He also believes that for him, running enables writing. Keeping it up has been worth it for him not just for its immediate benefits but because “I like the novels I’ve written . . . and if running helps me accomplish this, then I’m very grateful to running.”

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is kind of a meandering book: it mixes some memoir with bits of travel writing, thoughts on music, a few practical notes on long-distance running, and some reflections on the writing process. One of the things I liked best about it is that just as I would be getting a bit impatient with details about training regiments or running shoes, Murakami would take a turn through some more metaphysical scenery. The insights he offers aren’t, I suppose, particularly profound or surprising, but he doesn’t present them as if they are: only as if he has thought about them, or they have become clearer to him, and so he’s sharing them. “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits,” he says, for instance: “that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life–and for me, for writing as well.” Or,

For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary–or perhaps more like mediocre–level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday.

When he talks about writing more directly, he often emphasizes how difficult it is:

Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers involved in quiet intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process–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 realize. . . . Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.

Implicit here is that he means this writer, this novelist, just as when he describes the routines he thinks are essential to success, such as “sit[ting] down every day at your desk and train[ing] yourself to focus on one point,” he means they worked for him. Your mileage may vary, he might have said, if he were offering this advice today! I don’t know if that’s how all novelists work, and since I’m no more likely to attempt a novel than I am a marathon (I think, anyway), I’ll probably never know if that’s what it would be like for me. What he describes is not totally different, though, from what it takes to do even the kind of writing I do, which also requires focus and effort, especially “selecting the right words, one by one.” His fundamental insight, too, is not so different from the one I arrived at in my own minor epiphany, though he seems to live it, while I still aspire to it:

What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.

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