24 November 2020
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami
Perhaps I’m just too painstaking a type of person, but I can’t grasp much of anything without putting down my thoughts in writing, so I had to actually get my hands working and write these words. Otherwise, I’d never know what running means to me.
I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly.
Marathon runners will understand what I mean. We don’t really care whether we beat any other particular runner. (...) Most ordinary runners are motivated by an individual goal, more than anything: namely, a time they want to beat. As long as he can beat that time, a runner will feel he’s accomplished what he set out to do, and if he can’t, then he’ll feel he hasn’t. Even if he doesn’t break the time he’d hoped for, as long as he has the sense of satisfaction at having done his very best – and, possibly, having made some significant discovery about himself in the process – then that in itself is an accomplishment, a positive feeling he can carry over to the next race. The same can be said about my profession. In the novelist’s profession, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as winning or losing.
What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.
I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be. Since my forties, though, this system of self-assessment has gradually changed. Simply put, I am no longer able to improve my time. I guess it’s inevitable, considering my age.
I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.
I learned the importance of being with others and the obvious point that we can’t survive on our own. Gradually, then, though perhaps with my own spin on it, through personal experience I discovered how to be sociable. Looking back on that time now, I can see that during my twenties my worldview changed, and I matured. 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. Not that people’s personalities change that dramatically. The desire in me to be alone hasn’t changed.
Which is why the hour or so I spend running, maintaining my own silent, private time, is important to help me keep my mental well-being. When I’m running I don’t have to talk to anybody and don’t have to listen to anybody. All I need to do is gaze at the scenery passing by. This is a part of my day I can’t do without.
What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue. On cold days I guess I think a little about how cold it is. And about the heat on hot days. When I’m sad I think a little about sadness. When I’m happy I think a little about happiness. As I mentioned before, random memories come to me too. And occasionally, hardly ever, really, I get an idea to use in a novel. But really as I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning. I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. But as you might expect, an occasional thought will slip into this void.
In certain areas of my life, I actively seek out solitude. Especially for someone in my line of work, solitude is, more or less, an inevitable circumstance. Sometimes, however, this sense of isolation, like acid spilling out of a bottle, can unconsciously eat away at a person’s heart and dissolve it. You could see it, too, as a kind of double-edged sword. It protects me, but at the same time steadily cuts away at me from the inside.
I don’t think most people would like my personality. There might be a few— very few, I would imagine—who are impressed by it, but only rarely would anyone like it. Who in the world could possibly have warm feelings, or something like them, for a person who doesn’t compromise, who instead, whenever a problem crops up, locks himself away alone in a closet? But is it ever possible for a professional writer to be liked by people?
I just can’t picture someone liking me on a personal level. Being disliked by someone, hated and despised, somehow seems more natural. Not that I’m relieved when that happens. Even I’m not happy when someone dislikes me.
As I was running I was struck by a thought: Even if my time in races doesn’t improve, there’s not much I can do about it. I’ve gotten older, and time has taken its toll. It’s nobody’s fault. Those are the rules of the game. Just as a river flows to the sea, growing older and slowing down are just part of the natural scenery, and I’ve got to accept it. It might not be a very enjoyable process, and what I discover as a result might not be all that pleasant. But what choice do I have, anyway? In my own way, I’ve enjoyed my life so far, even if I can’t say I’ve fully enjoyed it.
Every day for three years I ran my jazz club – keeping accounts, checking inventory, scheduling my staff, standing behind the counter myself mixing up cocktails and cooking, closing up in the wee hours of the morning – and only then writing at home at the kitchen table until I got sleepy. I felt like I was living enough for two people’s lives. Physically, every day was tough, and writing novels and running a business at the same time made for all sorts of other problems. Running a service-oriented business means you have to accept whoever comes through the door. No matter who comes in, unless they’re really awful, you have to greet them with a friendly smile on your face. Thanks to this, though, I met all kinds of offbeat people and had some unusual encounters. Before I began writing, I dutifully, even enthusiastically, absorbed a variety of experiences. For the most part I think I enjoyed these and all the stimuli that they brought. Gradually, though, I found myself wanting to write a more substantial kind of novel.
I’m the kind of person who has to totally commit to whatever I do. I just couldn’t do something clever like writing a novel while someone else ran the business. I had to give it everything I had. If I failed, I could accept that. But I knew that if I did things halfheartedly and they didn’t work out, I’d always have regrets.
I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don’t get that sort of system set by a certain age, you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance. I placed the highest priority on the sort of life that lets me focus on writing, not associating with all the people around me. I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers.
I can’t see my readers’ faces, so in a sense it’s a conceptual type of human relationship, but I’ve consistently considered this invisible, conceptual relationship to be the most important thing in my life. In other words, you can’t please everybody.
To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole. But as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening a hole in the hard rock and locating a new water vein. So as soon as I notice one water source drying up, I can move on right away to another.
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.
Running every day is a kind of lifeline for me, so I’m not going to lay off or quit just because I’m busy. If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I’d never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep on running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.
I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. (...) The problem with talent, though, is that in most cases the person involved can’t control its amount or quality.
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, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. 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.
After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist 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 – at least one who hopes to write a novel – is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, two years.
Fortunately, these two disciplines – focus and endurance – are different from talent, since they can be acquired and sharpened through training.
In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated.
Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life – and for me, for writing as well.
As you age you learn even to be happy with what you have. That’s one of the few good points of growing older.
Seeing a lot of water like that every day is probably an important thing for human beings. For human beings might be a bit of a generalization – but I do know it’s important for one person: me. If I go for a time without seeing water, I feel like something’s slowly draining out of me. (...) The surface of the water changes from day to day: the color, the shape of the waves, the speed of the current.
What follows is based on a sketch I wrote a few days after the race, before I forgot the details. As I read these notes ten years later, all the thoughts and feelings I had that day come back in quite sharp focus.
Usually when I approach the end of a marathon, all I want to do is get it over with, and finish the race as soon as possible. That’s all I can think of. But as I drew near the end of this ultramarathon, I wasn’t really thinking about this. 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. It’s very philosophical – not that at this point I’m thinking how philosophical it is. I just vaguely experience this idea, not with words, but as a physical sensation.
One of the privileges given to those who’ve avoided dying young is the blessed right to grow old. The honor of physical decline is waiting, and you have to get used to that reality.
My body tends to have problems during these transitions from one season to another, something that never happened when I was young. The main problem is when it gets cold and damp. If you’re a long-distance runner who trains hard every day, your knees are your weak point. Every time your feet hit the ground when you run, it’s a shock equivalent to three times your weight, and this repeats itself perhaps over ten thousand times a day. With the hard concrete surface of the road meeting this ridiculous amount of weight (granted, there’s the cushioning of the shoes between them), your knees silently endure all this endless pounding. If you think of this (and I admit it’s something I don’t usually think about), it would seem strange if you didn’t have a problem with your knees.
When was the last time I gave my knees any serious thought? As I was pondering this, I started to feel a little remorseful.
You can replace your breath any number of times, but not your knees. These are the only knees I’ll ever have, so I’d better take good care of them. As I said before, I’ve been fortunate as a runner not to have had any major injuries. And I’ve never had to cancel a race or drop out because of illness. Several times in the past, my right knee has felt strange (it’s always the right knee), but I’ve always been able to soothe it and keep it going. So my knee should be okay now too, right? That’s what I’d like to think. But even in bed I still feel uneasy. What’ll I do if after all this I can’t run in the race? Was there something wrong with my training schedule? Maybe I didn’t stretch enough? (Maybe I really didn’t.) Or maybe in the half marathon I ran too hard at the end? With all these thoughts running through my head I couldn’t sleep well.
My own individual, stubborn, uncooperative, often self-centered nature that still doubts itself – that, when troubles occur, tries to find something funny, or something nearly funny, about the situation. I’ve carried this character around like an old suitcase, down a long, dusty path. I’m not carrying it because I like it. The contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. I’ve carried it with me because there was nothing else I was supposed to carry. Still, I guess I have grown attached to it. As you might expect.
Once more I’m struck by how pitiful and pointless this little container called me is, what a lame, shabby being I am. I feel like everything I’ve ever done in life has been a total waste. In a few minutes I’m going to swim .93 miles, ride a bike 24.8 miles, then run a final 6.2 miles. And what’s all that supposed to prove? How is this any different from pouring water in an old pan with a tiny hole in the bottom?
Of course there are teachers who can teach a set subject, in a set order, using predetermined phrases, but there aren’t many who can adjust their teaching to the abilities and tendencies of their pupils and explain things in their own individual way. Maybe hardly any at all.
For me, the main goal of exercising is to maintain, and improve, my physical condition in order to keep on writing novels, so if races and training cut into the time I need to write, this would be putting the cart before the horse. Which is why I’ve tried to maintain a decent balance.
In the 1980s I used to jog every morning in Tokyo and often passed a very attractive young woman. We passed each other jogging for several years and got to recognize each other by sight and smile a greeting each time we passed. I never spoke to her (I’m too shy), and of course don’t even know her name. But seeing her face every morning as I ran was one of life’s small pleasures. Without pleasures like that, it’s pretty hard to get up and go jogging every morning.