Recommended Reading: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

The writing process involves more than just writing. In Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, we learn about his thought process and passion for a physical activity that also inspires his craft.

Rotated image by Bob Jagendorf (CC BY 2.0)

Much of the writing process doesn’t involve writing. That’s how it feels for me.

In some comments I read across the community, and in our current Writing 101 challenge, I notice that bloggers can be really hard on themselves.

I’m so behind.

I can’t think of anything to write.

I didn’t publish anything today.

Writing isn’t automatic; it’s not a mode you turn on and off. Think about our daily prompts, or our free-write challenges. You can’t always sit down and write. Writing is about much more than the physical act of writing — there’s a lot of thinking, observing, and simply being involved. I’ve been pondering this in the midst of Writing 101, in which we ask thousands of participants to experiment daily with their writing and respond to various scenarios. In many cases, the process itself — not the end product — is what really matters. But it’s a challenge because as bloggers, we’ve become used to clicking “Publish,” and equating writing with publishing.

I’m reminded of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a part-running diary, part-memoir that encapsulates my thoughts: that what we do when we’re not writing or typing — whether it’s a physical activity, an unrelated hobby, or nothing at all — is just as important as the act of writing itself:

Being active every day makes it easier to hear that inner voice.

Murakami, the Japanese author of Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is an accomplished marathon and ultramarathon runner and triathlete. In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he describes his running routine — normally six miles a day, six days a week. His thoughts meander, and his prose is loose. I wouldn’t call the writing technically sharp — and if you’re interested, read Geoff Dyer’s criticism of the book — but the work itself is an exercise in meditation. Murakami is naked in a way, his mind right there on the page, exposing his thought process for us to see:

As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I’m thinking of not a thing. All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.

I used to run a lot. Never really an “athlete,” long-distance running was the one physical activity I enjoyed. Despite ankle injuries, I still run when I can, not simply for the exercise, but for the mental (and often creative) space that Murakami describes — a zone in which to clear the mind, to invite the unexpected. This non-writing zone doesn’t have to be physically demanding: from gardening and playing the piano to knitting and cooking, breathing space from the act of writing comes in different forms. (Tasks involving water, like washing the dishes and taking a bath, can unlock ideas — consider this post by Alec Nevala-Lee on thinking in the shower.)

Murakami also compares running and writing as ways to push yourself:

Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as well.

I love running because it can be solitary; I set my own goals. The only person I have to beat is myself, and likewise, when it comes to my own writing, I am my main critic. I learn from and welcome feedback from other writers, but in the end, I set my own limits. Being one writer among so many, in a competitive environment, it’s sometimes hard to keep this perspective. But whenever I pick up this book and turn to a random page, Murakami manages to say something simple about life, writing, and being human — and it’s these quiet moments of enlightenment I enjoy the most.

For a sampling, you can “look inside” the book online.

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  1. I love Murakami, but hadn’t paid much attention to this book of his because… well.. the title didn’t call to me. But now i think I might have to take a look at it. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Yes. Oh, yes: all that “I am so behind”. Some of us cannot celebrate what we achieve, only denigrate it and compare it to some mythical higher standard.

    1. Yup! That would be me… It frequently stymies my writing and I have to coax myself back into a’write’ mindset.

  3. I agree with much of this. For me, cycling is my running, and I rarely sit down, write and then publish; I write notes, and mull things over first. Cycling helps with this.

    1. That’s great! These days, boxing has become my running. Never would have thought it, but it’s almost-daily exercise I’ve taken up this year. It’s important to have an outlet unrelated to writing, and I hope this one sticks.

    2. I second that. I tend to have bits and pieces always in phases of being worked out. Sometimes, going through our day, something will fill in the blanks.

  4. My husband and I were just talking about this very thing. Neither of us has ever had writer’s block. Maybe it’s something professional writers can’t afford … or maybe it’s the nature of being a professional writer (as opposed to an author) that eliminates the problem. For us, there’s ALWAYS something to write about. It may not be either of our greatest pieces, but there’s always something minimally workmanlike.

    1. I have a few pages filled with ideas and prompts, but I am not able to write about them all. I think it’s important to jot down ideas whenever they come.

      But writing is not just sitting and writing – your writing should make sense, make someone’s day, help someone better their life. For that, a lot of preparation (research) is required. Writing in itself takes only 20-25% of my time.

  5. oh, I love this. Have read all of Murakami’s book, except for this one! Probably because it wasn’t fiction. And now I think I will download it….. I also find I mull over all my ideas on walk by the river ( thankfully one is in my backyard…) and it takes me awhile, sometimes weeks, but posts are formulated in the mind first before sitting down to the keys. thanks so much for this….

  6. I always do my best thinking when running, also get to see the most beautiful things too just as the sun rises, will be looking into this book :)

  7. great post, sometimes doing nothing at all can be awe inspiring, and there are other times you need the hustle, inside of us, we have energy tanks, and as those tanks get filled with doubt, we clam up, it’s the visit from the so called friend you can’t avoid but have to entertain, like the best party, unplanned

  8. Thank you so much for this post! I’m pretty hard on myself because I don’t write enough and because so-and-so person writes more than me, I’m glad I’ve found other people who think writing isn’t an on-off process.

  9. Great insights! I’ve been blogging about similar ideas about the writing process–even how they relate to running. I may add Murakami’s book to my summer reading list, too. :)

  10. Thanks for the heads up on the Nevala-Lee article–that was fascinating. I have always found that a shower, or doing dishes continues the creative process in a way that nothing else will do. (this goes for music, too) So I structure my writing time around these necessary bits of the day–if I read over my often incoherent notes for an article or blog before I shower, the process of writing continues in my head with much better clarity. (note: keep pen and paper near the shower!)

    1. Ha — I’ve always thought to set up some kind of waterproof tape recorder in the shower to capture my brainstorming, as I often find myself writing full blog posts in my head as I’m shampooing and whatnot.

      But I don’t think it’s that easy :) The moment I open my mouth, the moment I start to *think*, that magic dissipates.

      1. I discover some of my best Ideas while I am in the shower. I can play out entire scenes in a book but when its time to write, it disappears.

      2. Exactly what happens to me! And we’re not alone. Alfred Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in an interview that he used to keep a notebook on his bedside table, so he would not forget about the content of his dreams, and maybe make a movie out of those stories. One night he woke up in the middle of the night with this great idea for a plot, and wrote it down. When he woke up in the morning he checked the notebook, and there it was: “Boy meets girl, and falls in love”…or something like that.

  11. Great write up! I love Murakami and this book. One thing that I love about it besides it lighting a fire under me is that it can translate to just about anything…from biking, to writing, to painting and drawing (my area). Thanks for sharing this. I think it’s about time for me to re-read this book.

  12. I thank God I’m old now so I can just do my thing before I can’t do it anymore. I used to care about pleasing everyone when I was younger, which can’t happen anyway. Scary to say that I do my best thinking when I am doing something else completely different.

  13. Murakami is brilliant, I’ve been inspired and profoundly moved by several of his books. Especially loved Kafka by the Shore and After Midnight.

  14. haven’t read this Murakami and probably won’t but I am a mediator, who starts every in solitude, and then walks before I start to write. I am a technical writer and producing content for my contracted work is not usually an issue for me. On the few occasions it has been and issue I have found that getting outside and walking or gardening re-energizes me.

    I do keep my motivation to blog strong by celebrating every small success and every milestone along the way. Embracing my failures and learning from them through quiet contemplation, as well as, celebrating every small success helps me to stay on course, avoid getting writer’s block and/or burning-out, and keeps me eager to forge ahead on my blogging journey. Celebrate Your Blogging Journey

      1. Funny you corrected that! Saw it but patted myself on the back for giving it a pass, so common these days, even in expensive publications!
        Grateful to have found your blogging tips from this thread!

      2. Hi Sandra,
        I suffered a head injury in 2008 that among other things left me with a concussion that took 22 months recovery time. I became visually challenged and my previously rarely detectable dyslexia became more pronounced. I formerly took great pride in my writing and would never ever have let a spelling error or a grammar error slip by me.

        After the accident I was so humiliated by the errors I made that I almost quit blogging in both blogs (blogging tips and personal). It was the barrage of emails from my blog followers that convinced me to swallow my pride and blog on.

        My conversion from being a perfectionist prig to letting go of that insecurity rooted in ego and getting on with my online has been painful. As I move towards my senior years I’m intent on slaying my ego so my dying will not be a negative experience for me.

  15. I agree with a lot of this. Though running may not be my place of excellence it most certainly helps me to clear my head and think about what i want to write and the world in general

  16. yes… this is the daily practice of stepping up to the plate … again & again… the practice of finding the edge, leaning into it or remaining patiently still… waiting for the ebb & flow(er) … the flowering comes amid the practice … sometimes :) haha! :) wren

  17. I loved this book for exactly the reasons you outline here. I’m not a runner, but I love to walk, so much of what Murakami says resonated for me. There’s something about the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other that is powerful, both mentally and spiritually.

  18. Thank you for this suggestion; I am both a runner and a writer, and I struggle equally with each medium. I look forward to Murakami’s memoir and hope to gain a new perspective on my favorite activities. Great post!

  19. Awesome post! Just the ‘pick-me-up’ us writers need now and then. I agree with everything that you said. I have also noticed this crazy urge to publish – publish – publish! I have been blogging for just over a year now, and I am finally setting my own pace and crazy in love with my blog ( it took me almost an entire year to feel that way) – irrespective of what other awesome fellow bloggers are doing. I need to enjoy the writing process, not dread it. And that can only happen if I do this for myself first – and others second.

  20. Hi,
    I’m a new blogger.My writing was earlier limited to my diary & notes & sharing with my family & friends. I wasn’t sure about blogging because of some reasons you have mentioned here.
    It is so important to have pride in how much ever we write & all that we write rather than counting the nos. Expressing my thoughts gives me so much peace. There is so much we learn from circumstances, the experiences we have & the people we meet all of this has some influence on every ones mind. A writer is able to express that influence while other people enjoy reading it.
    Loved your post & sure gave me a boost. Thanks for sharing this book info.
    I think I would like it.

  21. I’ve sometimes felt “I’m so far behind” and “I’ll never catch up,” but I know that’s a dead end street where thugs hang out to beat a person up.

    As you are saying here, if I only count the amount I’ve written & published, then I’ve flunked Blogging University, but if I count all the ideas I’ve gotten this month in response to the prompts, ideas I can yet develop into posts, then I’m still far ahead.

    1. As you are saying here, if I only count the amount I’ve written & published, then I’ve flunked Blogging University…

      Hi! Wanted to clarify I wasn’t saying that *not* publishing equals flunking Blogging U. (I don’t think that’s what you meant, but wanted to clarify anyway.)

      No one flunks Writing 101 (or any other course we offer); I hope that, any published posts aside, you’ve gotten something, if not small, out of it — trying different exercises, considering new ideas and ways to approach a topic, and simply *thinking* about the writing process. That sort of “behind the scenes” stuff, the steps in between your published posts, is valuable to us as writers, as we grow and get better.

      1. So appreciate your post. Reading it and the comments makes me feel better about not pushing myself to keep up and recognizing the other benefits of the course, finding other blogs and bloggers, getting ideas, re-thinking what I’m doing, etc.
        Thanks so much!

  22. Yes yes yes. Writing for me is so the end product. Well with blogging anyway (have’t been brave enough to share anything ‘creative’). I think think think and turn ideas over in my head, sometimes for ages before the words hit a page. Driving is a great time for this (I’m a mum of four, I do a LOT of driving!). When I blog I barely draft – get it down, quick read through edit and post … because so much has happened in my head before that point. Great post, thanks for the book rec, will be sure to add it to my list.

  23. Very topical and insightful. I am new to writing, and just recently have figured out that small kernel of wisdom you talk about. My best “writing moments” are when I am bicycling or tangling because that’s when my life is in “flow” mode. Now that I understand writing does not equal publishing, nor does it equal quantity, I’m much more relaxed about the ebb and flow.

  24. A very thoughtful post! I have read several of his books but not this one so I will have to check it out as I am a runner also – although slower these days – and it can help the creative process.

  25. Stephen King says he gets his best ideas out walking, which he used to do for miles everyday before his accident. I find hanging out the washing is my best poetry inspiration time.

    1. I love learning about everyone else’s best times for inspiration. Thanks for sharing yours.

      I almost chose Stephen King’s On Writing for this installment of Recommended Reading. Maybe I’ll do it for my next one :)

  26. Running and writing go hand in hand for me too. But even a walk is enough to shake my cobwebs; the key for me is being active outdoors. And let’s face it, writing is easier when you experience life!

  27. There are also times where I’m worried if a piece is ‘worthy’ enough to publish. If the ‘idea’ is going to appeal to anyone, or if anyone would even read at all.

    As someone has pointed out below, sometimes we compare it to other blogs (or any particular pieces) out there.

  28. Running puts you in a solitary zone where you are insulated from everything around helps in rejuvenation of the thought process. Cant agree more on that.
    Well written.

  29. This is exactly the way I feel too, for me writing is the absolute last thing I do, first must come the experience, then the discussion, then inspirations and once I have those all in place, the words just flow.

  30. “But whenever I pick up this book and turn to a random page, Murakami manages to say something simple about life, writing, and being human —”
    The beauty of reading is that each person takes away something different. What is currently on your mind influences your take away. And at the same time when we write, we are not in control of how or what people will interpret from what we wrote.

    I find I do my best writing in while running. Sometimes I get in after a long run and go straight to the keyboard.

  31. Great post.

    I find that like running or any physical activity, the twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness also affords ethereal frames to the mind. :)

  32. Some very interesting thoughts there. The idea of thinking abut a river flowing is interesting and similar in concept to the idea of mindfulness meditation. I try to find a little time every day to do a mindfulness exercise it can be incredibly beneficial to your mental wellbeing :)

  33. Interesting read.

    Like running and physical exercise, I find that the twilight state between wakefulness and sleep can also at times afford ethereal frames to our mind, illuminate latent thoughts which you never knew resided within. The hard part is remembering such flashes later on.