So, Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running* fell into my lap at a pivotal time. This book is concerned with the physical and psychological elements of long distance running. Murakami is a well-known and respected novelist—best known for A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood, and Kafka on the Shore—who attributes a portion of his writing skills to his workout regimen. Thus, the memoir is a laidback approach to exposing his marathon-training process and how that discipline intertwines with his ability to uniquely put words on a page. I hope to become a capable runner; moreover, I’m paralyzed in the incipient stages of discovering who I am as a writer and what bearing that holds on the future. Talk about a match made in heaven. Of note, this memoir is based on What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver that inspired the play in Birdman. Birdman is a 5-hump movie that I recommend you see.
Before all of you non-runners and non-writers check out, I must note that this work reads surprisingly universal. While the content is specific, his message is generally (and perhaps even unintentionally) inspiring. Murakami started running at age 33, and at the time of publication (age 58), he had completed 24 marathons, several triathlons, and one ultramarathon (62 miles)—not to mention all of the half marathons and smaller races in between. THAT IS ABSURD. Is he a goddamn robot? This is clearly a man worth paying attention to. Because his running and his writing go hand in hand, he also carves out 3-4 hours each morning to focus exclusively on writing. It's impressive that he can manage to discuss such a vast catalog of incredible feats and give you a sense that your life has meaning, rather than leave you feeling like a worthless piece of shit.
I had never really considered the profound parallel between writing and long distance running before cracking this open. Both require a degree of innate, foundational skill, as well as the potential to stretch your abilities through practice until you hit a fragile peak. Finishing is important—so honing your expertise incrementally creates endurance that upholds a lasting quality to your craft. If you ever feel a talent drought, you can in some ways supplement it with your reservoir of concentration and stamina built by the demands of running every day. Novelists thrive on creative energy which is in part supported by physical energy. Murakami’s chief “goal of exercising is to maintain, and improve, [his] physical condition in order to keep on writing novels” (Murakami, 177).
Additionally, writing and running are very self-centered practices that rely on inward motivation—“the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be (Murakami, 10). Consistent, disciplined activity gives that inner voice a much needed microphone. Because pain—physical and emotional—is a crucial component to personal growth, forming meaningful habits in the form of regular exercise can seep into overall self-improvement. It’s all about increasing your potential as a person, the bar rising almost imperceptibly. While that might seem self-evident, it’s easier said than done. The idea is to not get burnt out and kill yourself like some of the great writers who led licentious lifestyles (Hunter S. Thompson, Hemingway, Kerouac—in his own way, etc). But let me be clear—I’m still gonna get my drank on sometimes. Currently plotting whether I want to go the beer or liquor route for my Modest Mouse concert tonight.
I don’t know about you guys, but lately I’m struggling with prioritizing my desires. I love my friends/family/significant other—they make me laugh and keep me sane, I have a job with responsibilities so that I don’t end up smelly on the side of the road, I enjoy being social—I’m young in an amazing, thriving city that’s always poppin off, I put in time at the gym because like metabolism and stuff, and I need my alone time—I get my introspective swag on and I’ve gotta do me. I also require 9 hours of sleep a night to avoid being a huge bitch, plus dreams are tight. Ain’t nobody got time for all of that. Learning how Murakami deals with similar time-constraint struggles illuminated my own understanding of the rhythm that I want for my life. He emphasizes how indispensable it is to concretely determine how you wish to distribute your time/effort in order to reach a balance that has focus and is true to your self. If you abide by a clear-cut philosophy, you can make the most out of your precious few years of existence. He says, “it’s far better to live with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that” (Murakami, 83). It’s really an inadvertent self-help book.
That being said, Murakami and I are not the same (duh). I spent some of my reading time lolling at how far I am from his legendary level. There are some minute differences. For instance, he usually runs empty-minded, creating a meditative, mental void. When, I run, I listen to raunchy rap music and picture myself looking fabulous. I’ll run through dance routines in my head and tell myself that I’m really good at certain moves. Usually, I look something like this:
There are also some larger differences. He has an incredibly strong sense of self, while I’m stuck somewhere between *I wanna get my shit together and life’s too short so whatever*. He is confident in who he is, which creates a comforting clarity to his daily actions. The memoir is nothing flashy; it is written with poise rather than pretentiousness. It also contains an ongoing reflection on aging that inspired me to take advantage of my own youth and vitality. As he gets older, he is discovering his own pace—and not just how many minutes his miles are. Retaining his workout regimen with age has been a challenge, but he accepts it with grace and honors his physical decline. Bow to your shin splint sensei.
Overall, I give the book 4 out of 5 camel humps. His writing is lucid and compelling and I can’t wait to read his other novels. There is always a thrill when you come into contact with a new author—a dialogue where you figure out how their particular voice speaks to you. He has proven to me that he writes well in a relatable way; soon I’ll discover if his running routine has helped fill his wellspring of creativity, evidenced in his fictional narratives.
*Murakami, Haruki. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. New York: Vintage Books, 2008. Print.