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Haruki Murakami and the Scarcity of Serious Thought

June 16th, 2021 · 16 comments

I recently returned to Haruki Murakami’s 2007 pseudo-memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I first encountered this book back in 2009. It inspired me at the time to write an essay titled “On the Value of Hard Focus,” which laid the foundation on which I went on to build my theory of deep work. Which is all to say, Murakami’s short meditation on running and art holds a special place in my personal literary canon.

On my re-read, my attention was snagged by the following passage:

“Gradually, though, I found myself wanting to write a more substantial kind of novel. With the first two, Hear the Wind and Pinball, 1973, I basically enjoyed the process of writing, but there were parts I wasn’t too pleased with. With these first two novels I was only able to write in spurts, snatching bits of time here and there — a half hour here, an hour there — and because I was always tired and felt like I was competing against the clocks as I wrote, I was never able to concentrate. With this scattered approach I was able to write some interesting, fresh things, but the result was far from a complex or profound novel.”

Murakami wrote his first two novels late at night after closing down the bar he owned and ran near the Tokyo city center. These works were well-received: his first won a prize for new writers from a literary magazine, and his second also attracted positive reviews. But the effort both exhausted and frustrated him.

Murakami realized he was coasting on bursts of latent talent. He had caught the attention of the literary establishment because of inventive stretches in his prose, but he worried that if he kept producing these “instinctual novels,” he’d reach a dead end.

Against the advice of nearly everybody, he sold his bar, and moved to Narashino, a small town in the largely rural Chiba Prefecture. He began going to bed when it got dark and waking up with the first light. His only job was to sit at a desk each morning and write. His books became longer, more complex, more story driven. He discovered what became his signature style.

“My whole body thrilled at the thought of how wonderful — and how difficult — it is,” he recalled,  “to be able to sit at my desk, not worrying about time, and concentrate on writing.”

Neither our economy nor the demands of a live well-lived dictate that everyone should aspire to be sitting alone at a desk in rural Narashino, crafting literature to the light of the rising sun. My growing concern, however, is that such real commitment to thought has become too rare.

It was only through this intellectual monasticism that a talent as large as Murakami was able to extract the works for which is so rightly now revered. And yet, outside of award-caliber novelists, a similar commitment to depth is alarmingly rare. Even the elite cognitive professions such as professors, lawyers, doctors, and journalists, for which the value of thought is clear and accepted, find themselves increasingly trying to slot these efforts into fragments of time sieged by unrelenting messages, and meetings, and news, and minutia.

This the moment of melancholy that hit me as I returned to this book earlier this week: Many of us in such jobs have become like the young Murakami, up late after closing the bar, frustrated that the metaphorical novels we’re crafting aren’t what they could be.

16 thoughts on “Haruki Murakami and the Scarcity of Serious Thought

  1. George says:

    I dunno. I’m 79, was a runner for 50 years, wrote The Joyful Athlete, a book based on notes scribbled when I was deeply tired from 4- to 9-hour training excursions. What really glued it together was a vein of deeply meaningful ideas that I was able to glue together despite the circumstances of my life. It took decades for the ideas to congeal, but in the end they were deeply satisfying. “The best memory is not half so firm as faded ink.” (Chinese saying.) In the last six years I’ve written five big, fat books based on meaningful IDEAS.

  2. Sam says:

    “Even the elite cognitive professions such as professors, lawyers, doctors, and journalists, for which the value of thought is clear and accepted, find themselves increasingly trying to slot these efforts into fragments of time sieged by unrelenting messages, and meetings, and news, and minutia.”

    I’m an engineer: add engineering to the list of cognitive professions that don’t have time to actually think. So many people here come to the office on the weekend, trying to get a hold of some of that precious thinking time.

    ….which leads me to: burnout. Constantly competing against the clocks, constantly being tired, struggling SO hard…only to realize that you are falling very short of what you’re so capable of, if only….but day after day is lived in “good enough” mode. This leads so many in the knowledge industry to burnout: constant exhaustion, suddenly finding it a herculean task to do the simplest things (e.g. answer emails), both stressed and bored at the same time….would love it if you wrote about burnout, and referred to some experts on possible solutions for making your way out of the burnout hole. I have a feeling that high quality leisure, in addition to rest and relaxation, plays a role….

    Thank you for all you do, Cal!

    1. Ian Howlett says:

      I’m a business analyst. I completely agree with your comment.

    2. Michael Young says:

      Great comment, couldn’t agree with you more!

  3. Fantastic piece, Cal.

    Though I’m not sure I quite agree with Virginia Woolf’s idea that the writer needs ‘a room of one’s own’, the writer certainly needs ‘a schedule of one’s own’ so to speak.

    I first began writing fiction while doing kitchen and bar work (I would often scribble ideas on used order chits and squirrel them in my chequered chef trousers pockets). I was on a similar schedule to Murakami in his jazz bar. And so the work was patchy and consistent and the writing sessions sporadic.

    But in spite of these obstacles the work then was better than that produced in subsequent years when I worked more sociable hours but now had to deal with emails and a burgeoning social media obsession. Mental clarity and minimal time is better than ample time marred by incessant notifications.

    And the solution to these obstacles to art, at least in my experience, is a question of prioritisation. Intellectual monasticism involves giving things up. Largely money and the comfortable numbness of the 9-5, 40 hour work week routine.

    It’s unstable and precarious, this life of giving yourself to your art. But if you have that artist temperament then not doing this is even more unstable and precarious. That’s the bind, and it always has been.

    Tom

  4. Cameron says:

    Working in software services I see a main problem for most of my customers is that they just have too many things they have to do for their job. Nobody can focus because they have so much going on.

    1. Ian Howlett says:

      Definitely. It’s hard to mentally work on more than one complicated and different problem at a time.

  5. Jesse Miller says:

    Interesting stuff… I work at bars 5 nights a week. It’s a side job. It’s tiring but money is good. I wonder if he got bored when he moved out to country?

  6. Geoff says:

    I relate to this.

    Incidentally, frustrated with the lack of intention and progress, I have been dedicating some time each night over the last few months to spend working on blog posts. I have been making consistent progress which is a substantial improvement over the last year, but I sit down every night, tired and wanting to relax with my wife.

    Making small, consistent progress is a great starting point, but it’s nothing compared to having a clear, well rested mind, free of distraction to be maximally creative.

  7. Andrea Winchester says:

    I was surprised at the emotional impact of your last paragraph, when I suddenly realized I have more in common with Murakami than I thought. Thanks for the wakeup call.

  8. Am neither Murakami, nor Cal, but between the white & the black keys.

    Am a meandering wanna be cartoonist, with the same challenges.
    When not busy flogging chemicals for a living, I doodle.

    Must say, it’s really up to me how I peel away slivers of time from other ‘work’.
    Thanks for reminding all of us, me the most.

  9. Carl says:

    It is a great book written by a great writer.

    I completely agree that ‘narrow and deep’ is suffering at the hands of the ‘broad and wide’ world of distractions, which is why Deep Work resonated so much when I read it.

    I do however think there is oftentimes a romantic notion of artists/creatives having to give up secure work to be true to the Muse. I’m not sure I agree.

    Whilst the Murakami example is a powerful one, and clearly worked for him, I feel would be creatives hear this as an ‘all or nothing’ option. Strangely, it can be a way of letting themselves off the hook to make time (whatever time they have) to create.

    It’s not and doesn’t need to be that way. Many great artists have had more than one job. Many great artists produced great work without ever being able to make a living from their creative work alone, in their lifetime.

  10. Peter says:

    > Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.
    >
    > — George Bernard Shaw (https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/george_bernard_shaw_125582)

  11. Madalena Pupo Correia says:

    I’m a doctor and enterly agree with this piece. It’s hard to stop and have 10 minutes to think deeply about patients, let Alone have hours to do it. In between Labs, physical examinations, consults and meetings, nobody seems to care anymore about the importance of thinking and organizing the patients. Maybe a superficial aproach and guideline based activity is ok in most cases, but it’s not enough for most of the complex ones.
    Cognitive professions’ labour hours have to be reestablish to favor thinking instead of meeting little unimportant goals
    Here’s the problem: everyone can measure “sucess” based on supramentioned goals, but it’s harder to quantify and apropriatly valorize deep thinking

    1. Sam says:

      “Here’s the problem: everyone can measure “sucess” based on supramentioned goals, but it’s harder to quantify and apropriatly valorize deep thinking”

      Bingo!

  12. John Camara says:

    Whatever society does not value i.e. , pay for, will disappear. That the book was published in 2007 is indicative of the times as was the publishing of the Dunning Kruger study in 1999.

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