Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami never wanted to be a writer. He just “had the strong desire to write a novel.” Or so he writes in his essay “The Running Novelist” in the June 9 & 16 issue of The New Yorker. This essay is a must read for anyone who wants know what it takes to be successful not only as a writer but profession or endeavor.
(Side note: I wish this essay was online. It’s a keeper – one that I’ll be cutting from the magazine and saving for the rest of my life. So run out and find the aforementioned issue of The New Yorker at your local library or bookstore and read it. If you can’t find a copy, e-mail me or leave a note in the comments section and we’ll figure out a way to get a copy of the essay to you.)
Murakami’s essay tells the story of how he became a professional and successful writer and a daily running. But a deeper reading of Murakami’s essay reveals it isn’t about being a dedicated runner or becoming a best-selling author but mastering the art of self-management – the ultimate trait of successful people.
Before he decided to write full time, Murakami ran a jazz club. He would come home late at night (or early in the morning) and type until he was sleepy. After publishing two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973, he decided writing was something he wanted to do for a living. The first thing Murakami did was get rid of things that could distract him from writing.
So, after giving it a lot of thought, I decided to close the business and focus solely on writing….Most of my friends were adamantly against my decision, or at least had doubts about it. “Your business is doing fine now,” they said. “Why not just let someone else run it while you write your novels?” But I couldn’t follow their advice. I’m the kind of person who has to commit totally to whatever I do. If, having committed, 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. (Emphasis added.)
Everyone has dreams. But most people won’t totally commit themselves to make their dreams a reality. They lack the ability to stick with something until it’s a proven success or failure. All it takes is a few days or a couple weeks for them to become distracted or give up entirely and return to their old habits and routines. Murakami gave himself two years to either succeed or fail. Note that Murakami didn’t just quit his job overnight. He achieved some modest success first so he knew he had the talent and ability to succeed. But he also put a lot of thought into the decision. He didn’t drop everything and rush into it. He was patient and planned it out. He self-managed.
Once he started writing full time, Murakami noticed two bad side effects: he started putting on the pounds and was smoking 60 cigarettes a day. He realized this wasn’t good for his health or his writing. To help him write and combat the side effects of writing he started running, and quit smoking.
After I closed the bar, I resolved to change my life style entirely, and my wife and I moved out to Narashino….Not long after that I quit smoking. It wasn’t easy to do, but I couldn’t really run and keep on smoking. My desire to run was a great help in overcoming the withdrawal symptoms. Quitting smoking was also like a symbolic gesture of farewell to the life I used to lead.
Often when someone tries to change their life, they have a hard time letting go of past places, friends, or habits, that keep them moving backwards instead of progressing toward their new life. Murakami not only quit smoking and started running, but he moved somewhere new to help get a fresh start.
Next Murakami was able to discipline himself (there’s that self-management thing again) and get on a writing schedule that meshed with his body’s internal clock.
The best thing about becoming a professional writer was that I could go to bed early and get up early….Once I began my life as a novelist, my wife and I decided that we’d go to bed soon after it got dark and wake up with the sun….Different people are their best at different times of the day, but I’m definitely a morning person. That’s when I can focus.
He also used the afternoons, after he was done writing to run. As a result, writing and running become part of his life just “like eating, sleeping, and housework.” And he doesn’t let other people or things get him off track.
Thanks to this pattern, I’ve been able to work efficiently now for twenty-seven years. It’s a pattern, though, that doesn’t allow for much of a night life, and sometimes this makes relationships with other people problematic. People are offended when you repeatedly turn down their invitations. But, at that point, I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person but with a unspecified number of readers. My readers would welcome whatever life style I chose, as long as I made sure that each new work was an improvement over the last. And shouldn’t that be my duty – and my top priority – as a novelist? … In other words, you can’t please everybody.
Part of self-management is being able to set priorities. Murakami decided what was important in his life and did it. Period. He didn’t make excuses or exceptions when things – even good things -- would interfere with his writing schedule.
Of course everyone has days where they feel like they don’t like doing whatever is on their plate that day. Murakami is not different. Often writing is a chore for him but he continues to work at it one day at a time. There are even days when he doesn’t feel like running. But he pushes through those days when he doesn’t feel like running just like he does when he doesn’t feel like writing.
No matter how much long-distance running might suit me, of course there are days when I feel lethargic and don’t want to do it. On days like that, I try to come up with all kinds of plausible excuses not to run.
Now, whenever I feel like I don’t want to run, I always ask myself the same thing: You’re able to make a living as a novelist, working at home, setting your own hours. You don’t have to commute on a packed train or sit through boring meetings. Don’t you realize how fortunate you are? Compared with that, running an hour around the neighborhood is nothing, right? Then I lace up my running shoes and set off without hesitating.
Pushing through the times when we don’t want to do something is the ultimate form of self-management. Right now I could still be sleeping, reading from the pile of books, or going for a walk outside on what looks like a perfect summer morning – both things that ultimately have more appeal then waking up and writing at 6:00 a.m. But I’m not doing those other things. I woke up early today to write this entry because I made the commitment that I’d have this posted on my blog today. I’m writing this early because this is the only time I have to write a blog entry. After the kids go to bed is when I spend a couple hours working on my book because I committed to have it done before summer is over.
It doesn’t matter if you want to be an athlete, artist, entrepreneur, salesperson, doctor, lawyer, police officer, mason, or entertainer. In order to succeed, you need to self-manage every aspect of your life. Control your emotions. Eliminate the distractions. Give the most on the days you feel like giving the least.
Your dreams aren’t going to be handed to you. You have to work in order for them to become a reality.