What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningThere were probably a few warning signs that I wasn’t going to enjoy Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (WITAWITAR).

The first is that I hate running. As in the very theme that, er, underpins the book. The second is that I expected Murakami’s WITAWITAR book to be of the ilk of Stephen King’s On Writing, which is something of a writing-inspiration masterpiece. The third, and probably most telling, is that I hated the only other Murakami book I’ve read. Hmm.

I’m not sure where Kafka on the Shore sits in Murakami’s hierarchy of masterpieces, but methinks that doesn’t matter—I can’t stand tales that include off-the-wall moments that aren’t ever embeded in some sort of believable context. Sure, fiction is made up, but it still (to borrow a trite cliché) needs to be believable enough to take you on the journey. Suffice to say, me and Murakami are probably incompatible.

Still, I thought, WITAWITAR is non-fiction and focuses on how running informs and impels Murakami’s writing process and subsequent success. Surely if I replace ‘running’ with ‘football’, ‘netball’, ‘walking’, or ‘doing Pilates’, I’ll be able to appreciate his technique and discipline and potentially pick up a few tips. Hmm again.

Murakami says on page two that ‘…this is a book in which I’ve gathered my thoughts about what running has meant to me as a person. Just a book in which I ponder various things and think out loud.’ Ponder he does, although I might risk blasphemy and hate email by saying that he probably shouldn’t have published the ponderings. As I explained it to some writer and editor friends, I guess that’s what happens when you get to a certain level of success: you can put poo on a page and they’ll publish it.

My main gripes with WITAWITAR is that the book reads a bit like a randomly organised stream-of-consciousness diary entry, and it drives me batty with its random tense changes and leaps back and forth in time. Nor does it contain anything particularly insightful or profound. Murakami includes excerpts of some articles he’s written for top-tier magazines about running. And those excerpts are not very good. Sigh. See note above about poo on a page.

Kafka on the ShoreI’m also not sure Murakami’s methods would necessarily work for me. For example, he stops each day when he feels that he could write more, saying that it makes the next day’s writing easier. Really? I reckon I’d spend the night trying desperately not to lose the ideas and momentum that threatened to evaporate like mist. And I’d probably spend the next day agonising over the fact that they had.

If I’m really honest, I might also say that I think writing and writing success have come too easily to Murakami for me to truly respect him. He simply sold a jazz bar he owned and operated and, without precursor, decided to write. His first manuscript was immediately published. The book won an award and was critically acclaimed and just about every other book he’s written with near-mechanical method ever since has met with similar applaud.

It’s a one-in-a-billion kind of success and is misleading for newbie or wannabe writers—not even JK Rowling, the other author whose success has inspired (and continues to inspire) legions of people to take up pen and keyboard and write, was so fortunate. Her book was rejected by some record number of publishers (who are now likely crying themselves to sleep every night over the career-limiting move they made and the millions of dollars of revenue they’ve missed out on) before Bloomsbury, a then-small publishing house, decided to pick it up.

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh. No writer can extol guaranteed secrets to writing fame and fortune in a short book (or even a long one)—if they could this topic would be done and dusted and there would be a bestseller bonanza as everyone applied the secrets to their writing trade. Besides, there were a few gems within the pages of WITAWITAR, even if I’d argue they weren’t worth the resources expended to uncover them.

For example, Murakami advocates making writing (like running) a habit. He follows Raymond Chandler’s advice to sit down at your desk and concentrate every day, even if you don’t write. I follow this too (well, for the most part or maybe occasionally with aspirations to do it much better). Murakami also says that the ‘most important thing we ever learn at school is that fact that the most important things can’t be learned at school’. I’d second that, although I wish someone had told me that while I was at school…

Have you read WITAWITAR? What did you think? Am I being too scathing? Did I miss the point along the way? Or are Murakami and I incompatible, whether under fiction or non-fiction reading and writing circumstances?

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.