When Haruki Murakami talks about running

August 25, 2008

One of my new colleagues recently loaned me her copy of Haruki Murakami’s new book, a memoir, entitled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I’m a pretty big fan of Murakami (2005’s Kafka on the Shore got me hooked, and I read backwards from there), and I’m a pretty big fan of memoirs, and I’m a relatively big fan of running… but not like Mr. M is. Anyway, I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable read–Mr. M has the same light, deceptively elegant touch in nonfiction as he has in fiction, and he’s good at seeming humble and just as confused as the rest of us about life’s inconsistencies. In fact, I’m convinced he might actually be humble, but I’d have to see it to believe it–how humble can you be when you’re hailed as the best Japanese writer of your generation, practically a shoo-in for a Nobel prize, and able to split your time between Harvard, Japan, and Hawaii? I’m just not sure that’s possible, but the memoir makes it seem that way, and that’s really all that mattered to me as a reader.

So, Mr. M likes to run. A lot. He started running around the same time he started writing, which, believe it or not, was not until he was 30 and had spent his 20’s going into debt owning and running a bar. Then he decided to write a novel–not to be a writer, to write a novel–and he did, and it won a prize and got published, and then he wrote another one, and then he quit the bar and became a writer. During this time, he also became a runner (after being more or less sedentary and a 60 cigarette a day smoker), and he credits running for much of his success as a writer (although this is anything but a how-to memoir). Since then, he’s typically run one marathon a year, and of late has done one triathalon a year. He doesn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about writing in this memoir, but the parallels with his running are clear. Anyway, there’s a couple of passages I really love.

This is how the book opens:

There’s a wise saying that goes like this: A real gentleman never discusses women he’s broken up with or how much tax he’s paid. Actually this is a total lie. I just made it up. Sorry!

Maybe you will find this obnoxious, but I found it totally impossible not to be charmed by the sheer silliness these lines. On a deeper level, I’m hoping he doesn’t mean that he feels free to make up the rest of his memoir… but I am preferring to read it as, if I’m making something up, I’ll just come out and tell you, but I reserve the right to make stuff up.

Okay, on a more serious note, this passage is the best description I’ve found of what it is like to do anything seriously, to wake up each morning with the aches and pains and anxieties that come with doing something demanding and beautiful. There’s a just a price to it, and you pay it:

I think certain types of processes don’t allow for any variation. If you have to be part of that process, all you can do is transform–or perhaps distort–yourself through that persistent repetition, and make that process a part of your own personality.

Indeed–and at some point, you have to decide that that transformation and distortion is what you want, and you have to stick with that. It’s part of you, and it’s important just for that reason. So for now, whenever I sit down to write or read poetry, or think about doing something as crazy as applying to English PhD programs, I think of these lines:

Running every day is a kind of lifeline for me, so I’m not going to lay off or quit 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.

Keep polishing, people.

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