Lessons With Murakami

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Some nine years ago I walked into a book store that had a sale on all sorts of books. That was still a time when I purchased books in the spur of the moment: if the title, synopsis and the writing style agreed with me (checked by reading a paragraph or two), I’d buy the book. That day I left the store with two books: one was a classic and the other one was a memoir – a genre I’m not very familiar with.

The memoir was Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. A thin book, 180 pages, published in 2008. The back cover promised personal essays on running, a sort of memoir written by the famous Japanese author.

At the time, I was desperately trying to find ways to integrate sports into my life and thought that maybe this book could inspire me to make running into a habit. So, I bought it. I hadn’t read Murakami before, but this felt like a simple, nice way to get to know him and his style of writing.

However, it wasn’t until this year, 2019, that I actually managed to read and finish that book. Funny enough, soon after purchasing the book a friend of mine asked if her friend could borrow it because he was writing a book essay about Murakami. I borrowed it as I hadn’t started reading it yet, with a promise to get it back in a few months.

I did get it back in a few months – nine years later. Because two months ago, I saw my friend again and got the book back.

I did get it back – and the timing was perfect.

The Ideal Timing

I don’t know if you know this – but you know how sometimes you read a book and think this was the perfect time to read this book? It could be the theme of the book that feels relevant to you at the moment, or maybe the hero of the story is pondering the same things that you are.

The book might have been waiting in your pile of books to be read but you just never got into reading it. But then something happens, you pick up that book again and boom – it’s a match, the mind is ready for the content because the timing is perfect.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was that kind of match.

It’s a short book with nine journal-like entries that Murakami wrote under the course of one year when he trains for one of his many marathons. In these essays, the author reflects on his journey as a runner – but also as a writer. Originally, I purchased the book because I wanted to find the motivation to run. However, as I read it now, nine years later, the book gave me new thoughts and perspectives on writing, not running.

Metaphors and Thoughts

Although the book is short, it’s nothing to binge on. The essays are not fictitious but based on Murakami’s life experiences and thoughts on these experiences, that fill the chapters with some sort of lessons on life. Taking these life lessons in and thinking about them takes time, and therefore I read one chapter here and one chapter there – twenty pages or so at a time.

The book is for the most part about running although Murakami does share some of his thoughts on writing as well. For instance, he describes the moment when he decided to write his first book (he was in the bleachers of Jingu Stadium watching a baseball game when the thought came to him) and the process of becoming a full-time writer.

But although most of the essays focus on him training for a marathon or a triathlon, many of his thoughts on running can be turned into metaphors about writing. One of these thoughts / metaphors is about consistency when it comes to training. Murakami writes:

”The total amount of running I’m doing might be going down, but at least I’m following one of my basic rules for training: I never take two days off in a row. Muscles are like work animals that are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase the load, step by step, they learn to take it.

– –

If, however, the load halts for a few days, the muscles automatically assume they don’t have to work that hard anymore, and they lower their limits. Muscles really are like animals, and they want to take it as easy as possible: if pressure isn’t applied to them, they relax and cancel out the memory of all that work.” (p. 71)

When it comes to training and running, this excerpt presents a cold, hard and true fact. But it applies to writing as well: creativity is a muscle that needs constant training to produce desirable results. And when improving one’s craft, consistency is a key. During a typical week, I don’t take more than a day off from writing – and that is why it never gets too hard to sit down and get my writing done. It’s a process similar to Murakami’s marathon training, only for me, it’s about sitting on my butt in front of my computer.

Three Lessons I Took With Me

There are three things in What I Talk About What I Talk About Running that resonated with me particularly well:

1. ”Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”

In the foreword, Murakami tells about an article he read where famous marathon runners revealed what special mantra goes through their heads while they run. One of them was ”Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” which means you have very little control over the hurt part of running, but it’s up to you to choose how much you wallow in it, how much pain you can take.

Writing can be seen as a marathon race, as well. It’s a process with as many feelings, emotional ups and downs, as during a 26.2 mile / 42,195 km run. Creating a novel from the first draft to being published contains inevitably some pain but how much you decide to invest thoughts and feelings in that pain is up to you.

2. Three most important qualities of a novelist: talent, focus and endurance.

This is something I hope to get back to later on this blog. Although I don’t fully agree with Murakami here, he does have a point. Talent is needed, some sort of knack or gift for the craft (although – what is talent, really?), to get good at producing quality.But talent is a fickle thing and isn’t really under our control – and this is where focus and endurance come into play. The ability to concentrate helps you to utilize that limited talent of yours, and endurance is what keeps you going and helps you finish those projects.

3. Sometimes taking time is actually a shortcut.

 

Taking time to ”stubbornly, rigorously, and very patiently tighten all the screws of each individual part” (p. 161), that is, to practice and improve ones craft day after day, piece by piece, can pay off big time.

Say that you’re editing a novel and want to make it better but don’t know how. You start a time-consuming project: you start by reading about plotting and structuring a story, then you move on to storytelling and how to write fluent dialogue. After that comes creating authentic characters and tweaking the details, creating an as-perfect-as-possible manuscript.

Reading all these things and applying them to your writing can take a huge chunk of your time and feel ridiculous, time-consuming, like nitpicking. Why do this, why invest all this time in learning details – why not just try rewriting the whole story instead? At least you would be writing.

But suddenly, the parts fall into place and you understand how all the small details create a bigger, well-functioning picture. You end up improving your craft by taking all that time to learn.

***

Have you read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running? What in it resonated with you?

Still Life Sunday: The Stoic of the Crowd

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23 The Stoic of the Crowd

The town feels all too quiet as it rests under the newly fallen snow. The cars drive by slowly, stopping at almost every intersect to look out for other vehicles and people who walk quickly through the streets, their shoulders drawn up to keep the warmth in and the freezing, unpleasant wind out. No one wants to stay outside in the cold air more than they need to. Instead, they all seek safety and warmth inside their box apartments, closing the doors behind them and drawing the blinds in front of the windows. No one wants to be reminded of the cold, the darkness and the ice that covers the sidewalks.

To escape the quiet, the slow-moving cars and the people who avoid looking anyone in the eye (it’s best to keep the eyes down on the ground and look out for icy spots), my steps take me to the local library. I walk through the lobby, past the shelves filled with books aimed for children and young adults and turn to the right, and take the stairs up to the adult book section.

I can see the wind making the snow fly in swirls outside the window. I shiver and start to wander around aimlessly, simply browsing the shelves with my eyes.

The new books. They stand proudly on a table as if declaring their excellence, that they exceeded everyone’s expectations and now take their rightful place on that surface with the note ‘Newly arrived books’.

I wonder if these books got rejected several times before getting published or if the process was painless and quick, the first publishing house declaring they wanted to publish the book. The books stand here now, proud and convinced that they were meant to be there in the first place. But how long was the journey before they were printed, published and brought to the library?

I move away from these proud books and take a turn to the philosophy section instead. The classics, the Plato, the Aristotle, even a book of Nietzsche’s thoughts catches my eye. Then the modern philosophers, most of them unknown to me.

This section seems all too quiet, too pondering, all too filled with thoughts that would pick my brain if I’d let them do it. None of the books seem to talk, only ponder about the world and the meaning, slightly humming to themselves. It makes me nervous so I continue my wandering. I walk past the religious books, seeing the row of Bibles waiting for curious hands to pull them from the shelf and browse the pages, the scriptures. How many times a year is a Bible borrowed from a library, I wonder.

The travel books are lined up on several shelves, divided into different countries in different parts of the world. They all look similar, giving the impression that all countries are more or less the same. And they are, too: they all battle the effects of the economy, of the climate change and try to make life as enjoyable as possible for everyone living in the country. They all have people who are rich and who are poor, they have cats and dogs, fruits and vegetables, good and evil, right and wrong.

But still, all the countries have been given their own book that tells them why they are unique, why they matter.

I stop at an old book with a brown, blank cover. The book is too big to fit in an ordinary shelf and has therefore been placed outside it, on a single shelf that travels along the side of the wall. The brown, blank cover catches my attention. It doesn’t try to sell me anything or tell me any stories that I could regard as truths – instead, it invites me to create my own, subjective thoughts.

It’s a book filled with maps, drawn by hand ages ago. Filled with exquisite details, drawings and texts, the pages give an impression of the passing of time, thoughts and ideas. It holds on to my focus, not giving me all the answers right away but instead, it invites me to look, to search for the smallest details and then, finally, letting me go and agree on turning the next page.

The book is different from all the other books in this library. It’s even quieter than the philosophy books and is filled with mysteries like the religious works. But this book I like.

And although it has certainly earned its rightful place on this shelf when it comes to the delicate craft and age of the book, the brown covers give the impression of quiet serenity, peace, unlike the brand-new books on that other surface. This brown book of maps could be hidden somewhere behind all the other travel books and would give the same air of serenity as it does here.

And that makes it the greatest book in the library.

What I Read This Year

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Sundays are usually the days for Still Life Sundays, my unofficial series of short stories. Last Sunday, I published my 20th (!) Still Life Sunday which makes me feel many positive things. I feel 1) happy for having published consecutively a short story almost every Sunday for the past five months, 2) proud for publishing short stories that are written then and there and haven’t actually been edited all too much, and 3) amazed of the thought that these twenty short stories could be made into a mini e-book! How cool is that?

The thought behind Still Life Sundays has always been to write about something that somehow has to do with the post I publish on Thursdays. For instance, a few weeks ago when I wrote about the art of finishing a story, the Still Life Sunday that preceded that blog post was about a girl thanking a boy in his class for helping her finish the first play she ever wrote.

However, this Sunday I’m still uncertain of what I’m going to write about on this coming  Thursday. I usually have it figured out by Sunday but this coming week is special. I am so frigging close to finishing Yellow Tails – I only have the epilogue left – and if I finish the draft before Thursday, I have post planned for that. But if life gets in the way (or Christmas because did you know Christmas is only a week plus a day away?) and I won’t finish Yellow Tails before Thursday, then I will talk about something else.

So, next week will show what I’ll write about and therefore, as a follow-up on the blog post about books I published this week, I thought I’d share with you what I read this year! Maybe you’ll get some tips, some ideas for the new year on what to read? And I would love if you shared your own book tips in the comments below!

So – let’s get to it, shall we?

(P.S. What are your thoughts on prologues and epilogues in books, are they a good thing or could they be left out?)

A Few Notes on My Reading Preferences

But before I’ll introduce you the list of books I read in 2018 (I know, I know – I’m keeping you on edge, making you wait for the list as I always come up with a few notions on something before getting to the actual topic), I want to mention a few things about my reading and how I choose the books I read.

  1. I read, write and speak in three different languages almost on a daily basis. That means that the books I read tend to balance between these three languages. This year, I read eight books in Finnish, one book in Swedish and six books in English. I focused a good deal on Finnish and English books in order to support my blog writings (in English) and writing my work in progress (in Finnish).
  2. I prefer reading books in their original language instead of opting for translations. Of course, I appreciate a good translation but most often I pick up books in their original language if possible. That, however, leaves out many great books written in languages I don’t master, which is unfortunate.
  3. I read 15 books this year. I’m currently reading three books that I’ll maybe be able to finish before New Year’s Eve, maybe not. In addition to that, I’ve begun several books, probably twenty or so, read 50 to 150 pages before returning them to the library. But this I wrote about on Thursday, the challenge of finding good books to read.

So, what were these fifteen books I read?

15 + 3 Books

Finally – the books! Here is the list of books I read this year. I have a * after the title if I loved this book. But do notice that I liked them all. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have completed them (like happened for the other twenty books or so).

As I mentioned, many of the books I read this year are in Finnish. I know most of my readers aren’t that familiar with the Finnish language so I’ll try to provide a translation on the book title – and if there’s a translation available in your language, I’d recommend you to try to find the book and read it!

What I read in 2018:

  1. Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’ Tale (1985)
    • I purchased the book in Lisbon, Portugal a few days before New Year’s Eve. I enjoyed the book and the pictures it paints in certain scenes – however, I think the spell got partly broken because I had already seen the HBO series. A good read but not quite what I had hoped for.
  2. Yuval Noah Harari: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015)
    • This was an interesting read! Especially after finishing A Brief History of Humankind, a book both me and my partner loved. The second book of Harari wasn’t quite as compelling as the first one but there were many thoughts and ideas that have stayed in my mind, fuelling my writing and that have given me ideas for future novels and short stories. Definitely worth a read, I’d say.
  3. Steven Pressfield: The War of Art (2002) *
    • This was probably the Book of the Year for me. I loved reading it and I don’t think I’d be this close finishing my first draft if I hadn’t read Pressfield’s book about creating, the struggles and the benefits behind the process and what it’s like being a creative person. I’d recommend this to anyone who wishes to become a creative person. The War of Art is probably a book I’ll return to many times in the future, as a reminder and to refresh my belief in my writing.
  4. Riikka Pulkkinen: Paras mahdollinen maailma / The Best Possible World (2016)
    • Honestly, I had a tough time remembering what this book was about. A quick Google search reminded me of the plot – but at the same time I realized the book wasn’t to my taste, why else would I have forgotten so much about it? I love Pulkkinen’s writing, she has an amazing way of describing things and feelings! But the plot didn’t work, not for me. I would recommend reading her other books, though. The first one, Limit, has at least been translated to nine different languages, English being one of them.
  5. Mika Waltari: Sinuhe, egyptiern The Egyptian or Sinuhe the Egyptian (1945) *
    • This was the second time in a year’s time I read Sinuhe. It is one of the classics of Finnish literature, and I loved it. Waltari manages to invite the reader to Ancient Egypt and builds up a world one feels familiar with and longs to long after the book has ended. I enjoyed the characters, too. In addition to an intriguing story, Sinuhe contains a good deal of wisdom that still apply today, making it a thought-provoking read as well.
  6. Matti Rönkä: Eino / a translation isn’t needed as Eino is a Finnish male name (2015)
    • Eino is a book about a young man trying to figure out his own life while finding out about the secrets of his grandfather who fought in the World War II. The book was a nice read although it didn’t leave me with any long-lasting thoughts or feelings.
  7. Tommi Kinnunen: Neljäntienristeys / Where the Four Roads Meet) (2014) *
    • I read this book in two or three days. The writing, the characters, the plot… everything about the book was so compelling and I couldn’t get enough of it. It’s the story of three different generations of a family, how they live their lives, and how they see each other and themselves in a changing world. The book has been translated to several different languages but I don’t think there’s an English version – not yet, at least. But if you get your hands on this one, give it a go!
  8. Tommi Kinnunen: LopottiThe Light Behind Your Eyes (2016)
    • The second book of the family story, continuing where the first one ended, sort of. I liked this book but I enjoyed the characters in the first book more. This one has also been translated to several languages!
  9. Graeme Simsion: The Rosie Project (2013)
    • It’s the second time I read this book, this time as an DIY audiobook as I wanted my partner to read/hear it too. The Rosie Project is an entertaining, fun book with quirky small details and entertaining characters. Definitely worth a read, if you’re searching for something fun and easy to read over the holidays!
  10. John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing (1960) *
    • Ever since I discovered Stoner in 2017, I’ve been in love with Williams’ writing style (and am interested in learning to write like he does). There’s something in his cold but colorful, descriptive style of writing that makes me want to read his books over and over again. This western novel was cruel but at the same time very realistic depiction of how life can turn out. Definitely worth reading, as is Stoner.
  11. Joel Haahtela: Mistä maailmat alkavatWhere Worlds Begin (2017)
    • Like Pulkkinen, Haahtela has an amazing way of expressing the world. He writes beautifully about a young man who want to become a painter, how he sees the world around him and the things he experiences. The metaphors are beyond amazing. The only thing is that I myself don’t relate to this style, quite the opposite. But I still did enjoy it!
  12. Anthony Doerr: About Grace (2004)
    • I loved reading All the Light We Cannot See, and I enjoyed Doerr’s first book as well. However, it took a while to get through it. It has many beautiful scenes, it tells an amazing story, but somehow my reading felt slow and complicated. However, I’d definitely give it go as the story is still clear in my mind, meaning the book made an impression on me.
  13. Bea Uusma: NaparetkiThe Expedition (2013)
    • This book wasn’t fiction, but more like a mysterious research project written partly in a fictive style. I swallowed it in only a few days, excited about finding out what happened to the Arctic Expedition of three men in the end of 19th century. The book consists of diaries, letters, research, autopsies and hypotheses of different causes of death. An interesting read, and I enjoyed especially how the story unravelled.
  14. Mika Waltari: Suuri Illusioni My Great Illusion (1928)
    • After reading Sinuhe, I was interested in reading the book that made Waltari famous in the first place. My Great Illusion is about a young man, a writer, who tries to figure out what he wants to do with his life. The book is about love, life after World War I and about life choices. A slow read, but something made me complete it.
  15. Henna Helmi Heinonen: Veljeni vaimo / My Brother’s Wife (2011) *
    • Another author with a writing style I could think myself to adopt. The story is about a family and what happens when a new character enters that family. How the members change the way they think about their lives and the choices they’ve made. I read this book in a few days, enjoying every moment of it.

And the three books I’m reading at the moment:

  • Matthew Dicks: Something Missing (2009) – reminds me of The Rosie Project, a fun read with many entertaining details.
  • Mason Currey – Daily Rituals (2013) – an interesting read about the lifestyle and habits of hundreds of creatives. I’ll have to get back on this one!
  • Haruki Murakami: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008) – I have only started on this one, so no comments. Not yet, at least.

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Are you familiar with any of the books I read this year? What did you think of them? And did you find a book in my list you would be interested in reading next year?

On the Importance of Reading

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When I was little, books were my go-to whenever I had time. It was the life before smartphones, before screens were used to communicate, see, read and like. Instead, the minutes and hours were used to doing other things, and I loved to spend my time in the world of fiction.

To demonstrate this, I have an excellent example from my childhood that describes my love for reading:

In the end of third grade, everyone in our class were instructed to guess how many books they would read during the Summer. Our teacher wrote everyone’s guess down, saying that she would check with us in the Fall how many books we actually had read and compare it to our guess.

While others guessed something between two and ten books (no one was allowed to say ’none’ or ’one’), I estimated in a clear voice that I would probably read thirty books that Summer. It was an honest guess, I was dead serious about the number. I remember the look on my teacher’s face: the kind but doubtful smile and how she said, in a friendly voice, that maybe ”we won’t write down thirty books, but maybe ten or twelve?”

I guess you can guess the end to this story. In Fall, when we returned to school after Summer, I declared with a proud voice that I had read 35 books that Summer.

(It felt like a victory. And although this was supposed to tell about my love for books, I guess this example also tells you about my determination and perseverance.)

Fast forward to this day, my love for books continues to thrive and even though I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like to (will I ever?), I’ve still had a book in the process most of the time. Reading is also something I’m hoping to be able to hold on to for as long as I live – and if my eyes get bad, I hope I will have someone who reads to me or then I’ll opt for audiobooks.

For me, books have helped me escape this world and enter another. They have given me the possibility to see a life different from mine and learn to know new people. Today, reading books helps me become a better writer.

But this weekend I found out what kind of effect reading books as a child and a teenagers has had. In addition to offering an escape route, reading books (especially fiction) has had a huge impact on my personality and on how I see the world around me.

Let me tell you more about this.

Alluring, Delightful, Gorgeous

My secondary school Finnish teacher, author of three novels, wrote an article about teenagers’ reading capabilities. He talked a great deal about the problems: the short attention span that hinders them from reading longer texts about unfamiliar topics; problems with analytical reading skills; difficulties understanding words they come across less frequently and so on.

But my Finnish teacher also talked about the good things, telling about the many benefits of reading, which I’ll now share with you.

Did you know, that the amount of fiction we read as children and teenagers has a huge impact on our vocabulary, our fantasy and the ability to feel empathy? Reading helps improve ones perseverance: the long-term attention span, a skill many let rust in the winter rain. Reading increases the reader’s understanding that one cannot get everything at once: reading a book takes time, it requires effort if one wishes to know how the book ends.

A fiction-reading teenager can have a vocabulary of over 70,000 words while a teenager that doesn’t enjoy the world of books manages only about 15,000 (my mind gasped for air when I read this). This means that for someone there is only one word for beautiful while the other sees dozens of alternatives to it, from alluring to delightful, dazzling and pleasing. The world presents itself in a whole other way to the person who reads: it’s full of colors, different nuances, and the book worlds tickle the reader’s senses in different ways. For the non-reader the world is more black and white, simpler.

A person who reads has also better skills to empathize with other people. Because books let us in on other people’s minds, worlds, feelings and thoughts, readers are also more likely to understand other people better. Understanding helps us feel empathy and brings us humans closer to each other – something that social media doesn’t always manage to do.

Reading is so  i m p o r t a n t . It’s not just something a nagging teacher tells us to do just because. It really has an impact, and I am beyond happy today that I had the opportunity to read as much as I wanted when I was a kid.

However, lately I’ve been thinking more about what kind of books I read.

Finding Good Books as a Writer

For a writer, reading isn’t only about learning about other people, about seeing the world in colors, or only about improving one’s vocabulary. It’s also about finding my own voice, the style of writing, and helping to realize what kind of characters I like, what kind of plot twists intrigue me the most. Reading books will help me write better books.

As a child and a teenager, I just wanted to find books I liked: books with exciting characters, desperately romantic eternal triangles, books with adventure and dangers. I loved Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Alex Rider series, and the books of Enid Blyton, Astrid Lindgren and Marianne Curley. I could read them over and over again (and I did).

But today, I’ve become more selective. I’ve paid more attention to what I read. I try to find books by authors with a similar style to mine, books that swallow me into the story, and tried to learn from these books. But what I’ve found is that there isn’t actually that many books like that out there. Or, actually, there probably is – I just have trouble finding them.

I actually have trouble finding books that I like enough to read them from beginning to the end. Usually, I give them a few pages, most often 50 pages or so before deciding if the plot, the style of writing and the characters are interesting enough. I want to read good books, books that give me a feeling of satisfaction – or even better, make me feel energized and happy.

This year, I’ve opened probably more than twenty books only to return them to the library after reading a few pages. I’ve picked up both classics and modern literature, female and male authors and different genres, only to realize that I would simply suffer if I forced myself to read these books. I can’t help but wonder: am I being too picky? Too selective? Should a writer read any books as long as she’s reading or is there actually a guideline to what kind of books a writer should read?

And at the same time, I’m convinced that I don’t want to waste my time reading a book with only an okay plot or a boring style.  I want those well-written, capturing stories!

But how to find them? How to find good books to read?

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So please, readers: how do you choose what books to read? Any recommendations, book tips? And writers: do you think all books are worth reading, or only the ones that help you become a better writer?