What do you talk about when you talk about running? A question for a world famous Olympic athlete perhaps. But a novelist? In his memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” celebrated Japanese novelist and keen marathon runner Haruki Murakami reflects upon the influence the sport has had on his life and, even more importantly, on his writing.
Murakami came to writing late in life. After running a successful jazz bar in Tokyo for ten years, he suddenly had the notion to write a novel. After his first two novels — both written in the wee hours of the morning after he’d closed the bar — were well-received. In 1982, he decided to shut down his business to devote himself to writing full-time. To balance the sedentary nature of this new line of work, he also started running to keep fit. His running began, naturally enough, in Japan, then expanding to New York, Hawaii, Athens, Boston, you name it. He participates in a full marathon almost every year, including the 100km ultramarathon and triathlons. After dozens of such races and a dozen of critically acclaimed books, running has become a necessary part of his life.
Born in 1949, Haruki Murakami started the running at the age of 33. “At any rate, that’s how I started running. Thirty-three ‒ that’s how old I was then. Still young enough, though no longer a young man. The age that Jesus Christ died. The age that Scott Fitzgerald started to go downhill. That age may be a kind of crossroads in life. That was the age when I began my life as a runner, and it was my belated, but real, starting point as a novelist.” he said in the memoir.
What helps Murakami overcome the pain barrier of long distance running and be resilient enough to complete a marathon? “What I told myself is ‘I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.’ That’s about all I thought about, and that’s what got me through. If I were a living person of blood and flesh I would have collapsed from the pain.”
Murakami is now the most widely-read Japanese novelist of his generation: he has won virtually every prize in Japan, including its greatest, the Yomiuri Literary Prize. He is also an extremely active translator, having brought writers as diverse as Raymond Carver, Tim O’Brien, and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Japanese readers, many of them for the first time. In 1987, his first non-fiction work, Norwegian Wood, transformed him into a literary megastar and the de facto “voice of his generation.” The book has sold more than two million copies in Japan alone, the equivalent of one for every household in Tokyo. Haruki Murakami has been nominated seven consecutive times for the Noble Prize in Literature since 2009 and the media often describes him the Leonardo DiCaprio of the literature world.
It’s not surprising then that, for Murakami, the act of running and the act of creating are inextricably linked. Writing articles needs focus and endurance like running, he said, “writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor.” He also said, “most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. 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.”
For Murakami, the creative process is a sport, and it’s not just about inspiration, but also about perspiration. Murakami mentioned, “your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself.”
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