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Running Novels, Writing Marathons: Haruki Murakami's Three Skills of the Novelist


Undertaking any long creative work is similar to the physical preparation for running a marathon.

Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami is a great success in book sales. A perpetual candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he’s equally well accomplished as a marathon runner. A few years ago, he wrote a fascinating essay exploring the similarities between preparing to run a marathon and writing a novel.

In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2007), Murakami relates that shortly after writing his second novel, and upon deciding that writing would be his full-time job, he also decided to begin running marathons. The method, like that of any artist, works for him because it’s part of his life experience; but some of his premises help to motivate us in undertaking just about any activity.

For the author, talent “is more a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.” Literary talent refers to an intrinsic quality, and “in most cases, the person involved can’t control its amount or quality.” But how can we know if we have talent? By trying to exercise it through concentration.

In this context, concentration is “the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever is critical at the moment.” Thanks to concentration “you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it.” For Murakami, it works to write for three or four hours every morning, just like a runner goes out to train every day, regardless of their mood. That brings us to the next point, which is perseverance.

Following these premises, Murakami says, “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 of the fiction writer–at least one who hopes to write a novel–is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, or two years.”

As can be seen, concentration and perseverance are skills which can be improved with training. That’s as opposed to talent, which, like our bodies, comes from the genes, the emotional history of each of us, and which doesn’t depend 100% on the will.

Both in creative endeavors and in preparing for a marathon, it’s about practice. Murakami put it as follows:

Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. 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 definitely have been different.



Image: Public domain

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