Novelist as a Vocation gives a glimpse into the creative mind of novelist Haruki Murakami. It’s an anthology of essays – some new, some original – on what it means to be a novelist, why literary prizes are worthless, how Murakami writes, writing great dialogue, originality, and more.
1. A professional's true mark of greatness is consistency, not intensity
“It’s not that difficult to write a novel, maybe even two,” Murakami writes, “but it’s another thing altogether to keep producing, to live off one’s writing, to survive.” Elsewhere in the book, he writes, “It’s not difficult to write a single novel. Even a very good novel, depending on who you are. It isn’t easy to pull off, but it’s not impossible. What’s really hard is to keep on writing novels year after year. That’s not something anyone can do.”
It’s not about what you do, it’s about how long you’ve been doing it. Time is the greatest filter. In The Psychology of Money, Morgan Housel explains this is why Warren Buffett is so famous. Has Buffett made the biggest returns ever? No, but he’s had “pretty good” returns for decades. In investing – as in writing, working, inventing, and life – time is the best judge.
The greatest way to win the game is to be in it the longest. Consistency over intensity.
2. When you’re stuck, change your process
When Murakami began writing his first novel, he had trouble getting the words to flow. Instead of just trying to work harder or, worse, quit, he changed how he approached it. He ditched his fountain pen and fancy manuscript paper. “As long as they were in front of me,” he writes, “what I was doing felt like literature.” Instead, he used an old Olivetti typewriter and began writing the opening of his novel in English instead of Japanese.
Though he didn’t have a Churchillian command of English, he had enough to make it work. “I could only write in short, simple sentences.” But instead of letting this hinder his performance, it helped. “However complex and numerous the thoughts running around in my head, I couldn’t even attempt to set them down as they came to me,” he writes. “The language had to be simple, my ideas expressed in an easy-to-understand way, the descriptions stripped of all extraneous fat, the form made compact, and everything arranged to fit a container of limited size.” Though the prose wasn’t poetic, “a distinctive rhythm began to take shape.”
When he wrote in English, his brain avoided the “system overload” that happened while writing in Japanese. “It also led me to the realization that I could express my thoughts and feelings with a limited set of words and grammatical structures, as long as I combined them effectively and linked them together in a skillful manner. Ultimately, I learned that there was no need for a lot of difficult words–I didn’t have to try to impress people with beautiful turns of phrases.” (There’s a lesson there, too.)
After he wrote the introduction in English, he “transplanted” it to Japanese. What emerged was a unique style that became his. “Now I get it,” he writes. “This is how I should be doing it.”
If you’re stuck on a project, instead of trying to work harder and force something that isn’t working, see if you can change how you’re approaching the problem. Don’t force yourself to write in Japanese if it isn’t working.
3. No matter how good something is, it can be made better
Murakami used a word processor for the first time in his life when he wrote Dance, Dance, Dance. While moving from Rome to London, a chapter somehow went missing from his computer and he couldn’t find it anywhere. The chapter was beautiful, long, and unfortunately, wouldn’t turn up. After a few weeks, he resolved to rewrite the chapter from scratch, trying to remember how it went but feeling like he would never write it as well again.
Sometime later, after he was finished with the book, that missing chapter showed up again on his computer. He was flustered. Should he add the original chapter back in? After reading it, though, he was relieved to “see that in fact the rewrite was far superior. What this story shows is that, no matter what you have written, it can be made better.”
He writes later, “What’s crucial, in short, is the physical act of rewriting*.* What carries more weight than anything else is the resolve to sit down at one’s desk to improve what one has written. Compared to that, the question of which direction to take in those improvements may be of secondary importance.”
When you rewrite something, you can feel the choppiness, the places where the words just don’t flow. That’s harder to do when you’re simply editing what’s already on the screen.
4. Find something to do when the muse isn’t musing
The best way to beat writer’s block is to do something similar to writing, but that doesn’t take the same creative effort. I do that by taking book notes. If I’m struggling to write something creative, I open a book and start taking notes. Murakami does something similar but translates books into Japanese.
I have been writing fiction for more than thirty-five years at the time of this book’s writing; yet I have never experienced what is commonly known as ‘writer’s block.’ Wanting to write but being unable is unknown to me. That may make it sound as if I am overflowing with talent, but the actual reason is much simpler: I never write unless I really want to, unless the desire to write is overwhelming. When I feel that desire, I sit down and set to work. When I don’t feel it, I usually turn to translating from English. Since translation is essentially a technical operation, I can pursue it on a daily basis, quite separate from my creative desire; yet at the same time, it is a good way to hone my writing skills.
Richard Feynman, the bongo-beating theoretical physicist, used teaching to help him come up with new ideas. This is one of the reasons he lamented the Institute for Advanced Study, a prestigious research institution that Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, and John von Neumann called home. The Institute gave unlimited tenure to the brightest minds of the 20th century without the hindrance of teaching classes. They had complete freedom to do whatever they wanted – and this is exactly what Feynman hated. He writes:
In any thinking process there are moments when everything is going good and you’ve got wonderful ideas. Teaching is an interruption, and so it’s the greatest pain in the neck in the world. And then there are the longer periods of time when not much is coming to you. You’re not getting any ideas, and if you’re doing nothing at all, it drives you nuts! You can’t even say “Well, at least I’m teaching my class.” If you’re teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn’t do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? Are there any new problems associated with them? Are there any new thoughts you can make about them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can’t think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you’re rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.
The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I’ve thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn’t do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things.
For Feynman, teaching gave him the ability to come up with creative ideas because he knew if he didn’t think of anything, he was still teaching. Murakami translated books.
What do you do when the creative juices aren’t flowing?
5. If someone gives you feedback, listen, but ignore their suggestions about how to fix it.
Murakami deals with feedback from early readers, usually his wife, in an interesting way: he rewrites every scene someone doesn’t like. In the end, even though he may not agree with their feedback, sometimes he writes the scene in an entirely new way, and it works much better than what he had before.
“It seems that when a reader has a problem,” he writes, “there is usually something that needs fixing, whether or not it corresponds to their suggestions.” This echoes advice given to founders: if a user has a problem, you should listen to them. But if they tell you how to fix it, ignore them.
Criticism doesn’t bother Murakami because he knows, in the end, he gave all he could. He didn’t try to write a bad story, try to cheat, or cut corners. If, for some reason, that wasn’t good enough, well…that’s alright with him. “I know at the physical level that I cut no corners in the writing; that I gave it all I had. I spent whatever time was needed to gestate the novel and let it settle, and further time tinkering to get it right.”
That’s lesson 5.5: if someone criticizes you or your work, and it hurts you, is it because you knew deep down that you could have made it better? Think about that.
If, like me, you read this book (or notes) and want to start writing novels, a word of caution: only start writing novels if you love writing novels…not because you love the idea of being a novelist. As Paul Graham puts it:
Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you'd like to like.
That's what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you're going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.