What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a book about running, writing and aging, written by the famous novelist Haruki Murakami.
The book is part memoir, part self-reflective. It reads like a collection of essays, as opposed to a well-structured nonfiction book.
With that said, here are my favourite quotes from the book. For some of them, I’ve also left my reflections.
1. On stillness, and why he runs
“No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.”
I’ve read that plenty of writers take walks.
Morgan Housel—a writer I’m following—takes 3 walks a day (this has probably changed given the current circumstances.) Soren Kierkegaard took walks in Copenhagen every afternoon. So did Ernest Hemingway, Friedrich Nietzsche, Nikola Tesla. And many more.
I love walking. There is just something about walking that resets your mind and body. There is no better way to explore a new city, a new country by walking.
There is this level of stillness that comes with walking.
But perhaps it’s not just walking. Running works too. Or whatever activity that comes to your mind.
Like what Murakami said: keep at a mundane action long enough, and it becomes meditative.
2. On what he thinks about when running
“I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.
I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. But as you might expect, an occasional thought will slip into this void. People’s minds can’t be a complete blank. Human beings’ emotions are not strong or consistent enough to sustain a vacuum. What I mean is, the kinds of thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run remain subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void.”
When I started taking long walks, I made a huge mistake.
I read that many writers and thinkers had groundbreaking ideas strike them while walking. And I was eager and impatient. I thought I should have something to think about whenever I was walking, whenever I was running.
It caught me in a strange, panicked loop. I worried that I needed to have something to think about before I went for a walk. Then, I worried that I needed to have a solution to something I was thinking about after my walk.
After a few days of this, I realised I was going about it all wrong. Thinking like this is self-defeating.
Walking is about … walking. There isn’t anything else to it.
Does it help you clear your doubts and achieve mental clarity? Of course, it does. But that’s a privilege, not an entitlement. The purpose of walking is to walk. It is not a tool for problem-solving, for instant gratification.
If you want to achieve stillness, you have to be present during the process. If thoughts come to you, let them come to you. But it isn’t necessary for you to have any particular thoughts or any particular ideas.
As Shunryu Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
“To cook is not just to prepare food for someone or for yourself; it is to express your sincerity. So when you cook you should express yourself in your activity in the kitchen. You should allow yourself plenty of time; you should work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook!
That is also an expression of our sincerity, a part of our practice. It is necessary to sit in zazen, in this way, but sitting is not our only way. Whatever you do, it should be an expression of the same deep activity. We should appreciate what we are doing. There is no preparation for something else.”
3. On writing
“Perhaps I’m just too painstaking a type of person, but I can’t grasp much of anything without putting down my thoughts in writing, so I had to actually get my hands working and write these words. Otherwise, I’d never know what running means to me.”
I think I’m exactly the same. That’s why I’m writing these summaries and reflections. And that’s why I’m always jotting into my notebooks.
I’ll never understand and remember anything if I don’t sort out my thoughts by writing.
4. On writing (2)
“As I suspect is true of many who write for a living, as I write I think about all sorts of things. I don’t necessarily write down what I’m thinking; it’s just that as I write I think about things. As I write, I arrange my thoughts. And rewriting and revising takes my thinking down even deeper paths.
No matter how much I write, though, I never reach a conclusion. And no matter how much I rewrite, I never reach the destination. Even after decades of writing, the same still holds true. All I do is present a few hypotheses or paraphrase the issue. Or find an analogy between the structure of the problem and something else.”
I’ve never seen someone put this across so well before. This truly resonates with me.
5. On writing (3)
“What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.”
6. On writing a novel
“Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems.
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.”
6. On emotional hurt
“Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the world is made up of all kinds of people. Other people have their own values to live by, and the same holds true with me.
These differences give rise to disagreements, and the combination of these disagreements can give rise to even greater misunderstandings. As a result, sometimes people are unfairly criticized. This goes without saying. It’s not much fun to be misunderstood or criticized, but rather a painful experience that hurts people deeply.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve gradually come to the realization that this kind of pain and hurt is a necessary part of life. If you think about it, it’s precisely because people are different from others that they’re able to create their own independent selves.
Take me as an example. It’s precisely my ability to detect some aspects of a scene that other people can’t, to feel differently than others and choose words that differ from theirs, that’s allowed me to write stories that are mine alone. And because of this we have the extraordinary situation in which quite a few people read what I’ve written. So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets.
Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent.”
7. On running away frustrations
“When I’m criticized unjustly (from my viewpoint, at least), or when someone I’m sure will understand me doesn’t, I go running for a little longer than usual. By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent. It also makes me realize again how weak I am, how limited my abilities are.
I become aware, physically, of these low points. And one of the results of running a little farther than usual is that I become that much stronger. If I’m angry, I direct that anger toward myself. If I have a frustrating experience, I use that to improve myself. That’s the way I’ve always lived. I quietly absorb the things I’m able to, releasing them later, and in as changed a form as possible, as part of the story line in a novel.”
8. On school
“The most important thing we ever learn at school is the fact that the most important things can’t be learned at school.”
9. On training
“The total amount of running I’m doing might be going down, but at least I’m following one of my basic rules for training: I never take two days off in a row. Muscles are like work animals that are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase the load, step by step, they learn to take it. As long as you explain your expectations to them by actually showing them examples of the amount of work they have to endure, your muscles will comply and gradually get stronger.
It doesn’t happen overnight, of course. But as long as you take your time and do it in stages, they won’t complain — aside from the occasional long face — and they’ll very patiently and obediently grow stronger. Through repetition you input into your muscles the message that this is how much work they have to perform. Our muscles are very conscientious. As long as we observe the correct procedure, they won’t complain.
If, however, the load halts for a few days, the muscles automatically assume they don’t have to work that hard anymore, and they lower their limits. Muscles really are like animals, and they want to take it as easy as possible; if pressure isn’t applied to them, they relax and cancel out the memory of all that work. Input this canceled memory once again, and you have to repeat the whole journey from the very beginning.
Naturally it’s important to take a break sometimes, but in a critical time like this, when I’m training for a race, I have to show my muscles who’s boss. I have to make it clear to them what’s expected. I have to maintain a certain tension by being unsparing, but not to the point where I burn out. These are tactics that all experienced runners learn over time.”
10. On the most important qualities of a novelist
“In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have.
It’s pretty obvious: talent. No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.
If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus — the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it.
I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else. Even a novelist who has a lot of talent and a mind full of great new ideas probably can’t write a thing if, for instance, he’s suffering a lot of pain from a cavity. The pain blocks concentration. That’s what I mean when I say that without focus you can’t accomplish anything.
After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. 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.”