WRITING LESSONS, AFTER MURAKAMI
by one L. Pei
How to Write Without Having Anything to Say
Haruki Murakami has said in an interview that he has “a strong desire to write but nothing to say.” And I have a feeling that everyone who wants to write has experienced the same thing. Most writers, though, don’t want to talk about it, and I think there’s a lot to learn from what Murakami says on this subject. In that same interview he continues,
There were so many things I didn’t want to write about that when I stripped them all away there was nothing left. . . . So I just picked the 1970 setting and started putting words together. . . . I probably assumed that, no matter how I put the words together, the one doing it was me myself, so my consciousness was bound to come out in the words one way or another. (Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, p. 35)
In 1992 HM delivered a lecture at Berkeley in which he talked at length about the creation of A Wild Sheep Chase, which he has described as his real starting-point as a writer. This is how writing while having nothing to say is put into practice:
As I wrote A Wild Sheep Chase, I came to feel strongly that a story, a monogatari, is not something you create. It is something that you pull out of yourself. The story is already there, inside you. You can’t make it, you can only bring it out. This is true for me, at least: it is the story’s spontaneity. For me, a story is a vehicle that takes the reader somewhere. Whatever information you may try to convey, whatever you may try to open the reader’s emotions to, the first thing you have to do is get that reader into the vehicle. And the vehicle – the story – the monogatari – must have the power to make people believe. These above all are the conditions that a story must fulfill.
When I began writing A Wild Sheep Chase I had no preset program in mind. I wrote the opening chapter almost at random. I still had absolutely no idea how the story would develop from that point. But I experienced no anxiety, because I felt – I knew – that the story was there, inside me. I was like a dowser searching for water with his divining rod. I knew – I felt – that the water was there. And so I started to dig.
The structure of A Wild Sheep Chase was deeply influenced by the detective novels of Raymond Chandler. I am an avid reader of his books and have read some of them many times. I wanted to use his plot structure in my new novel. This meant, first of all, that the protagonist would be a lonely city dweller. He would be searching for something. In the course of his search, he would become entangled in various kinds of complicated situations. And when he finally found what he was looking for, it would already have been ruined or lost. This is obviously Chandler’s method and it is what I wanted to use in A Wild Sheep Chase. . . .
In A Wild Sheep Chase, however, I was not trying to write a mystery novel. In a mystery novel, there is a mystery which is solved in the course of the book. But I am not trying to solve anything. What I wanted to write was a mystery without a solution. I have almost nothing to say about what the character called the Sheep Man is, what the sheep with the star on its back is, or what finally happened to the character called the Rat. I used the structure of the mystery novel and filled it with entirely different ingredients. In other words, the structure was, for me, a kind of vehicle.
I groped my way through the first few chapters, still uncertain what kind of story would develop. It was like feeling my way through the dark. I had absolutely no idea when or where this story would intersect with the story of the sheep. But soon something clicked inside my mind. A tiny gleam appeared far ahead in the darkness. And that was it. Something told me that all I had to do was go in that direction. Of course I would have to watch my step. I would have to be careful not to stumble, not to fall into any holes as I moved forward.
The most important thing is confidence. You have to believe you have the ability to tell the story, to strike the vein of water, to make the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Without that confidence, you can’t go anywhere. It’s like boxing. Once you climb into the ring, you can’t back out. You have to fight until the match is over.
This is the way I write my novels, and I love to read novels that have been written this way. To me, spontaneity is everything. (Rubin, pp. 80-82)
Reflections: The story is a vehicle that takes the reader somewhere. Meanwhile, the structure of Chandler’s novels was Murakami’s vehicle. That structure was not his story, but it was just enough of a story-template to take him somewhere – to his confidence? Having the Chandler mystery structure made him believe in his ability to write the book? It seems to me this is the sort of help any fiction writer needs from the books that have already been written: you need a model of story that works. You know the model works because you derive it from books you know have worked for you. The model is truly helpful because you not only see how you can follow it, you also see how you want to deviate from it. Both are essential. If you only envision yourself replicating the model, it remains an exercise, a valuable way of learning technique but not yet fully your own work.
HM talks about making the pieces of the puzzle fit together, yet there are pieces that don’t have to fit and that’s fine, which he is also aware of. This includes all the things that can’t be explained, or that he doesn’t know.
In the same interview quoted above, Murakami went on to say:
I think it’s precisely because I have nothing I want to write about that I can write long novels. The less there is I want to say, the simpler the structure gets. If you know beforehand “I want to say this or that,” then structure naturally begins to become oppressive and to interrupt the spontaneous flow of the story . . . “Theme” is strictly a secondary matter . . . Basically, I believe in the inner power of the human being. (Rubin, p. 128)
This is what I believe as well. It’s a vision of creative process that’s probably not for everybody, but it’s one that really works, and one that I’ve experienced myself.
It’s Worth a Try
In Book 3, Chapter 8 of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the protagonist is at the bottom of a well, and by a concentrated use of his mind, he is trying to pass through the wall into an alternate reality that he knows is there, where a crucial encounter awaits him. This whole chapter can be read as an extended metaphor for the work of the imagination in writing fiction. Here is a key paragraph worth meditating on:
Like a make-believe bird hanging in a make-believe sky, I see the rooms [in the alternate reality] from above. I enlarge the view, pull back, and survey the whole, then zoom in to enlarge the details.
Notice how the character is using exactly the powers that a third-person narrator has in a work of fiction. This image parallels the second sentence beginning HM’s novel After Dark:”Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair.”
Each detail carries much significance, of course. I check each in turn, examining it for shape and color and texture. From one detail to the next, there is no connection, no warmth. All I am doing at that point is a mechanical inventory of details. But it’s worth a try. Just as the rubbing together of stones or sticks will eventually produce heat and flame, a connected reality takes shape little by little. It works the way the piling up of random sounds goes on to produce a single syllable from the monotonous repetition of what at first glance appears to be meaningless. (394)
There is much commentary on the act of writing fiction here. The protagonist is like the writer who sits down at his desk and sets to work trying to imagine his way into his created world. He knows that he’s got to get inside it to do what he wants to do. The way in is not through the overview; the way he tries to get in is through the details. Patiently he contemplates the details of the imagined scene, because each one “carries much significance, of course.” What he needs to find his way to is not simply the details themselves, but a reality in which there is a network of connection and warmth between them. Then the details won’t be sitting there separately, like dry little artifacts in a museum; they’ll be part of a living reality. But he isn’t there yet, and he knows it. “All I am doing at that point is a mechanical inventory of details. But it’s worth a try.”
The message for a writer is really very simple: keep piling up the details. Keep looking closely at them. Keep rubbing the sticks together. If it seems monotonous, meaningless, mechanical, just keep on anyway. Don’t quit. Little by little, a connected reality will take shape.
Stop making too much sense.
On the flip side of everything we think we absolutely have pegged lurks an equal amount of the unknown.
Understanding is but the sum of our misunderstandings.
. . .
In the world we live in, what we know and what we don’t know are like Siamese twins, inseparable, existing in a state of confusion.
(Sputnik Sweetheart, p. 134)
Reality is created out of confusion and contradiction, and if you exclude those elements, you’re no longer talking about reality.
(Underground, p. 363)
What I am trying to provide here is . . . not one clear viewpoint, but flesh-and-blood material from which to construct multiple viewpoints, which is the same goal I have in mind when I write novels. (Underground, p. 250)
Discrepancies and contradictions say something in themselves. Sometimes, in this multifaceted world of ours, inconsistency can be more eloquent than consistency.
(Underground, p. 234)
The question is, how much sense does a story really have to make? Murakami’s answer would be, if everything in it totally makes sense, then you’ve gone too far, because the world we live in does not work like that. If you take responsibility for making the world totally understandable in your writing, you’ve taken on an impossible job.
Thus it is okay, and it is possibly even necessary, for there to be things in a story that are never explained, that are unexplainable, that are forever unknown.
Obviously some readers are going to be dissatisfied with that. For dealing with this, see the next entry.
One Out of Ten
Murakami ran a jazz club in Tokyo for seven years before he became a full-time writer. After a while, he realized that out of all those who came through the door of his bar,
If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. . . . it didn’t matter if nine out of ten didn’t like my bar. This realization lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to make sure he did, I had to make my philosophy and stance clear-cut, and patiently maintain that stance no matter what. . . .
After A Wild Sheep Chase, I continued to write with the same attitude I’d developed as a business owner. (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, p. 38)
“If you do anything out of the ordinary, you can be sure someone, somewhere, will get upset.” (1Q84, p. 894) You don’t need to please everybody, and you shouldn’t try. If you’re doing your work with independence of mind, which is what matters, it is bound to annoy someone. “If you do the same things everyone else does, in the same way, then you’re no professional.” (1Q84, 973) This vision of professionalism is the opposite of the corporate ideal of “best practices,” in which you get rewarded for doing what others do. Writers are held to a much higher standard: you’re a professional if you do things others haven’t thought of, in ways that haven’t occurred to them. You’re a professional if you can originate, not just emulate.
Being subtle is not an end in itself.
Sometimes you want to be blunt, obvious, impossible to misinterpret.
Murakami compares his mission as a writer to what ET managed to pull off when he cobbled together a bunch of cast-offs in the garage so he could phone home:
I’m going to have to construct a “cosmic communication device” of my own. I’ll probably have to piece together every last scrap of junk, every weakness, every deficiency inside me to do it. (There, I’ve gone and said it – but the real surprise is that it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do as a writer all along!) (Underground, p. 233)
At the end of Norwegian Wood, the protagonist calls up the woman he loves from a phone booth in a train station:
“I have to talk to you,” I said. “I have a million things to talk to you about. A million things we have to talk about. All I want in this world is you. I need to see you and talk. I want the two of us to begin everything from the beginning.”
Midori responded with a long, long silence – the silence of all the misty rain in the world falling on all the new-mown lawns of the world. Forehead pressed against the glass, I shut my eyes and waited. At last, Midori’s quiet voice broke the silence: “Where are you now?”
Where was I now?
Gripping the receiver, I raised my head and turned to see what lay beyond the telephone booth. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place.
When ET phones home, he isn’t subtle. When the protagonist of Norwegian Wood calls out for Midori again and again, he isn’t subtle. Too much is at stake to permit the luxury of being subtle! In these situations, the attempt to communicate desperately matters – that is the focus. Not getting imaginary style points for being subtle.
Write From the Shadows
There is another incredibly important lesson in HM’s metaphor of the “cosmic communication device”: To carry out your mission as a writer, you cobble together the junk inside yourself; you make something out of your weaknesses and deficiencies. You don’t try to hide from those things; they are what you work with.
We can’t write from the public side of ourselves, the daylight side, alone; we have to also write from the nighttime side, the secret side, the part of the self that remains in shadow. Without that, the story will never be good enough. If it isn’t, in the end, some transformation of your obsessions, of the stuff that’s life or death to you, then why bother with it? One must give in to one’s material. The question is not whether the material is new, the question is whether the writer feels it at gut level and is willing to go there, has a feel for language, has imbibed the forms, the techniques, the traditions, and done something skillful with them. The best parts of your writing are some kind of transmutation of your own suffering and your own hopes. The question is not whether that should be so (of course it should), but exactly how one’s suffering and one’s hopes can turn into worthwhile art.
Handle With Care
Near the middle of 1Q84, Tamaru (the bodyguard) and Aomame (the female protagonist) have a conversation in which he tells her how he grew up in an orphanage in Hokkaido. He became the protector of a savant-like boy who was good at only one thing: carving rats out of blocks of wood. “He’d pick up a block of wood and stare at it for a long time until he could see what kind of rat in what kind of pose was lurking inside. . . . once that happened, all he had to do was pull the rat out of the block with his knives.” (645) Tamaru tells Aomame he often thinks of that boy.
“I still have this vivid image of him ‘pulling rats out’ of blocks of wood with total concentration, and that has remained an important mental landscape for me, a reference point. It teaches me something – or tries to. People need things like that to go on living – mental landscapes that have meaning for them, even if they can’t explain them in words. Part of why we live is to come up with explanations for these things. That’s what I think.”
“Are you saying that they’re like a basis for us to live?”
“I have such mental landscapes, too.”
“You’d better handle them with care.” (646)
Some important piece of the narrative by which Tamaru maintains his Self lives in this image known only to him, but the advice this conversation gives applies to all characters in Murakami. Mental landscapes are a basis for them to live, and they need to be handled with care. The best example of this would probably be the way that Tengo and Aomame, the protagonists of 1Q84, guard and treasure their separate memories of holding hands in an empty classroom when they were ten years old; this memory is the guiding star of both their lives.
Likewise a writer must handle with care the mental landscapes that are a basis for her writing. Everyone has mental landscapes that are like inexhaustible reservoirs of meaning and feeling for them, and them alone. They are images, memories, patterns of thought, patterns written on the heart. These are the secret sources of imaginative power. HM likens writing to drilling down through rock to find the vein of water:
Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can freely write novels no matter what they do – or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Occasionally, you’ll find someone like that, but, unfortunately, that category wouldn’t include me. I haven’t spotted any springs nearby. I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. (Running, 43)
When you do find the source, it is often a mental landscape. A whole novel can come out of an image (and has done so for me). Every writer finds himself writing certain things again and again, in different forms, because he has to. These are the mental landscapes one must handle with care, which means respecting their power, returning to them, acknowledging that they are where your vein of water lives, surrendering to them. It means you don’t judge them, and you don’t judge yourself for caring so much about them. For Murakami, the image of a boy holding a girl’s hand, a man holding a woman’s hand, is inexhaustibly powerful; it occurs over and over in his work, and every time it does, it’s extra-meaningful. I know nothing about his internal experience of writing, but I’m betting that he never allows himself to think “Why am I still writing about this? Why can’t I move on? You would think I’d have something more significant to write about than holding hands.” When the imagination hands you a gift of power, you don’t judge it, you accept it, you go where it tells you to go. That is what is meant by handling your important mental landscapes with care.