Lately I’ve been devouring a book of essays by Haruki Murakami called, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Reading these essays is like munching on fine, dark chocolate. Murakami writes with appreciation for my two favorite pursuits: running and writing.
There’s a particular passage that gave me insight, and after reading it, I found a word for something that has been missing from my writing practice.
Murakami wrote his first two novels while managing a nightclub. After working all night at the club, he went home and worked on his novels from 3 a.m. until dawn. Here is a passage from “Tips on Becoming a Running Novelist”:
“…I found myself wanting to write a more substantial kind of novel…With these first two novels I was only able to write in spurts, snatching bits of time here and there – a half hour here, an hour there – and because I was always tired and felt like I was competing against the clock as I wrote, I was never able to concentrate. With this kind of scattered approach, I was able to write some interesting, fresh things, but the result was far from a complex or profound novel.” (30-31)
I have lived with this feeling for a long time but hardly knew it by anything other than exhaustion and lack of time. Like many others, I work for a living and write on the side. Writing my novel is one of the most important things to me, but some days it ranks #40 on my list of things to do.
And after a long day when the other 39 things have drained my resources, I have little left to write a compelling, complex, and thoughtful story.
In the passage above, Murakami alludes to focus, a place of deep concentration in which we can direct our energy to a single activity. After a long night of working, Murakami found that he could only get so far with a novel. He couldn’t go as deeply as he wanted to.
So Murakami did what so few of us writers are able to do: he left his job to become a full-time novelist.
After creating a decent name for himself and gaining some traction, he made the risky decision to sell his business.
His friends tried to talk him out of it. They told him to take two years off and let someone else run the club, but Murakami knew that this was the right path to take, even if it meant failure. If he weren’t 100% serious about writing, then he would never take writing seriously.
I’m the kind of person who has to totally commit to whatever I do. I just couldn’t do something clever like writing a novel while someone else ran the business. I had to give it everything I had. If I failed, I could accept that. But I knew that if I did things halfheartedly and they didn’t work out, I’d always have regrets. (31)
Being a writer means “a writer and something else.” We are writers with day jobs and something else. Something else is anywhere from teacher to lawyer to computer tech to corporate flunky. We live as writers, but few can make a living writing.
When I was reading this essay, I had the rare opportunity to spend a day as a full time novelist. Having recently joined Willamette Writers, I had access to their house outside of Portland, where members can rent a room for the day and write.
The two days I spent in this space was a luxury, and I’ll admit that I lamented that I didn’t have the lifestyle, where I can spend eight hours every day writing a novel.
But I soon realized how deluded this was. I didn’t need uninterrupted chunks of time to write a quality book. No matter how much or how little time I have, I can still make the best use of it by keeping a few things in mind.
My only job is to show up and write. I don’t have to do anything else but work on my novel, not answer e-mails or catch up on blog reading. When I sit down and pull up the manuscript, the novel is my only job in that moment. Working on it is as important as the other 39 things on my list; cleaning the kitchen; going for a run; or grocery shopping.
Sometimes we have to write even when we’re not feeling energized or inspired. We just have to do it. At the Willamette Writer’s house, there were moments when I was tired. My impulse was to nap on the couch. But I didn’t feed this impulse right away and I was able to work through it. I wanted to ease up and pull back my efforts. But I kept writing, drank some chai, and soon forgot about it.
Writing time is a gift. The time we do get is hard to come by, and this last year has shown me how valuable this time is. With a little awareness (and an app that blocks diverting websites such as Facebook), I’ve become less distracted by e-mail and the Internet while I write, but that takes mindfulness.
I can write like a full time writer without living like one. Now when I work on my book and I’m not at the Willamette Writer’s house, I remember how great it felt to devote that kind of time to my book. I call that feeling to mind, even if I only have a half an hour to write.
Do a little bit each day. The more time I spend away from my book, the easier it fades in my mind. I forget how good it feels to work on it and how much it means to me. And the fresh ideas dry up. Working on it a little bit each day keeps it alive.