"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."


—Muriel Rukeyser

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WHAT’S NEEDED IS MAGIC: WRITING ADVICE FROM HARUKI MURAKAMI


Read.

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 first understand at a physical level how one is put together . . . It is especially important to plow through as many novels as you can while you are still young. Everything you can get your hands on—great novels, not-so-great novels, crappy novels, it doesn’t matter (at all!) as long as you keep reading. Absorb as many stories as you physically can. Introduce yourself to lots of great writing. To lots of mediocre writing too. This is your most important task.

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


Take the old words and make them new again.

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 Murakami’s 2007 essay “Jazz Messenger“

Explain yourself clearly.

[When I write,] I get some images and I connect one piece to another. That’s the story line. Then I explain the story line to the reader. You should be very kind when you explain something. If you think, It’s okay; I know that, it’s a very arrogant thing. Easy words and good metaphors; good allegory. So that’s what I do. I explain very carefully and clearly.

–in a 2004 interview with John Wray for The Paris Review/em>

Share your dreams.

Dreaming is the day job of novelists, but sharing our dreams is a still more important task for us. We cannot be novelists without this sense of sharing something.

–from Murakami’s 2011 acceptance speech for the Catalunya International Prize

Write to find out.

I myself, as I’m writing, don’t know who did it. The readers and I are on the same ground. When I start to write a story, I don’t know the conclusion at all and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. If there is a murder case as the first thing, I don’t know who the killer is. I write the book because I would like to find out. If I know who the killer is, there’s no purpose to writing the story.

–in a 2004 interview with John Wray for The Paris Review/em>

Hoard stuff to put in your novel.

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

Repetition helps.

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.

–in a 2004 interview with John Wray for The Paris Review/em>

Focus on one thing at a time.

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist [after talent], 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. . . 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.

–from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Although I compose essays as well as works of fiction, unless circumstances dictate otherwise, I avoid working on anything else when I am writing a novel . . . Of course, there is no rule that says that the same material can’t be used in an essay and a story, but I have found that doubling up like that somehow weakens my fiction.

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

Cultivate endurance.

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, or two years. You can compare it to breathing.

–from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Experiment with language

It is the inherent right of all writers to experiment with the possibilities of language in every way they can imagine—without that adventurous spirit, nothing new can ever be born.

–from “The Birth of My Kitchen Table Fiction,” tr. Ted Goossen, 2015

Have confidence.

The most important thing is confidence. You have to believe you have the ability to tell the story, to strike the vein of water, to make the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Without that confidence, you can’t go anywhere. It’s 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

Write on the side of the egg.

[This] is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: Rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.”

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

–from Murakami’s 2009 Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech

Observe your world.

Reflect on what you see. Remember, though, that to reflect is not to rush to determine the rights and wrongs or merits and demerits of what and whom you are observing. Try to consciously refrain from value judgments—don’t rush to conclusions. What’s important is not arriving at clear conclusions but retaining the specifics of a certain situation . . . I strive to retain as complete an image as possible of the scene I have observed, the person I have met, the experience I have undergone, regarding it as a singular “sample,” a kind of test case as it were. I can go back and look at it again later, when my feelings have settled down and there is less urgency, this time inspecting it from a variety of angles. Finally, if and when it seems called for, I can draw my own conclusions.

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

Try not to hurt anyone.

I keep in mind to “not have the pen get too mighty” when I write. I choose my words so the least amount of people get hurt, but that’s also hard to achieve. No matter what is written, there is a chance of someone getting hurt or offending someone. Keeping all that in mind, I try as much as I can to write something that will not hurt anyone. This is a moral every writer should follow.

–from Murakami’s 2015 advice column

Take your readers on a journey.

As I wrote A Wild Sheep Chase, I came to feel strongly that a story, a monogatari, is not something you create. It is something that you pull out of yourself. The story is already there, inside you. You can’t make it, you can only bring it out. This is true for me, at least: it is the story’s spontaneity. For me, a story is a vehicle that takes the reader somewhere. Whatever information you may try to convey, whatever you may try to open the reader’s emotions to, the first thing you have to do is get that reader into the vehicle. And the vehicle–the story–the monogatari–must have the power to make people believe. These above all are the conditions that a story must fulfill.

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

Write to shed light on human beings.

I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on The System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist’s job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories—stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness.

–from Murakami’s 2009 Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech

No matter what, it all has to start with talent. . . 

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.

–from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

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

. . . unless you work really hard!

Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can write easily, no matter what they do—or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into that category. I have to pound away at a rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of my creativity. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another hole. But, as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening those holes in the rock and locating new water veins. As soon as I notice one source drying up, I move on to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their source, they’re in trouble.

In other words, let’s face it: life is basically unfair. But, even in a situation that’s unfair, I think it’s possible to seek out a kind of fairness.

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

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