Haruki Murakami Lists the Three Essential Qualities For All Serious Novelists (And Runners)


Image by wakari­m­a­sita, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

We’ve brought you a wealth of Haru­ki Muraka­mi late­ly, and for good rea­son. Not only does the wild­ly pop­u­lar Japan­ese nov­el­ist have a new nov­el out, he also has an upcom­ing novel­la, The Strange Library, a 96-page sto­ry about, well, a “strange trip to the library,” due from Knopf on Decem­ber 2nd. Admirably pro­lif­ic, writ­ing rough­ly 3–4 nov­els per decade since his first in 1979, and a few col­lec­tions of sto­ries and essays, the noto­ri­ous­ly shy Muraka­mi took to writ­ing some­what late in life at age 30, and to run­ning even lat­er at 33. The lat­ter pur­suit gave him a great deal of mate­r­i­al for his essay col­lec­tion What I Talk About When I Talk About Run­ning.

Like oth­er authors who write non­fic­tion pieces on their avocations—Jamaica Kin­caid on gar­den­ing, Hem­ing­way on hunt­ing—in his run­ning book, Muraka­mi can’t help but turn his pas­sion for fit­ness into a metaphor for read­ing and writ­ing. Giv­en his nat­ur­al ret­i­cence, he begins, with a dis­claimer: “a gen­tle­man shouldn’t go on and on about what he does to stay fit.”

Nev­er­the­less, the ultra-marathon­er can’t help but indulge. At one point, the writ­ing on run­ning turns to writ­ing on writ­ing, and a sum­ma­ry of the qual­i­ties the good nov­el­ist must have. Read his thoughts con­densed below.


Like Flan­nery O’Connor, whose thoughts on the MFA degree we quot­ed a few days ago, Muraka­mi frames tal­ent as an attribute that can’t be taught or bought. For the writer, tal­ent is “more of a pre­req­ui­site than a nec­es­sary qual­i­ty […] No mat­ter how much enthu­si­asm and effort you put into writ­ing, if you total­ly lack lit­er­ary tal­ent you can for­get about being a nov­el­ist.” One feels this should go with­out say­ing, but for what­ev­er rea­son, it seems that more peo­ple enter­tain the idea of becom­ing a writer longer in life than that of becom­ing, say, a musi­cian or a painter. Maybe this is why Muraka­mi then makes an anal­o­gy to music as a pur­suit in which, ide­al­ly, nat­ur­al apti­tude is indis­pens­able. But in men­tion­ing two of his favorite com­posers, Schu­bert and Mozart, Muraka­mi makes the point that these are exam­ples of artists “whose genius went out in a blaze of glo­ry.” He is quick to point out that “for the vast major­i­ty of us this isn’t the mod­el we fol­low.” The nov­el­ist as run­ner, we might say, should train for a career run­ning marathons.


Muraka­mi-as-run­ner, an Econ­o­mist review mus­es, is “if not a mad­man […] a very focused man.” One would have to be to fin­ish 27 marathons, includ­ing a 62-mile mon­ster in Hokkai­do, and sev­er­al triathlons. The qual­i­ties that serve him in his phys­i­cal dis­ci­pline are also those he iden­ti­fies as nec­es­sary in the nov­el­ist. Muraka­mi defines focus as “the abil­i­ty to con­cen­trate all your lim­it­ed tal­ents on whatever’s crit­i­cal at the moment. With­out that you can’t accom­plish any­thing of val­ue.” He “gen­er­al­ly concentrate[s] on work for three or four hours every morn­ing. I sit at my desk and focus total­ly on what I’m writ­ing. I don’t see any­thing else, I don’t think about any­thing else.” Murakami’s run­ning mem­oir may con­tain “long descrip­tions of train­ing sched­ules and diet,” but when it comes to writ­ing, there seems to be one over­whelm­ing­ly sin­gu­lar way to go about things. Just sit down and do it.


Con­sid­er your­self more of a sprint­er? Maybe stick to short sto­ries. “If you con­cen­trate on writ­ing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this,” Muraka­mi chides, “you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s need­ed of the writer of fiction—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. For­tu­nate­ly, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are dif­fer­ent from tal­ent, since they can be acquired and sharp­ened through train­ing.” The act of acqui­si­tion, Muraka­mi writes, “is a lot like the train­ing of mus­cles I wrote of a moment ago. [It] involves the same process as jog­ging every day to strength­en your mus­cles and devel­op a runner’s physique.”

Clear­ly there’s lit­tle room for spac­ing out wait­ing around for inspi­ra­tion. To extend the anal­o­gy, this might be likened to the rare desire one gets to try a new, chal­leng­ing rou­tine, an impulse that wanes pret­ty quick­ly once things get painful and dull. But in writ­ing, Muraka­mi sug­gests, some­times it’s enough just to show up. He refers to the dis­ci­pline of Ray­mond Chan­dler, who “made sure he sat down at his desk every sin­gle day and con­cen­trat­ed” even if he wrote not a word. It’s a fit­ting image for what Muraka­mi describes as the writer’s need to “trans­mit the object of your focus to your entire body.” I won­der if it’s not going too far to claim that this sen­tence betrays the real sub­ject of Murakami’s run­ning book.

via 99u

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pat­ti Smith Reviews Haru­ki Murakami’s New Nov­el, Col­or­less Tsuku­ru Taza­ki and His Years of Pil­grim­age

Haru­ki Murakami’s Pas­sion for Jazz: Dis­cov­er the Novelist’s Jazz Playlist, Jazz Essay & Jazz Bar

In Search of Haru­ki Muraka­mi: A Doc­u­men­tary Intro­duc­tion to Japan’s Great Post­mod­ernist Nov­el­ist

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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