My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2009) is a 180-page memoir by Haruki Murakami, the writer better known for his longer novels: Norwegian Wood, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Wind/Pinball, and 1Q84.
Murakami, however, happens to also be an avid runner dedicated and passionate about running marathons and competing in triathlons.
His memoir, which can be easily read over two or three afternoons, is more or less an engaging diary of his insightful thoughts and emotions about key events in his life involved with or revolving around his experiences with writing and with running from 1982 to 2007.
“I started writing the book,” explains Murakami in August 2007, “bit by bit, in the summer of 2005, finishing it in the fall of 2006. Other than a few places where I quote from previous writing I’ve done, the bulk of this book records my thoughts and feelings in real time. One thing I noticed was that writing honestly about running and writing honestly about myself are nearly the same thing. So I suppose it’s all right to read this as a kind of memoir centered on the act of running” (p vii).
Unlike many biased immigrant writers living in America who primarily and predictably focus on their own identity and their specifically inward racial perceptions in order to get published in a government and politically funded market which actively supports controlled cultural integration and social engineering, Murakami (who lived for a time near Harvard at the time this memoir was being written) stands respectfully alone — outside the circle of “immigrant fiction” and within the more superior forms of literature as “art” — and Murakami considers himself more a flawed human being more than a person of race and color, and by doing so he humbly unites readers with his fiction and non-fiction rather than selfishly segregating them—as it should be among writers and novelists.
Instead of focusing on his own identity as a Japanese man living in the United States (which would have classified this memoir under the term “Immigrant Fiction”), Murakami, instead, is able to awe his readers by sharing the connections he has as a writer with running, and at times the two things become one.
(Note: the title of the memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running pays homage to Raymond Carver’s short-story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), which Murakami makes mention of on page 179.)
“Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it,” Murakami explains as if speaking to you as a close confidant, “but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time 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 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” (pgs 4-5).
Murakami’s most beloved quality is his willingness to remove barriers and show the world his humanity—not his race, not his identity, not his nationality, but his humanity; the former (race, identity, nationality) come from without while the latter (humanity) comes from within. As he opens up to reveal who he really is, most readers might relate to Murakami’s reclusiveness and his inability to be fake. Here, Murakami tells it like it is, regardless if people will like him or not, but he admits it still hurts if he is disliked, making him all the more human:
“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 have no idea. Maybe somewhere in the world it is. It’s hard to generalize. For me, at least, as I’ve written novels over many years, 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” (p 21).
Murakami even provides a bit of advice for would-be writers and novelists-of-old, or any enthusiast who holds a passion for writing fiction. Like Murakami, many true novelists who spend long days and lonely nights developing their craft and honing their narratives to the best of their abilities live and breathe writing—with each passing day writing is in their brains and bones and on their lips as they dream—unlike some pseudo-writers who do not publish fiction in the long form at all for forty or more years and publishing very few stories or essays loosely based on their life and experiences as an immigrant, minority or refugee, only for those pseudo-writers to spend those forty years, instead, networking and making close friends who’re editors and judges, and then to have their agents instruct them on what to write and then publish their “debut” book in their mid-forties to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction [see the pseudo-writer who won in 2016; The Sympathizer (2015) by a Vietnamese refugee (who had published only a handful of mediocre pieces and not a single work of fiction in the long form) won in a huge and mainly disappointing upset the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; The Underground Railroad, published in 2016, ended up, however, winning the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction the following year in 2017, which clearly illustrated the mistake by the judges the previous year because The Underground Railroad actually won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction; The Sympathizer wasn’t even a finalist; the Vietnamese refugee did, however, have his non-fiction book make the short list for the National Book Award in Non-Fiction in 2016, the book was called Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (no surprise he wrote about Vietnam there). Colson’s book The Underground Railroad also won the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Historical Fiction in 2016 while The Sympathizer was nowhere to be found in the book awards governed by readers and the people. The Underground Railroad also went on to win the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award. When do you think the Vietnamese pseudo-writer who won the 2016 Fiction Pulitzer (surname is pronounced as “when”) will wake up and realize that American society in general (and not the readers who buy books) did not reward him for his art but rewarded him in an attempt to make amends for the Vietnam War and for his tragic past as a refugee?] and all this only further reveals to readers that many book contests do not judge on merit, as they should (many judges have admitted to cherry-picking books based on writers they know personally), but in the end the books are cherry-picked and their selections decided in such a fashion as to develop political agendas and these decisions are also based on internal office politics (a glorified popularity contest, if you will, with hidden motives biased against art remaining apolitical), causing the degradation and devaluation of American literature in the eyes of a global audience with far higher standards than the American publishing industry, an industry which seeks to gain dollars through donations and funded programs backed by political and cultural agendas rather than seeking to publish literature the American people and global readers desire and long to read once again and will most certainly buy for the love of books—and nothing short of this is what American literature and readers around the world deserve.
Murakami gives some hard truths and often unspoken advice on writing:
“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. You can compare it to breathing. If concentration is the process of just holding your breath, endurance is the art of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs. Unless you can find a balance between both, it’ll be difficult to write novels professionally over a long time. Continuing to breathe while you hold your breath…
“The whole process—sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion” (pgs 78-80).
What makes this memoir even more special is Murakami’s confessional tone which unlocks doors and windows in his life and allows the readers to see what being a novelist is really like on a daily basis. Murakami is down-to-earth and honest when he describes the writer’s life and his writing routine and how he eventually found unexpected success with Norwegian Wood:
“People are at their best at different times of day, but I’m definitely a morning person. That’s when I can focus and finish up important work I have to do. Afterward I work out or do other errands that don’t take much concentration. At the end of the day I relax and don’t do any more work. I read, listen to music, take it easy, and try to go to bed early. This is the pattern I’ve mostly followed up till today…
“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. As long as I got my day-to-day life set so that each work was an improvement over the last, then many of my readers would welcome whatever life I chose for myself. Shouldn’t this be my duty as a novelist, and my top priority? My opinion hasn’t changed over the years…
“What made me happiest was the fact that I had a lot of devoted readers, the one-in-ten repeaters, most of whom were young. They would wait patiently for my next book to appear and grab it and read it as soon as it hit the bookstores. This sort of pattern gradually taking shape was, for me, the ideal, or at least a very comfortable, situation. There’s no need to be literature’s top runner. I went on writing the kind of things I wanted to write, exactly the way I wanted to write them, and if that allowed me to make a normal living, then I couldn’t ask for more. When Norwegian Wood sold way more than anticipated, the comfortable position I had was forced to change a bit, but this was quite a bit later” (pgs 37-39).
To find out more, we strongly recommend getting your copy of Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running as soon as you can. His sections on running will motivate you and inspire.
Keep reading and smiling…
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 375,000+ followers