Haruki Murakami has written 15 novels and many short stories over his nearly 45-year long writing career. His debut novel, Hear the Wind Sing, came out in 1979, while his most recent work, The City and Its Uncertain Walls was released in 2023. Murakami has produced several classic, genre-defying novels and stories in his writing career, but it’s his book on running that provides the most insights into his writing philosophy.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was published in 2007 in which Murakami unpacks his love and need for running. He takes a few detours to address his thoughts on writing, but more often than not, it’s the lessons he learned through his various running training and marathon and ultramarathon races he applied to his writing ventures to get the most out of his talent.
The following 8 pieces are a mix of advice, perspective, and mindset which has helped Murakami in his writing adventures and also improved his habits.
Importance of Writing To Murakami
Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. I couldn’t agree more. No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act. As a writer, then, and as a runner, I don’t find that writing and publishing a book of my own personal thoughts about running makes me stray too far off my usual path. 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.
Writing is more than a job. It’s a way to understand life and one’s own experiences, emotions, and beliefs. When our thoughts are roaming freely in our heads, it’s difficult to pinpoint which ones are impactful and which ones you can discard. But when we pluck those thoughts from our heads and write them down on paper, they become something we can dissect, edit, question, and even challenge.
Through such processes, we can come to understand our own thought processes on a deeper level and discover what we really believe. Hence, writing is a kin to philosophy as philosophy at its core means a love for wisdom and through writing, we become wiser about ourselves.
Technique To Build Writing Rhythm
I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. 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. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow.
Hemingway in fact did say something similar.
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next.
Murakami used running as an example, so I’ll stay in the realm of physical exercise and draw upon weightlifting. With lifting weights, there is a thing called going to failure. It’s when you push yourself so hard during a set that you can even perform one more repetition of the movement. Although this technique has its use in building strength and muscles, it’s universally agreed upon that you shouldn’t go to failure every session and in fact, failure training should be selective during your entire program. The reason is, that type of training can take a toll on your body and it takes a while for your nervous system and your muscles to recuperate.
Similarly, writing until you’re all out of words every day is akin to going to failure. Again, this could be helpful if you want to know how much endurance or focus you can produce. Something Murakami believes is essential for writing success. But in the long term, you will quickly fall out of the rhythm of writing because you will have more days where you have nothing to write. Instead, we should focus on building consistency.
I’m following one of my basic rules for training: I never take two days off in a row. Muscles are like work animals that are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase the load, step by step, they learn to take it.
Once again, in the weightlifting world, there is a technique called greasing the groove. This is essentially when you do a set that stops at the halfway point to your failure. Meaning, if 10 pulls are your maximum, then you do just 4 or 5 pull-ups but you would do numerous sets. The point is to work on the technique of the exercise, garnering volume so that you can perform the exercise more often in a week.
I have to maintain a certain tension by being unsparing, but not to the point where I burn out. These are tactics that all experienced runners learn over time.
Similarly, it’s better to write more often than it is to write more intensely.
The main thing was not the speed or distance so much as running every day, without taking a break.
Have A Personal Standard
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.
Seeking validation from others is a slippery slope. This means you are putting your sense of fulfilment and happiness in other people’s hands. This will no doubt result in a turbulent emotional state as you receive both positive and negative feedback. Instead, it’s important to have a personal standard because it puts you in control.
There are three reasons I failed. Not enough training. Not enough training. And not enough training.
There aren’t many things in life we can control. The majority of it happens to us and it’s up to us to react properly. But there are a few things we have control over like our attitude and judgement. So, it’s important to exert this control and create a standard for ourselves. This way, the satisfaction of achieving or surpassing the standard is our own and failing to meet it is also our own. For the latter, the responsibility for the failure is key to making the right adjustments, so that when we try again, we can meet the standard.
At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. 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.
The Most Personal Is The Most Creative
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve gradually come to the realization that this kind of pain and hurt is a necessary part of life. If you think about it, it’s precisely because people are different from others that they’re able to create their own independent selves. Take me as an example. It’s precisely my ability to detect some aspects of a scene that other people can’t, to feel differently than others and choose words that differ from theirs, that’s allowed me to write stories that are mine alone. And because of this we have the extraordinary situation in which quite a few people read what I’ve written. So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent.
Oscar-winning director, Bong Joon-ho also shared this sentiment, as well. As he accepted his Oscar, Bong Joon-ho mentioned Martin Scorsese’s saying ‘The most personal is the most creative’ has always guided his work. The reason the most personal is the most creative is because that’s where vulnerability lies. We cherish the things that are most personal to us or we keep them close to us, so no one can find out. Sometimes, what is the most personal to us is tragic and traumatic. Things we don’t want anyone to know about us. But it’s precisely that which makes us creative and stand apart from others.
It’s when we are able to be vulnerable and share the deepest parts of our hearts that we can achieve something truly unique and whole us.
Fully Commit Yourself
But I knew that if I did things halfheartedly and they didn’t work out, I’d always have regrets.
One of the worst feelings is to get rejected and know perfectly well that you deserved it because you didn’t give it your all. That you wasted the opportunity that presented itself to you. Often we act as if our dreams don’t come with an expiration date, but in reality, everything in life is temporary, including our goals and abilities to reach them. So, wasting opportunity leaves behind the worst type of regret.
One way to nullify this is to fully commit to the project or task. Once again, vulnerability peaks its challenging head. You have to be vulnerable to commit yourself fully because if you get rejected, that means your efforts and skills weren’t good enough. We don’t have an out. We can’t fall back on the safety net of not trying hard enough. But not being good enough is decisive. We can work to get better or put our energy into something else. But the pain of regret chains us to our previous attempts and leaves us living in the past.
Have A Structure In Place
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.
Life is full of distractions. Every day new apps come out that tug at our attention, which feeds off of how much time we spend watching, scrolling, and reading. And these apps are damn good at their job too. So, Murakami’s advice is even more important now than ever before because if you live a distracted life, it will be immensely difficult to achieve your goals, let alone any sense of excellence.
It’s important to nip the trouble in the bud and see what actions in your life as leading you toward your goals and which ones are taking you away from them. Go all-in on the actions that are bringing you towards where you want to go and at least you will give yourself a fighting chance to get there.
At the end of the day, you will get what you put in.
I haven’t spotted any springs nearby. I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort.
Three Requirements For Writing
In every interview 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. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.
Murakami believes that there are three important factors. The most important is talent and below it are focus and endurance. Talent is innate, it is something you have or you don’t have.
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.
Focus and endurance are what you can build and grow with time and effort. These two factors are in your control.
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.
Naturally, in order to increase your focus and endurance, you have to be patient. It takes time and effort to develop these two qualities. Murakami relates these factors to running. You may have a goal to run a marathon but first, you must be able to run a mile. Your muscles and cardiovascular system need to adjust to the 1-mile mark before you can run 2 miles, 3 miles and so on. As your cardio improves and muscles get stronger, your running technique also gets better through repetition.
Similarly, you have to slowly work the focus, and endurance muscles for writing. Perhaps you may have to start with 30 minutes of pure focus where all you think about is writing and then after a week of that, you increase it to 45 minutes and once your body adjusts to that speed, you increase your focus time to an hour. Endurance works the same way. Three days out of the week for writing and then four days and then five days and you may keep the five days for a few months until your body and mind have adjusted to this new level and then you increase it to six days.
It is in the practice of your routine that you get better as a writer and also as a runner. Murakami shares a funny story about the writer Raymond Chandler who seemed to share Murakami’s belief in endurance and focus.
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. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.
In doing so, writing then becomes a form of manual labor and not some creative output that seeps out of your pores and that you just need to write it all down and that’s it. It may be through the gruelling task of focusing every single day for weeks on end that you may discover that you have some talent. Your talent may not be known to you until you start your work. Murakami himself is an example of this. It was not until he was in his late 20s that he even got the idea to write and it would not be for a few more years until he discovered his own writing style and understood what novels he wished to write.
This discovery was simply aided by writing. The more effort he put into his work the better he understood it and the clearer his vision became. He had an understanding that his talent was not enough and that he needed to supplement the talent he did have by building up his focus and endurance. Murakami gives credit to running for building these two qualities.
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 have definitely been different.
Talent may be out of your control but focus and endurance are not. You can set yourself up for success if you build up those two qualities. The action that aids in this growth will help your understanding of writing, what you wish to say, what you wish not to say, your own do’s and don’ts and perhaps even discover that talent that is within. In fact, such an action will benefit you in all aspects of life and not just writing.
Follow Your Intuition
What I mean is, I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. Just like I didn’t become a novelist because someone asked me to. One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run—simply because I wanted to. I’ve always done whatever I felt like doing in life. People may try to stop me, and convince me I’m wrong, but I won’t change.
Life is short. Follow your interests, follow your inner voice, and follow your dreams and see if you can try and make something beautiful happen in your life before it’s all said and done.