Recommended Reading: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

The writing process involves more than just writing. In Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, we learn about his thought process and passion for a physical activity that also inspires his craft.

Rotated image by Bob Jagendorf (CC BY 2.0)

Much of the writing process doesn’t involve writing. That’s how it feels for me.

In some comments I read across the community, and in our current Writing 101 challenge, I notice that bloggers can be really hard on themselves.

I’m so behind.

I can’t think of anything to write.

I didn’t publish anything today.

Writing isn’t automatic; it’s not a mode you turn on and off. Think about our daily prompts, or our free-write challenges. You can’t always sit down and write. Writing is about much more than the physical act of writing — there’s a lot of thinking, observing, and simply being involved. I’ve been pondering this in the midst of Writing 101, in which we ask thousands of participants to experiment daily with their writing and respond to various scenarios. In many cases, the process itself — not the end product — is what really matters. But it’s a challenge because as bloggers, we’ve become used to clicking “Publish,” and equating writing with publishing.

I’m reminded of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a part-running diary, part-memoir that encapsulates my thoughts: that what we do when we’re not writing or typing — whether it’s a physical activity, an unrelated hobby, or nothing at all — is just as important as the act of writing itself:

Being active every day makes it easier to hear that inner voice.

Murakami, the Japanese author of Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is an accomplished marathon and ultramarathon runner and triathlete. In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he describes his running routine — normally six miles a day, six days a week. His thoughts meander, and his prose is loose. I wouldn’t call the writing technically sharp — and if you’re interested, read Geoff Dyer’s criticism of the book — but the work itself is an exercise in meditation. Murakami is naked in a way, his mind right there on the page, exposing his thought process for us to see:

As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I’m thinking of not a thing. All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.

I used to run a lot. Never really an “athlete,” long-distance running was the one physical activity I enjoyed. Despite ankle injuries, I still run when I can, not simply for the exercise, but for the mental (and often creative) space that Murakami describes — a zone in which to clear the mind, to invite the unexpected. This non-writing zone doesn’t have to be physically demanding: from gardening and playing the piano to knitting and cooking, breathing space from the act of writing comes in different forms. (Tasks involving water, like washing the dishes and taking a bath, can unlock ideas — consider this post by Alec Nevala-Lee on thinking in the shower.)

Murakami also compares running and writing as ways to push yourself:

Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as well.

I love running because it can be solitary; I set my own goals. The only person I have to beat is myself, and likewise, when it comes to my own writing, I am my main critic. I learn from and welcome feedback from other writers, but in the end, I set my own limits. Being one writer among so many, in a competitive environment, it’s sometimes hard to keep this perspective. But whenever I pick up this book and turn to a random page, Murakami manages to say something simple about life, writing, and being human — and it’s these quiet moments of enlightenment I enjoy the most.

For a sampling, you can “look inside” the book online.

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  1. I love Murakami, but hadn’t paid much attention to this book of his because… well.. the title didn’t call to me. But now i think I might have to take a look at it. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yup! That would be me… It frequently stymies my writing and I have to coax myself back into a’write’ mindset.


    1. That’s great! These days, boxing has become my running. Never would have thought it, but it’s almost-daily exercise I’ve taken up this year. It’s important to have an outlet unrelated to writing, and I hope this one sticks.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My husband and I were just talking about this very thing. Neither of us has ever had writer’s block. Maybe it’s something professional writers can’t afford … or maybe it’s the nature of being a professional writer (as opposed to an author) that eliminates the problem. For us, there’s ALWAYS something to write about. It may not be either of our greatest pieces, but there’s always something minimally workmanlike.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have a few pages filled with ideas and prompts, but I am not able to write about them all. I think it’s important to jot down ideas whenever they come.

      But writing is not just sitting and writing – your writing should make sense, make someone’s day, help someone better their life. For that, a lot of preparation (research) is required. Writing in itself takes only 20-25% of my time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. oh, I love this. Have read all of Murakami’s book, except for this one! Probably because it wasn’t fiction. And now I think I will download it….. I also find I mull over all my ideas on walk by the river ( thankfully one is in my backyard…) and it takes me awhile, sometimes weeks, but posts are formulated in the mind first before sitting down to the keys. thanks so much for this….

    Liked by 3 people

  4. great post, sometimes doing nothing at all can be awe inspiring, and there are other times you need the hustle, inside of us, we have energy tanks, and as those tanks get filled with doubt, we clam up, it’s the visit from the so called friend you can’t avoid but have to entertain, like the best party, unplanned

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  5. Very inspiring! My best writing actually comes to me late at night when I’m struggling to get some sleep. I pull out my blackberry and start writing. Thank you for this!


  6. Thank you so much for this post! I’m pretty hard on myself because I don’t write enough and because so-and-so person writes more than me, I’m glad I’ve found other people who think writing isn’t an on-off process.

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  7. Great insights! I’ve been blogging about similar ideas about the writing process–even how they relate to running. I may add Murakami’s book to my summer reading list, too. 🙂

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  8. Thanks for the heads up on the Nevala-Lee article–that was fascinating. I have always found that a shower, or doing dishes continues the creative process in a way that nothing else will do. (this goes for music, too) So I structure my writing time around these necessary bits of the day–if I read over my often incoherent notes for an article or blog before I shower, the process of writing continues in my head with much better clarity. (note: keep pen and paper near the shower!)


    1. Ha — I’ve always thought to set up some kind of waterproof tape recorder in the shower to capture my brainstorming, as I often find myself writing full blog posts in my head as I’m shampooing and whatnot.

      But I don’t think it’s that easy 🙂 The moment I open my mouth, the moment I start to *think*, that magic dissipates.


      1. I discover some of my best Ideas while I am in the shower. I can play out entire scenes in a book but when its time to write, it disappears.


      2. Exactly what happens to me! And we’re not alone. Alfred Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in an interview that he used to keep a notebook on his bedside table, so he would not forget about the content of his dreams, and maybe make a movie out of those stories. One night he woke up in the middle of the night with this great idea for a plot, and wrote it down. When he woke up in the morning he checked the notebook, and there it was: “Boy meets girl, and falls in love”…or something like that.


  9. Great write up! I love Murakami and this book. One thing that I love about it besides it lighting a fire under me is that it can translate to just about anything…from biking, to writing, to painting and drawing (my area). Thanks for sharing this. I think it’s about time for me to re-read this book.


  10. I thank God I’m old now so I can just do my thing before I can’t do it anymore. I used to care about pleasing everyone when I was younger, which can’t happen anyway. Scary to say that I do my best thinking when I am doing something else completely different.


  11. haven’t read this Murakami and probably won’t but I am a mediator, who starts every in solitude, and then walks before I start to write. I am a technical writer and producing content for my contracted work is not usually an issue for me. On the few occasions it has been and issue I have found that getting outside and walking or gardening re-energizes me.

    I do keep my motivation to blog strong by celebrating every small success and every milestone along the way. Embracing my failures and learning from them through quiet contemplation, as well as, celebrating every small success helps me to stay on course, avoid getting writer’s block and/or burning-out, and keeps me eager to forge ahead on my blogging journey. Celebrate Your Blogging Journey


      1. Funny you corrected that! Saw it but patted myself on the back for giving it a pass, so common these days, even in expensive publications!
        Grateful to have found your blogging tips from this thread!


      2. Hi Sandra,
        I suffered a head injury in 2008 that among other things left me with a concussion that took 22 months recovery time. I became visually challenged and my previously rarely detectable dyslexia became more pronounced. I formerly took great pride in my writing and would never ever have let a spelling error or a grammar error slip by me.

        After the accident I was so humiliated by the errors I made that I almost quit blogging in both blogs (blogging tips and personal). It was the barrage of emails from my blog followers that convinced me to swallow my pride and blog on.

        My conversion from being a perfectionist prig to letting go of that insecurity rooted in ego and getting on with my online has been painful. As I move towards my senior years I’m intent on slaying my ego so my dying will not be a negative experience for me.


  12. I agree with a lot of this. Though running may not be my place of excellence it most certainly helps me to clear my head and think about what i want to write and the world in general


  13. yes… this is the daily practice of stepping up to the plate … again & again… the practice of finding the edge, leaning into it or remaining patiently still… waiting for the ebb & flow(er) … the flowering comes amid the practice … sometimes 🙂 haha! 🙂 wren


  14. I loved this book for exactly the reasons you outline here. I’m not a runner, but I love to walk, so much of what Murakami says resonated for me. There’s something about the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other that is powerful, both mentally and spiritually.


  15. Thank you for this suggestion; I am both a runner and a writer, and I struggle equally with each medium. I look forward to Murakami’s memoir and hope to gain a new perspective on my favorite activities. Great post!


  16. Awesome post! Just the ‘pick-me-up’ us writers need now and then. I agree with everything that you said. I have also noticed this crazy urge to publish – publish – publish! I have been blogging for just over a year now, and I am finally setting my own pace and crazy in love with my blog ( it took me almost an entire year to feel that way) – irrespective of what other awesome fellow bloggers are doing. I need to enjoy the writing process, not dread it. And that can only happen if I do this for myself first – and others second.