Lessons From Stories: Kafka On The Shore

Kafka On The Shore is a novel by Haruki Murakami. The narrative follows two central characters, Kafka and Nakata, as they interact with other humans, cats, spirits, and even figures like Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker. Murakami uses aspects of magical realism in order to explore concepts such as fate and past trauma. It’s in this exploration of life that we can find valuable lessons.

Lessons:

Embrace The Storm

Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step.

[…]

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

Fate is at the core of Murakami’s novel. Kafka’s fate is to confront his mother, who abandoned him at a young age. All his actions lead him towards this fate. He tries to run away from it, to hide from it, but he is constantly driven towards his fate. He eventually relents to the inevitable and faces his fate/storm in order to grow.

Such storms are always present in our life. We can view them as fate or perhaps challenges and obstacles life has set in front of us. Trials for us to complete and mature or to ignore and hide from and remain the same person. These storms can involve our career choices, relationships, habits, or ideologies. The very thing that causes us discomfort is what we need.

Of course, real life is not like a story. Our life isn’t a plot that will cause us to confront the uncomfortable aspects. Here is where the story of Kafka can influence us. If Kafka never confronted his mother, then he would always be a prisoner to his past feelings. But because he was able to come to terms with his abandonment issues, he was freed.

The story urges us to face our storm or fate, so we can gain a better understanding of who we are and move forward in life freely.

Take Responsibility

It’s all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It’s just like Yeats said: In dreams begin responsibilities. Flip this around and you could say that where there’s no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise.

This is significant in two ways. First, the more practical approach. Taking responsibility for our lives and our actions. We have to imagine that we have some control over our circumstances, whether good or bad. Our actions matter. Our choices matter and so, through our imagination, we can then develop ownership of our actions and thus create order.

Second, the potentials that imagination opens up also require our responsibility. If we imagine ourselves running a marathon, then it becomes a responsibility to work towards that imagination. This is true with creating art, traveling, setting goals, and so on. We have to imagine it first and then bring it to life.

Be Open

“If I had to say anything it’d be this: Whatever it is you’re seeking won’t come in the form you’re expecting.”

Nothing ever comes exactly the way we expect. There has to be a sense of letting go when we seek whatever it is that we want. To give up control and accept whatever it is that life thinks is best suited for us.

Otherwise, with a close mind, we can overlook the blessings presented to us.

Have Empathy Towards Others

“Miss Saeki’s life basically stopped at age twenty, when her lover died. No, maybe not age twenty, maybe much earlier…I don’t know the details, but you need to be aware of this. The hands of the clock buried inside her soul ground to a halt then. Time outside, of course, flows on as always, but she isn’t affected by it. For her, what we consider normal time is essentially meaningless.”

[…]

“Kafka, in everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.”

The character of Miss Saeki is portrayed as a shell of a human being. Her essence, her spirit, is stuck in a time when she was happily in love. However, a traumatic incident caused her to be severed from the present and to live in the past.

Miss Saeki is a fictional character, but her portrayal is very much real. From an outsider’s point of view, Miss Saeki appears perfectly normal. Just as we may think of the people we encounter in our daily life. We cannot know what is going on inside the person’s head. We don’t know what past events still haunt them. This is why empathy and kindness need to be at the forefront of our actions.

These two qualities can be viewed as a luxury, for we may not receive them from others. However, we all have the capability of showing these qualities and it becomes an obligation to do so, regardless of whether others show it to us.

As long as there’s such a thing as time, everybody’s damaged in the end, changed into something else. It always happens, sooner or later.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

“Man doesn’t choose fate. Fate chooses man. That’s the basic worldview of Greek drama. And the sense of tragedy—according to Aristotle—comes, ironically enough, not from the protagonist’s weak points but from his good qualities. Do you know what I’m getting at? People are drawn deeper into tragedy not by their defects but by their virtues.”

Too much unselfishness can breed greed, as others can take advantage of the unselfish nature. Too much love can breed resentment, as the person can be viewed as overbearing. We can have a boundless work ethic in order to improve our life or our family’s life but can end up with a broken home because of overworking.

In themselves, no virtue is good or bad, but when the human element is added to the mix, then there needs to be some kind of boundary. Otherwise, what we imagine being a good thing can cause negativity.

The Ebb and Flow of Life

“Picture a bird perched on a thin branch,” she says. “The branch sways in the wind, and each time this happens the bird’s field of vision shifts. You know what I mean?”

[…]

“It bobs its head up and down, making up for the sway of the branch. Take a good look at birds the next time it’s windy. I spend a lot of time looking out that window. Don’t you think that kind of life would be tiring? Always shifting your head every time the branch you’re on sways?

“I do.”

“Birds are used to it. It comes naturally to them. They don’t have to think about it, they just do it. So it’s not as tiring as we imagine. But I’m a human being, not a bird, so sometimes it does get tiring.”

“You’re on a branch somewhere?”

“In a manner of speaking,” she says. “And sometimes the wind blows pretty hard.”

We can see the natural rhythm of life as the individual trying to remain stable as events outside of their control create disorder. The actions of other people, chance events, unlucky instances, absurd misfortunes are to us what the wind is to a bird. Knocking us about, disrupting our flow, causing us to readjust. So, there is a constant ebb and flow, push and pull, as we adjust to the new rhythm of life and just as we master the new, another challenge arises.

The cycle is endless, and it is by accepting this cycle that can gain some peace of mind. So that when we are knocked off balance, we don’t view it as some grave misfortune but as the natural rhythm of life. And perhaps we can even be prepared for the next gust of wind.

True Inner Strength

“The strength I’m looking for isn’t the kind where you win or lose. I’m not after a wall that’ll repel power coming from outside. What I want is the kind of strength to be able to absorb that outside power, to stand up to it. The strength to quietly endure things—unfairness, misfortune, sadness, mistakes, misunderstandings.”

Too often we wish that nothing bad happens to us. But that just isn’t realistic. Hoping gets us nowhere. What we need is to cultivate certain characteristics so that when misfortune strikes, we can manage them in a calm and orderly manner. One practice is to meditate on the worst possible scenario, as the Stoics advised. So when bad things happen, we aren’t surprised by them.

Another way to cultivate inner strength is by purposely exposing ourselves to suffering. Whether it be physical training, which can help with mental endurance, or by constantly trying new things and failing, and trying again. Both of these tactics can bring us insight into how to endure. How to be patient. How to deal with that inner voice which wants comfort and ease. How to dust ourselves off and keep going.

This type of thinking puts the control in our hands. Gives us an understanding of how to behave when faced with difficult challenges.

Overcome Yourself

“You have to overcome the fear and anger inside you,” the boy named Crow says. “Let a bright light shine in and melt the coldness in your heart. That’s what being tough is all about.”

We all have our defects. No individual is perfect. Part of living is about finding the pieces of yourself which are broken or maybe even missing and mending them and creating them anew.

“Even though she loved you, she had to abandon you. You need to understand how she felt then, and learn to accept it. Understand the overpowering fear and anger she experienced, and feel it as your own—so you won’t inherit it and repeat it. The main thing is this: You have to forgive her. That’s not going to be easy, I know, but you have to do it. That’s the only way you can be saved. There’s no other way!”

“Mother, you say, I forgive you. And with those words, audibly, the frozen part of your heart crumbles.”

The core of the novel is Kafka coming to terms with the abandonment by his mother. He gets angry; he lashes out; he runs away from home but wherever he goes; he carries with him this burden that his mother left him. Until he can come to terms with that, he’ll never truly evolve and grow. Once more, this requires Kafka to overcome himself. To forgive someone requires us to subdue our own feelings and our ego. Kafka is able to do so and move on with his life. But many people get stuck in the past. They harbor a singular event or person and let the past dictate their present. To be free in the present, we have to face the past and deal with it and in turn, deal with our own issues. This is what Kafka’s journey is all about.

Great Lines

“Mr. Nakata, this world is a terribly violent place. And nobody can escape the violence. Please keep that in mind. You can’t be too cautious. The same holds true for cats and human beings.”

“There’s only one kind of happiness, but misfortune comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness is a story.”

“But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T. S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they’re doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don’t want to.”

He lived in a world circumscribed by a very limited vocabulary.

“Having an object that symbolizes freedom might make a person happier than actually getting the freedom it represents.”

“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”

Reflections on Routines and Scheduling

In his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey sets out to demonstrate the importance of small daily activities which can add up together to fulfill one’s vision.

I wanted to show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself and vice versa.

Positive habits which are a result of a good routine can allow one to perform tasks to the best of their abilities. Rather than having to force yourself, trying to make up for wasted time, a routine allows designated time for each task where one can chip away at their craft, slowly improving, getting closer to their goals.

One’s daily routine is also a choice or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

The book is filled with many lessons. Each individual mentioned in the book has their own routine and their own reason for needing a routine. However, an underlying theme that is present is that many view their routine as a necessary part of their work. Meaning that the routine aids their craft. It allows them to focus, stay disciplined and complete projects.

From the many lessons, the following are a handful that I found useful. Later on, I will do a follow-up post for other lessons.

A lesson from Mozart: Find the pocket of time that works for you and stick to it, without making any excuses. This lesson is drawn from the fact that Mozart was a busy man. He was wanted by many people, his time was limited and so, he would wake up early and compose and then compose for a little while before going to bed. Making time for his craft, rather than excuses.

A lesson from Voltaire: Have a pocket of concentrated work, followed by a break, then more concentrated work, break and so on. Simply stating, Voltaire divided his day into small portions which allowed him to focus on his tasks and then get quick relief in the form of meeting someone, eating snacks, drinking coffee before returning to his work for another period of effort. Such a routine is manageable.

A lesson from Thomas Mann: First, get the most essential work done. For Mann, he would write from nine to noon. In this period of time, no one was allowed to call him, disturb him or contact him. Having finished the most important work by noon, one can then continue the momentum of positive action and flow throughout the rest of the day.

A lesson from Haruki Murakami: Do not deviate from your established routine. When working on a novel, Marukami’s day started at 4 am and ended at 9 pm. The day was filled with writing, which he did first thing in the morning and then he went running, swimming and spent time with his wife. Essentially repeating the same day over and over, one comes to build their focus and endurance and most importantly, the work gets done.

A lesson from Samuel Johnson: You’re not the only one who falls off the path and gives into laziness. As Johnson writes:

“My reigning sin, to which perhaps many others are appendant, is waste of time, and general sluggishness,” he wrote in his diary, and he told Boswell that “idleness is a disease which must be combated.” Yet, he added, he was temperamentally ill-equipped for the battle: “I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together.”

It may be that you find it hard to stick to a routine. Chances are you’re not the only one. Artists throughout time have failed, recalibrated, adjusted their routines, shifted to working in the morning, or in the evening, and then failed again but that does not matter. Never accepting the failure is more important, for even if you are unable to stick with a particular routine, you can still get back on the path easier once you have fallen off.

Routines then allow one to see what the path looks like and what you should be doing, how you should be acting, rather than being blind, trying to navigate through this world.

 

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Haruki Murakami On Writing

There are many articles written on the do’s and don’t’s of writing. I don’t know if such a thing exists because each person who wishes to write must write their own way. Through the act of writing, they will come to discover what they like and what they don’t like and in doing so, create their own do’s and don’t’s. Contorting your writing in order to fit into how someone else thinks takes away from the uniqueness of your own thought and style. So, one has to be comfortable with their own writing and write for the purpose of writing and not to become popular or to sell a bunch of books. At least that is how I view it. Writing for the sake of writing.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami expresses similar notions. The book is a combined effort on his views on running and on writing and how the action of running has influenced his writing.

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.

It is an inner standard that one must aim for and not external validation. In running, you are trying to beat your previous time even if it is only by one minute or trying to go further than you have gone before. Similarly, with writing, you are trying to create something that is approved by your own standards and limitations. Text that pushes you slightly further than your comfort zone and it doesn’t matter if one person reads that or a million, the inner validation is all one needs.

Specifically, when it comes to writing itself, Murakami believes that there are three important factors. The most important being talent and below it are focus and endurance. Talent is innate, it is something you have or you don’t have. Focus and endurance are what you can build and grow with time and effort. The latter two factors are in your control.

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.

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.

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 throughout his text. 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. Furthermore, it may be through the grueling 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 kind of 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 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. Furthermore, 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’t’s 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.

For me it is hard to say if I have a talent for writing or not, I just simply know that I enjoy it and that it brings a sense of fulfillment and achievement into my life. It is a freeing notion, knowing that focus and endurance are under my control. If I am able to improve these qualities perhaps then my writing will continue to live up to my own standards.


Two Things That Have Made My Fiction Writing Easier

Stephen King Writing Tip: Build Your Toolbox

Writing/Life Advice: Don’t Get Overwhelmed

Vladimir Nabakov On What Makes A Great Writer

Tell Your Truth Through Writing

Vladimir Nabokov & Storytelling Techniques

Neil Gaiman & Generating Story Ideas

Writing Advice From William Faulkner

Haruki Murakami On Writing

Charles Bukowski & The Use Of Conflict In Storytelling

Ernest Hemingway On What To Write About

Simple Writing Advice From Stephen King


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Unresolved Issues & Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is one of the few writers I have come across who is able to pack so many feelings into his text with the use of simple words and simple sentences. This ability is on display in his work, Norwegian Wood. Often times it is what you don’t include in the story that matters. Murakami seems to know exactly what to omit and this leaves behind these blunt sentences that get straight to the point and when you read them, not only do you see the story unraveling in your mind, you can see the characters sitting around talking to one another, watch the subtle gestures, observe the conditioned habits but on top of that, you feel as if you are part of the scene. You are not a distant viewer, an omniscient presence, rather, you are there sitting alongside the characters and they are not characters, they are people you know.

With this in mind, Norweigian Wood can come across as a bit depressing. After all, there is much discussion of trauma and suicide and general struggles of life. These themes are prevalent in many of Marukami’s work and perhaps it is the fact that he is not afraid to go into the darkness and try to understand it, that I find his text to be so attractive.

Amidst the trauma and sadness is the truth. Where there is suffering, there is also the relief. Or at least the possibility of relief. This possibility also keeps hope alive. That one-day things can be better.

The main character, Toru Watanabe, is trying to deal with his own troubles, at the same time, trying to understand the troubles of a woman he loves, Naoko. This woman is scared by a childhood incident, who has by this time, has admitted herself into an institution for help. Watanabe only wishes to help Naoko, to understand her, to be her support and yet it is never that simple.

To ease Watanabe’s mind, Reiko, Naoko’s roommate at the institution, gives him two simple pieces of advice after Naoko has another incident and Watanabe is left confused and lost.

“Did I say something I shouldn’t have?” (Watanabe said)

“Not a thing. Don’t worry. Just speak your mind honestly. That’s the best thing. It may hurt a little sometimes, and somebody may get worked up the way Naoko did, but in the long run it’s the best thing. That’s what you should do if you’re serious about making Naoko well again. Like I told you in the beginning, you should think not so much about wanting to help her as wanting to recover yourself by helping her to recover. That’s the way it’s done here. So you have to be honest and say everything that comes to mind while you’re here at least. Nobody does that in the outside world, right?

There are many issues that Naoko is dealing with. Everything piles on together and adds on top of previous unresolved issues. It is never just one thing. You cannot just unplug the drain and watch all the filth get swallowed up and now everything is nice and clean. All the leftover garbage washed away, the baggage, the bits of food clinging to the plastic containers, the feeling of helplessness, all rinsed out by the water afterward. If only it was that easy. Perhaps if it was, then a lot of great art would have never come to be. In reality, people don’t work like that. Life doesn’t work like that.

“The most important thing is not to let yourself get impatient,” Reiko said. “This is one more piece of advice I have for you: don’t get impatient. Even if things are so tangled up you can’t do anything, don’t get desperate or blow a fuse and start yanking on one particular thread before it’s ready to come undone. You have to figure it’s going to be a long process and that you’ll work on things slowly, one at a time. Do you think you can do that?”

What else can you do?