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.
Much of the writing process doesn’t involve writing. That’s how it feels for me.
In some comments I read across the WordPress.com 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.