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Here’s a list of everything Haruki Murakami has ever compared to writing.

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January 12, 2021, 1:27pm

Today, Haruki Murakami celebrates his 72nd birthday—and we’re celebrating by diving into his recorded interviews. Murakami rarely gives interviews, but the ones he does are packed with insight into how he approaches the writing process. His memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running digs deep into the similarities between writing and running, but running isn’t the only thing the Killing Commendatore author has compared to writing in the past. Here are other things Murakami finds similar to writing—some weirder than others.

Boxing.

Writing [a story] is like boxing. Once you climb into the ring, you can’t back out. You have to fight until the match is over.

–from a 1992 lecture at Berkeley, as transcribed in Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Jay Rubin

Dreaming.

For me, writing itself is like dreaming. When I write, I can dream intentionally. I can start and I can stop and I can continue the next day, as I choose. When you’re asleep and having a good dream, with a big steak or a nice beer or a beautiful girl, and you wake up, it’s all gone. But I can continue the next day!

–from a 2019 interview with Deborah Treisman for The New Yorker

The good thing about writing books is that you can dream while you are awake. If it’s a real dream, you cannot control it. When writing the book, you are awake; you can choose the time, the length, everything.

–from a 2004 interview with John Wray for The Paris Review

Climbing a mountain.

For me, writing a novel is like climbing a steep mountain, struggling up the face of the cliff, reaching the summit after a long and arduous ordeal. You overcome your limitations, or you don’t, one or the other.

–from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Hosting a party.

For me, a novel is like a party. Any [character] who wants to join in can join in, and those who wish to leave can do so whenever they want. I think novels get their driving force from that sense of freedom.

–from a 2018 interview with Deborah Treisman in The New Yorker

Playing jazz music.

Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.

–from Murakami’s 2007 essay “Jazz Messenger

One of my all-time favorite jazz pianists is Thelonious Monk. Once, when someone asked him how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”

I often recall these words when I am writing, and I think to myself, “It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words.” I find the thought reassuring. It means that vast, unknown stretches still lie before us, fertile territories just waiting for us to cultivate them.

–from “Jazz Messenger

Survival training.

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

–from a 2004 interview with John Wray for The Paris Review

Entering a basement.

It’s a dark, cool, quiet place. A basement in your soul. And that place can sometimes be dangerous to the human mind. I can open the door and enter that darkness, but I have to be very careful. I can find my story there. Then I bring that thing to the surface, into the real world.

–from a 2013 seminar in Kyoto

Going underground.

[When I start writing] I go somewhere else. I open the door, enter that place, and see what’s happening there. I don’t know—or I don’t care—if it’s a realistic world or an unrealistic one. I go deeper and deeper, as I concentrate on writing, into a kind of underground. While I’m there, I encounter strange things. But while I’m seeing them, to my eyes, they look natural. And if there is darkness in there, that darkness comes to me, and maybe it has some message, you know? I’m trying to grasp the message. So I look around that world and I describe what I see, and then I come back. Coming back is important. If you cannot come back, it’s scary. But I’m a professional, so I can come back.

–from a 2019 interview with Deborah Treisman for The New Yorker

Time travel.

When I write about a 15-year old, I jump, I return to the days when I was that age. It ‘s like a time machine. I can remember everything. I can feel the wind. I can smell the air. Very actually. Very vividly.

–from a 2005 interview with Stephan Phelan in the Sunday Herald

E.T. making a transmitting device from found objects.

Remember that scene in Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. where E.T. assembles a transmitting device from the junk he pulls out of his garage? There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player─it’s been a long time since I saw the movie, so I can’t recall everything, but he manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. I got a big kick out of that scene when I saw it in a movie theater, but it strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing. The key component is not the quality of the materials─what’s needed is magic. If that magic is present, the most basic daily matters and the plainest language can be turned into a device of surprising sophistication.

First and foremost, though, is what’s packed away in your garage. Magic can’t work if your garage is empty. You’ve got to stash away a lot of junk to use if and when E.T. comes calling!

–from Murakami’s 2015 essay “So What Shall I Write About?,” tr. Ted Goossen

Putting toxins into the atmosphere.

I agree with the view that writing novels is an unhealthy type of work. When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it, because otherwise no creative activity in the real sense can take place. (Please excuse the strange analogy: with a fugu fish, the tastiest part is the portion near the poison—this might be something similar to what I’m getting at.

–from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Selling drugs.

I write a novel every three or four years, and people are waiting for it. I once interviewed John Irving, and he told me that reading a good book is a mainline. Once they are addicted, they’re always waiting.

–from a 2004 interview with John Wray for The Paris Review

Running a business.

You can’t please everybody. Even when I ran the club, I understood this. A lot of customers came to the club. If one out of ten enjoyed the place and decided to come again, that was enough. If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it another way, it didn’t matter if nine out of ten people didn’t like the club. Realizing this lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to do that, I had to make my philosophy absolutely clear, and patiently maintain that philosophy no matter what. This is what I learned from running a business.

After A Wild Sheep Chase, I continued to write with the same attitude that I’d developed as a business owner. And with each work my readership—the one-in-ten repeaters—increased.

–from Murakami’s 2008 essay “The Running Novelist,” tr. Philip Gabriel

Being a tinsmith.

I’d like to be a perfect tinker. So I have to write good sentences—honest and beautiful and elegant and strong sentences.

–from a 2014 profile in The Guardian

Playing a video game . . . that you programmed yourself.

Sometimes while I’m writing I feel I’m the designer of a video game, and at the same time a player. I made up the program, and now I’m in the middle of it; the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. It’s a kind of detachment. A feeling of a split.

 –from a 2004 interview with John Wray for The Paris Review

Cooking and eating fried oysters.

Frying oysters is fun, but a solitary experience. Just like the relationship between loneliness and freedom, searching for what’s inside you, word by word, is a solitary activity. Writing a novel is like frying oysters. You do it because you like doing it.

When my mind grows pressured when I think that I am writing a novel, I feel more relaxed when I think that I am only frying oysters.

–from a 2015 writing panel in Fukushima

Seducing a woman.

Writing is similar to trying to seduce a woman. A lot has to do with practice, but mostly it’s innate. Anyway, good luck.

–from Murakami’s 2015 advice column

Happy birthday, Murakami!

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