Flash back. My daughter was 9 years old. She’s watching (with envy) her younger brother do back flips from the edge of the pool. He’s sleek. Effortless. Natural. Dad meanwhile is haranguing his daughter. YOU CAN DO ANYTHING YOU PUT YOUR MIND TO! Over and over. Relentless as only her Dad can be. Daughter finally concedes. She ekes up to the edge of the pool…anxiously looking over her shoulder into the pool…and then back down to her feet while wiggling her toes. She takes a deep breath. Bends her knees. And leaps. And proceeds to dive 3″ or so SHORT of clearing the edge – – glancing off the non-slip abrasive concrete – – ripping an 18 inch gash down the middle of her back. There was a calm silence for about 2-3 seconds and then she bellowed: DAD, I TOLD YOU THAT I COULDN’T DO THIS. And then she ran into the house into the arms of her Mother.
More than 10 years later, this story comes back to me like it was yesterday. (And has left an indelible scar on my Daughter.) I laugh. She snarls. I tell her it was an excellent life lesson. I hear mumbling…something which sounds like “idiot.”
This is a very long winded intro to a terrific article in The 99% Newsletter on Haruki Murakami, the famous Japanese award winning author who wrote “The Norwegian Wood,” “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” “Kafka on The Shore” and a pile of other best sellers. In 2007, I went on a Murakami reading frenzy – – reading 8 of his books in a span of 2 months. Loved his work. Next year, I noted that Murakami wrote a book about running called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.” I had no idea that Murakami had completed more than 25 marathons, one ultra marathon (60 miles) and more than five triathlons. The man was a SuperWriter and a Superman, and still going at it in his late 50’s. While I would not recommend this book on running for readers new to Murakami (Read my Amazon Review on his book at this LINK), I would recommend the earlier mentions.
Here’s what Murakami has to say about talent, focus and endurance and what makes him tick:
- In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. Now 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.
- The problem with talent, though, is that in most cases the person involved can’t control its amount or quality. You might find the amount isn’t enough and you want to increase it, or you might try to be frugal and make it last longer, but in neither case do things work out that easily. Talent has a mind of its own and wells up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it. Of course, certain poets and rock singers whose genius went out in a blaze of glory—people like Schubert and Mozart, whose dramatic early deaths turned them into legends—have a certain appeal, but for the vast majority of us this isn’t the model we follow.
- If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, 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. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else.
- 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 of the 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.
- Fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, since they can be acquired and sharpened through training. You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point. This is a lot like the training of muscles I wrote of a moment ago. You have to continually transmit the object of your focus to your entire body, and make sure it thoroughly assimilates the information necessary for you to write every single day and concentrate on the work at hand. And gradually you’ll expand the limits of what you’re able to do. Almost imperceptibly you’ll make the bar rise. This involves the same process as jogging every day to strengthen your muscles and develop a runner’s physique. Add a stimulus and keep it up. And repeat. Patience is a must in this process, but I guarantee results will come.
- In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.
- Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate—and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would definitely have been different.