Haruki Murakami, the world-renowned Japanese novelist, has garnered a large following because one can easily relate to his protagonists. I have been reading his novels for around ten years now, and recently picked up his unique memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It is a quirky book, at once about his marathon and ultra-marathon running endeavors, his writing struggles, and how the two are interwoven.
To me, the most inspirational part of this book lies in how through mundaneness and mediocrity springs a rather unique exceptionalism. Murakami is an outstanding writer, but his talents have a limit, and he is honest about this. Most of the book is about struggling, with running and with writing. When I reflect on the book, the image I have in my mind is of a truck wheel, bearing huge weight, going around and around, yet somehow trudging forward.
Here is a passage from the book I particularly enjoyed, which is applicable in many contexts:
…writers who aren’t blessed with much talent — those who barely make the grade — need to build up their strength at their own expense. They have to train themselves to improve their focus, to increase their endurance. To a certain extent, they’re forced to make these qualities stand in for talent. And while they’re getting by on these, they may actually discover real, hidden talent within them. They’re sweating, digging out a hole at their feet with a shovel, when they run across a deep, secret water vein. It’s a lucky thing, but what made this good fortune possible was all the training they did that gave them the strength to keep on digging. I imagine that late-blooming writers have all gone through a similar process.
Naturally, there are people in the world (only a handful, for sure) blessed with enormous talent that, from beginning to end, doesn’t fade, and whose works are always of the highest quality. These fortunate few have a water vein that never dries up, no matter how much they tap into it. For literature, this is something to be thankful for. It’s hard to imagine the history of literature without such figures as Shakespeare, Balzac and Dickens. But the giants are, in the end, giants — exceptional, legendary figures. The remaining majority of writers who can’t reach such heights (including me, of course) have to supplement what’s missing from their store of talent through whatever means they can. Otherwise it’s impossible for them to keep on writing novels of any value. The methods and directions a writer takes in order to supplement himself becomes part of that writer’s individuality, what makes him special.
Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running everyday. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate — and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say, but something would have definitely been different.
The book ends with what Murakami hopes his tombstone will read:
Writer (and Runner)
At Least He Never Walked