Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami
Novelist as a Vocation is an entertaining anthology of essays–some reprinted, some original–about writing and life. Though there are some practical tips for aspiring novelists like how to let the plot decide characters and the three requirements for creativity, I mostly enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at how Murakami writes (and how he got started doing so). There is one chapter that takes you through, rewrite by rewrite, how Murakami drafts, edits, and eventually publishes a novel. That sort of insight is rare.
Murakami’s goal in writing this book was simple: “What I was after was to write, in the most concrete and practical way, about the path I’ve followed as a novelist, and the ideas and thoughts I’ve had in the process. That said, writing novels is nothing less than expressing yourself…”
“The only way I can think about things in any kind of order is by putting them in writing. Physically moving my hand as I write, rereading what I write, over and over, and closely reworking it–only then am I finally able to gather my thoughts and grasp them like other people do.”
This was just a beautiful piece of language Murakami used when talking about Underground: “I had stepped on the tails of the tigers who guard the sacred sanctuary of nonfiction, and they were angry.”
When talking about authors and other specialist’s attitudes towards newcomers, Murakami makes an interesting point: “The narrower and more specialized the field, I have found, the prouder the authorities tend to be and the stronger their antipathy to outsiders.”
On intensity vs. consistency he says, “It’s not that difficult to write a novel, maybe even two. But it’s another thing altogether to keep producing, to live off one’s writing, to survive.” He writes later, “It’s not difficult to write a single novel. Even a very good novel, depending on who you are. It isn’t easy to pull off, but it’s not impossible. What’s really hard is to keep on writing novels year after year. That’s not something anyone can do.”
It’s not impressive to just write a novel. I mean it is…but it isn’t at the same time. What’s impressive is writing a novel every year for thirty years. It’s not just about what you do, it’s about how long you’ve been doing it for. Morgan Housel explains in The Psychology of Money that this is why Warren Buffett is so famous. Other investors have made Buffett-sized returns, but none have been doing it for fifty years.
Writing is hard because you make a thousand tiny improvements that no one knows about. You don’t get a pat on the back for taking a complicated sentence and making it simple, because that’s your job. “Novelists sit cloistered in their rooms, intently fiddling with words, batting around one possibility after another,” Murakami writes. “They may scratch their heads an entire day to improve the quality of a single line by a tiny bit. No one applauds, or says ‘Well done’ or pats them on the back. Sitting there alone, they look over what they’ve accomplished and quietly nod to themselves. It may be later, when the novel comes out, not a single reader will notice the improvement they made that day. That is what novel writing is really all about. It is time-consuming and tedious work.”
If that doesn’t sound appealing, don’t become a writer. “We spend our day behind closed doors doing the intricate type of operations, day after day after day. The process is virtually endless. If you aren’t built for that sort of work and can’t shrug off all that it entails, there’s no way you’ll keep it up over the long haul.”
A novelist, and really all writers, need to keep moving; they need to keep doing something. Murakami says a writer understands “a leisurely life” to mean “the waning of one’s creativity.” “For novelists are like certain types of fish. If they don’t keep swimming forward, they die.”
I just liked this sentence: “’Learning about the world sounds rather presumptuous, but what I mean is that I grew up.” He writes later, “I imagine others have a lot more fun in their twenties, but I had neither the time nor the money to enjoy the ‘sweet days of youth.’ Still, I read whenever I had the chance. Life might have been hectic and things might have been rough, but the joy I took in books and music never wavered. That, at least, was something no one could take from me.”
Constraint leads to creativity. When Murakami began writing his first novel, he had trouble getting started. I imagine this is the case for most aspiring novelists. Instead of trying to work harder, he changed his tactic. First, he ditched his fountain pen and fancy manuscript paper. “As long as they were in front of me,” he says, “what I was doing felt like literature.” Instead, he used an old Olivetti typewriter and began writing the opening of his novel in English.
Though he didn’t have a Churchillian command of the English language, he had enough to work with. “I could only write in short, simple sentences,” he says. But instead of letting this hinder his performance, it actually helped it. “However complex and numerous the thoughts running around in my head, I couldn’t even attempt to set them down as they came to me. The language had to be simple, my ideas expressed in an easy-to-understand way, the descriptions stripped of all extraneous fat, the form made compact, and everything arranged to fit a container of limited size.” Though the prose wasn’t poetic, “a distinctive rhythm began to take shape.”
Writing in English, his brain avoided the “system overload” that accompanied writing in Japanese. “It also led me to the realization that I could express my thoughts and feelings with a limited set of words and grammatical structures, as long as I combined them effectively and linked them together in a skillful manner. Ultimately, I learned that there was no need for a lot of difficult words–I didn’t have to try to impress people with beautiful turns of phrases.”
When he had the introduction written, he “transplanted” it to Japanese. What emerged was a unique style–unique to him–that became his and his alone. “Now I get it,” he writes. “This is how I should be doing it.”
Some criticized this simplicity, saying it removed the beauty from the Japanese language. Murakami didn’t think this was the case. “It is the right of all writers to experiment with the possibilities of language and expand the range of its effectiveness. Without that adventurous spirit, nothing new can ever be born.
He uses a great simile to describe what writing in Japanese felt like: “Writing in that style had been like exercising in clothes that didn’t fit.”
Another way Murakami illustrates the obstacle is the way is through the plot of his first novel. “When I began my first novel,” he writes, “I knew I had no choice but to write about having nothing to write about. That I would somehow have to turn having nothing to write about into a weapon if I was going to move forward as a novelist.”
He writes later, “In my opinion (and this is based on my experience), having nothing you feel compelled to write about may make it harder to get started, but once the engine kicks in and the vehicle starts rolling, the writing is actually easier. This is because the flip side of having nothing you must write is being able to freely write about anything.”
Murakami has a disdain for literary prizes. “The most important thing,” he says to interviewers who ask him about literary prizes, “is good readers. Nothing means as much as the people who dip into their pockets to buy my books–not prizes, or medals, or critical praise.” He writes later, “Readers have no ulterior motives when they shell out twenty or thirty dollars for one of my books…At the risk of stating the obvious, it is literary works that last, not literary prizes.” His reasoning is simple: “A literary prize can turn the spotlight on a particular work, but it can’t breathe life into it. It’s that simple.”
I feel the same way about online fame, fortune, and followers. It’s not hard to get their work into the spotlight or the algorithm, but does it have life? Can it move someone to action beyond clicking a button? Do tears and chills swell up in the reader, or do the thoughts dissipate into the great chasm of ones and zeroes?
He also doesn’t join literary panels. He sees no point in them. He’s a writer, not a critic. “A writer’s greatest responsibility is to his readers, to keep providing them with the best work that he is capable of turning out. I am an active writer…The task set before me is to survive, and to try and keep moving ahead. Developing the objectivity needed to approve of or reject others’ works in a responsible manner, however, sits entirely outside the boundaries of that battlefield.”
Lesson: Stay within the battlefield. Fight the battles you want to win.
He also doesn’t do public book signings for the same reason. “I’m a professional writer, what I can do best is write novels, and as much as I can I want to invest all my energy in that.”
The old establishment always rejects the new. Always. “People instinctively dislike those things they can’t understand, a pattern characteristic of members of the establishment who are buried up to their ears in the dominant forms of expression,” Murakami writes. “They tend to apprehend the newcomer with abhorrence and disgust, because, in a worst-case scenario, the very ground upon which they stand might fall away from under them.”
For something to be truly original, Murakami prescribes three basic requirements:
- The artist should possess a clearly unique and individual style. That style should be immediately noticeable on first sight as well.
- That style, though unique, should never stagnate. It should grow with time and build upon itself.
- Over time, that style should become part of the audience; to become the basic standard of their evaluation. Other artists should see that style as a wellspring of inspiration from which they can draw.
Not all three requirements are necessary for an artist to be original, though. Usually, two are clear while the other is less so. That’s okay.
One defining characteristic of originality is time. “When an artist with a unique style grabs the eyes or ears of the public and then vanishes from sight or grows tiresome, it’s hard to call them ‘original.’” We must see an accumulated body of work before judging an artist’s originality.
“Suppose, for example, that Beethoven had composed only one symphony in his life–the Ninth. How then would we evaluate him as a composer? Could we deduce the Ninth’s intrinsic significance, or its degree of originality, in isolation? I think it would be very difficult. Looking at his symphonies alone, I think it is only because we are able to see the Ninth as a continuation from the First through the Eighth that we can fathom the Ninth’s greatness, and its overwhelming originality, in a three-dimensional and contextualized way.”
In the end, here are the words that Murakami explains as the best definition of originality: “Fresh, energetic, and unmistakably your own.”
Criticism is another sign that something might be original, though this is seldom definitive. “Better to evoke a strong response, even a negative one,” Murakami writes, “than to elicit nothing but humdrum comments and lukewarm praise.”
A key to battling writer’s block is to have something to do when the muse isn’t musing.
“I have been writing fiction for more than thirty-five years at the time of this book’s writing; yet I have never experienced what is commonly known as ‘writer’s block.’ Wanting to write but being unable is unknown to me. That may make it sound as if I am overflowing with talent, but the actual reason is much simpler: I never write unless I really want to, unless the desire to write is overwhelming. When I feel that desire, I sit down and set to work. When I don’t feel it, I usually turn to translating from English. Since translation is essentially a technical operation, I can pursue it on a daily basis, quite separate from my creative desire; yet at the same time, it is a good way to hone my writing skills.”
If you don’t know what to write about, the first thing you should do is read a lot of what you think you want to write. “I think the first task for the aspiring novelist is to read tons of novels. Sorry to start with such a commonplace observation, but no training is more crucial. To write a novel, you must understand at a physical level how one is put together. This point is as self-evident as the truism ‘You can’t make an omelette without scrambling a few eggs.’
Then, make a habit of looking at things and events in more detail.”
When you gather information, don’t be in a hurry to form an opinion or act on it. That leads to chaos and unnecessary drama and misunderstandings. “When less time is taken between gathering information and acting on it, so that everyone becomes a critic or a news commentator, then the world becomes an edgier, less reflective place. And probably much more dangerous, too. Opinion surveys allow you to check the box ‘Undecided.’ Well, I think there should be another box you can check: ‘Undecided at this present time.’”
Murakami explains that putting together a good novel is like the scene in E.T. when the alien builds a device to “phone home” out of a bunch of random junk in the garage. “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.”
The key, then, is to always be collecting things in your garage. “Magic can’t work if your garage is empty,” Murakami writes. “You’ve got to stash away a lot of junk to use if and when E.T. comes calling!”
If you’re lamenting that you have nothing to write about, you’re giving up much too easily. “If you just shift your focus a little bit and slightly alter your way of thinking, you will discover a wealth of material lying about just waiting to be picked up and used. You only have to look (look at your fish). In the field of human endeavor, things that seem mundane at first glance can, if you persevere, give birth to and endless array of insights. All you need to do, as I said before, is retain your healthy writerly ambition.”
“Every era, every generation, experiences its own ‘reality.’ The novelist’s job of painstakingly collecting and stockpiling that material is as crucial as ever, and will remain so in the future. So if your aim is to write fiction, take a close look around you. The world may appear a mundane place, but in fact it is filled with a variety of enigmatic and mysterious ores. Novelists are people who happen to have the knack of discovering and refining that raw material. Even more wonderful: the process costs virtually nothing. If you are blessed with a pair of good eyes, you too can mine the ore you choose to your heart’s content.
Can you think of a more wonderful way to make a living?”
“When writing a novel, my rule is to produce roughly ten Japanese manuscript pages (the equivalent of sixteen hundred English words) every day…On days where I want to write more, I still stop after ten pages; when I don’t feel like writing I force myself to somehow fulfill my quota. Why do I do it this way? Because it is especially important to maintain a steady pace when tackling a big project. That can’t work if you write a lot one day and nothing the next. So I punch in, write my ten pages, and then punch out, as if I’m working on a time card.”
“No matter how long the novel is, or how complex its structure, I will have composed it without any fixed outline, not knowing how it will unfold or end, letting things take their course and improvising as I go alone.”
On the first write, Murakami just keeps writing until the end, not editing at all. Then he waits a little while. When he returns, he reads through it to make sure the plot makes sense and there are no inconsistencies. On the second rewrite, he looks at the smaller details. He changes dialogue, descriptions of characters, and so forth. Then, he takes another break. On the third rewrite he tweaks the novel slightly, “tightening a screw here, loosening a screw there, making sure that all is in place.”
After this, he sticks the manuscript in his desk drawer and takes a longer break. To two weeks or sometimes even a month. During this break, he either takes a trip or works on his translating. “The time spent working on a long novel is important, to be sure, but time spent doing nothing is no less so.” This reminds me of what Ray Bradbury says about being away from the typewriter. “The time we have alone–the time we have walking, the time we have riding a bicycle–is the most important time for a writer,” he says. “Escaping from the typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give the subconscious time to think.”
The time away allows new details to jump out at Murakami that he hadn’t noticed before. “I can sense what has depth and what doesn’t. Just as the work settled, so too has my state of mind.”
Murakami deals with feedback from early readers, usually his wife, in an interesting way. Whether or not he agrees with their feedback is irrelevant because he rewrites every scene someone gave feedback on. In the end, even though he disagrees with their feedback, sometimes he takes the scene in an entirely different way.
“It seems that when a reader has a problem,” he writes, “there is usually something that needs fixing, whether or not it corresponds to their suggestions.” This echoes advice given to founders: if a user has a problem, you should listen to them. But if they tell you how to fix it, ignore them.
Criticism doesn’t bother Murakami because he knows, in the end, he gave all he could. He didn’t try to write a bad story, try to cheat or cut corners. He gave all he could and if for some reason that wasn’t good enough, well…that’s quite alright with him. “I know at the physical level that I cut no corners in the writing; that I gave it all I had. I spent whatever time was needed to gestate the novel and let it settle, and further time tinkering to get it right.”
Criticism hurts the most when you know you could’ve done better.
As a writer, you only do a disservice to your readers if you don’t take the time to make it great. Raymond Carver writing in The New York Times had a gripe with an author who said, “It would have been better if I’d taken the time.” Carver writes:
“I was dumbfounded when I heard a novelist friend say this. I still am, if I think about it, which I don’t. It’s none of my business. But if the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, it’s all we have, the only thing we can take into the grave. I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven’s sake go do something else. There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living. Or else just do it to the best of your abilities, your talents, and then don’t justify or make excuses. Don’t complain, don’t explain.
There is always room for improvement and feedback. While writing Dance, Dance, Dance, Murakami used a word processor for the first time. While moving from Rome to London, a chapter somehow went missing and it could not be recovered. He was upset because it was a long chapter and he remembers writing it beautifully. After a few weeks, he resolved to just write it again, trying to remember how it went. Some time later, that missing chapter showed up again on his computer. He was flustered. Should he add the original chapter back in? After reading it though, he was relieved to “see that in face the rewrite was far superior. What this story shows is that, no matter what you have written, it can be made better.”
He writes later, “What’s crucial, in short, is the physical act of rewriting. What carries more weight than anything else is the resolve to sit down at one’s desk to improve what one has written. Compared to that, the question of which direction to take in those improvements may be of secondary importance.”
When you rewrite something, you can feel the choppiness, the places where the words just don’t flow. That sort of observation is harder to do when you’re just editing what you already wrote.
Murakami writes about a story from Raymond Carver. Carver wrote, about another writer, that “he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places.” Murakami acknowledges that there is a limit to editing. “If you tinker any more you will only damage what you have written. It’s a subtle point, easy to miss.”
The most important habit you must cultivate as a writer is to write. The second most important habit you must cultivate is exercise. “You have to become very physically fit,” Murakami writes. “You need to become robust and physically strong. And make your body your ally…The everyday combination of physical exercise and the intellectual process provides an ideal influence on the type of creative work the writer is engaged in…As I’ve followed this lifestyle, I get the feeling every day that my ability as a writer is gradually improving, and my creativity is becoming more secure and steady.”
“As long as you don’t mind putting in honest effort, the quality of the work you produce will also naturally be improved.”
This is a great explanation of why I love to read:
If you always see things from your own standpoint, the world shrinks. Your body gets stiff, your footwork grows heavy, and you can no longer move. But if you’re able to view where you’re standing from other perspectives–to put it another way, if you can entrust your existence to some other system–the world will grow more three-dimensional, more supple. And I believe that as long as we live in this world, that kind of agile stance is extremely important.
Murakami believes in the philosophy of getting 1% better each day:
In this way, every time I write a new novel I tell myself, “Okay, this time, here is what I’m going to try to accomplish,” one by one setting up concrete goals for myself–for the most part visible, technical types of goals. I enjoy writing like that. As I clear a new hurdle and accomplish something new or different, I get a real sense that I’ve grown, even if it’s a little, as a writer. It’s like climbing, step by step, up a ladder. The wonderful thing about being a novelist is that even in your fifties and sixties, that kind of growth and innovation is possible. There’s no age limit. The same wouldn’t hold true for an athlete.
Writing on characters, Murakami says novels must have characters that act, speak, and do unpredictable things. They have to still be real, but unpredictable. But that’s not all. The characters must also be able to advance the story. “Of course it’s the writer who creates the characters; but characters who are–in a real sense–alive will eventually break free of the writer’s control and begin to act independently. I’m not the only one who feels this–many fiction writers acknowledge it. In fact, unless that phenomenon occurs, writing the novel becomes a strained, painful, and trying process. When a novel is on the right track, characters take on a life of their own, the story moves forward by itself, and a very happy situation evolves whereby the novelist just ends up writing down what he sees happening in front of him. And in some cases the character takes the novelist by the hand and leads him or her to an unexpected destination.”
A writer must also let the plot decide the characters and not the other way around.