The thing I notice most about novelist Haruki Murakami’s style is this: a sense that when I pick up his work, the story has already been happening without me, and when I finish it and put it down, life inside is carrying on somewhere without me too. The fact there is a page 1 and an end page is almost accidental to the story.
His first book that I read, Dance Dance Dance, is about an unnamed protagonist who makes a living as a commercial writer and, for me, typifies this style. There is no real explanation for much of what happens and the motivation for the action comes from what has already gone before, before we meet the characters. This is not about a novelist dropping us into a plot in medea res, however. It is about creating a sense of open-endedness in character, perception and affect, as well as storyline.
Perhaps this open-endedness is something to do with Murakami’s life as a ‘running novelist’ that he captures in his travelogue/memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I read this over the summer, often sitting on a beach, or during a long walk, often alone. For a running would-be novelist, the book captures a sense of discipline and learning that is gently acerbic in its understanding of doing things of value (writing, running).
The value of running is always open-ended. Murakami experiences this when running a 62-mile ultra-marathon (well—wow). Beyond a certain point, he explains, “the end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It’s the same with our lives. Just because there’s an end doesn’t mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence.” As for running, as for the metaphors of writing.
There are two key essences in the book that make it worth reading, beyond an appreciation of Murakami’s own style, his almost poker-faced honesty (perhaps to do with the translation between cultures).
First: instructions for novelists
What makes a novelist? Murakami says he’s asked this in every interview he ever does. “The answer’s pretty obvious,” he says: “talent” (p.76). But he also knows what else is needed:
If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value… I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing.
And from there, the third requirement is, “hands down, endurance”:
If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction… is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, or two years.
Murakami then goes on to express this in a fundamentally embodied way:
You can compare it to breathing. If concentration is the process of holding your breath, endurance is the art of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs. Unless you can find a balance between both, it’ll be difficult to write novels professionally over a long time. Continuing to breathe while you hold your breath.
According to Murakami, “fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, as they can be acquired and sharpened through training.” Sitting down at the desk every day and concentrating on what you are writing is, for Murakami, the same as getting up every day and making the effort to go out running. It is the same training—the same requirement for a bit of talent, focus and endurance, to become a long-distance runner or a long-form writer. “Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything,” Murakami explains, “he made sure that he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated… This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs. This sort of daily training was indispensible to him.”
Second: leading the curious life
The second essence, that is not written out so directly, is what brought Murakami, at the age of 33 (just a year younger than I am now) to begin his career as both a long-distance runner and a long-form writer of fiction. It was, in no small part, curiosity, and a curiosity about acquiring an openness to life, or even, I’d argue, an open-endedness to life.
Murakami went to college, ran a jazz bar, collected jazz records, got married, and had a whole host of life experiences before becoming a writer. On page 17, he says “By sticking my nose into all sorts of places, I acquired the practical skills I needed to live. Without those ten tough years I don’t think I would have written novels, and even if I’d tried, I wouldn’t have been able to.”
Curiosity then, “sticking my nose” into all sorts of things, to acquire practical skills to live. What are those skills? Murakami talks first and foremost about acceptance without judgement—one of the assets that Todd Kashdan describes of belonging to those ‘curious explorers’ who live fulfilled and happy lives. If we are open and do not close off judgement too soon – in Murakami’s words, “for now all I can do is put off making any judgements and accept things as they are” – then we are more able to see the potential novelty and meaning in any activity or moment, rather than searching for certainty.
For Murakami, this acceptance comes through the practice of concentration. Or, via running, through the “acquiring of the void” of a mental state where ideas do not fix themselves. As he explains:
I run to acquire a void… the thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run are subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void…
The thoughts are like clouds in the sky… and like the sky, “it has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.”
The suggestion is, to me at least, that it is this void, this ability to accept all ideas, thoughts and substance, that both is a practice of concentration and the thing within us that makes writing possible. Without that void, created by curiosity and what sounds a lot like mindfulness (“continuing to breathe while holding your breath”), writing long fiction is impossible. At least for Murakami.
And I feel for me. Writing, mindfulness, running, and an academic search for curiosity, decision and their relationship to literary acts: these are my ‘supplements’, so to speak. In Murakami’s words:
The methods and directions a writer takes in order to supplement himself becomes a part of that writer’s individuality, what makes him special.