What I Think About When I Think About Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”

First Pic of the Fall Semester

One of the strangest feelings academia produces is waking up, looking at a blank page, and beginning to write page one of two hundred. I’m not even sure how to describe it- intimidating?  flummoxing? disheveling? discombobulating? A lot of “dis-” words come to mind. I’m in my fifth and final year of my doctoral program, teaching and continuing my job as an editor for a student magazine, all while in the thick of dissertation writing. With the end of my program around the corner, I would love to take a day off to just sit with my feelings and ask myself, What do I want? Where do I see myself going? What contribution do I wish to make with the training I’ve received during my time at OSU? The problem is that every moment I can spare has now been allocated to the dissertation writing process. The whole process feels all-encompassing, like swimming in jell-o. I have no idea if I’ll ever make it out, or if I’m even doing the thing I’m supposed to do to get out. There are days when you are on an upswing, where the words flow out of you, sentences like strings of brilliance, like you were born to do this. But those periods do not last long, only to then face the dreaded blank page again. A good day is when writing happens. My biggest problem was getting there.

I started this process in the Fall of last year. I thought I knew what I wanted to write, but every time I read a new source or started the outlining process, I was knocked sideways, as if to remind me how much value this document has. Looking back, it wasn’t just the writing that knocked me back- the whole semester was really strange. My semester started with passing candidacy exams, then shooting right into teaching. I was still working as an editor, while also applying for grants and scholarships, and teaching recitation, which is where you teach a secondary component to a lecture class. I have done work like that before, multiple times, but being in the classroom felt way more taxing. Another facet to last Fall that needs to be stated was that it was the first semester where meeting in class was starting up after a year of distance learning for a lot of departments, including mine. We were all wearing face masks, trying to fend off the latest coronavirus variant. Something about spending all day in the library and in class wearing a facemask felt so exhausting. Teaching sucked the life out of me. I didn’t get any of the grants I applied for. I was dating someone that ended terribly. I’m juggling all of these molotov cocktails, all while trying to generate pages for a document that is supposed to encapsulate my work as a grad student. You know that feeling when you’re cooking, and you’re in a terrible mood, and as a result, the food ends up tasting really gross? That’s what it felt like to look at the words at that stage of diss writing. I was not in a good place, and the words on the page were gross and unappealing.

At the end of the semester, I got to do something that always cheers up my LA-native soul. I went back home to Los Angeles for winter break. I was already imagining the juicy In-N-Out burger I was about to have, and the seasonal tamales and carnitas being prepped at home. I couldn’t wait to see my friends and family, compressing the period between the last time I saw them and now into nothing. It was going to be great…until it wasn’t. Due to the latest Omicron variant, a lot of places shut back down, and seeing friends was really difficult. Since a lot of friends were staying with family, a lot of people chose to play it safe and not go out to public places or allow non-immediate family or guests over. That was exactly what everyone was supposed to do, as we were all reminded on a daily basis the exponential increase in infections and deaths. Hanging out with friends and enjoying the period between semesters was usurped by COVID-19…again. I tried making small adventures out of going grocery shopping with family or playing with my pets. It was a tiny bit of salve on a wound that refused to heal.

Post-Drive My Car Nightcap

Looking back, there was one thing that happened that winter break that ended up becoming a small gem through the weeds of that period. I saw the film Drive My Car, directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. It was a film based on a Haruki Murakami short story about the relationship between the protagonist and his driver. What drew me to it was how a movie about two people in car can become this overarching meditation on life and relationships. I thought about the times I would drive my own car for hours on end, my favorite music playing, letting my thoughts run their course, or the times when some of the most intimate discussions I’ve had with friends took place while looking forward in a cramped space and terrible weather blaring outside. That was my impression of the film; it was way more than that. It was a three-hour movie (possibly the longest movie I’ve seen in a theater) about love, grief, relationships, music, the contrasts between early and modern Japan, Anton Chekov, the #metoo era, and storytelling. This film blew me away. I loved how it portrayed the relationships people have with their cars, and how a skill like driving well can become a catalyst for two people bonding. It reminded me of my car-loving days, feeling so connected to every movement, every sway, behind the wheel. It reminded me of the pride I took changing the brake pads and adjusting the timing of the engine, looking at my dirty hands without shame. And it was way more than that, too. (Spoiler alert for the ending!) At the end of the film, the two characters bond over the grief they’ve experienced after losing loved ones. As the two simultaneously experience the catharsis they both needed, the protagonist says to the driver, “Those who survive keep thinking about the dead. In one way or another that will continue. You and I must keep living…it’ll be okay”. It’d a beautiful sentiment about living with grief and the toll it takes to process it. I’m sitting in the theater, while thinking about the thousands of people suffering from COVID infections, strapped to ventilators and refusing to get vaccinated. (Sidenote- I went to see the film wearing a face mask, but it was so empty, not wearing one was not a huge problem) I started doubt my reading of this film, thinking, No- you’re reading too much into this. It was a few moments later when the film comes to its full closure, where you see the driver at a grocery store shopping while wearing a face mask, and the store taking all necessary COVID precautions. I left the theater, putting my mask back on as I walked through the lobby, thinking…This is the movie I needed to see this Winter break. I flew back to Columbus a couple of days later, though I wished I could have driven the whole way back.

First Pic of the Spring Semester

The Spring semester was starting to look like a huge improvement when it started. I was teaching my own class, still working for the magazine, and my focus got a lot sharper. While it wasn’t difficult to resume teaching and studying, one distraction was feeling so compelled to read more Haruki Murakami. I wanted to read the original Drive My Car story, but I thought, How can I dedicate time reading something that has nothing to do with my studies while writing my dissertation? But it was such a hard feeling to shake. More questions started creeping in. What did they get right adapting the story? How do you turn a 30-pg. story into a three-hour movie? What does the writing of that story look like? Do all Haruki Murakami adaptations have this quality? I just had to read this story. I bought a copy of Men Without Women, the anthology where Drive My Car is from. I read the story, then the rest of the stories. (my favorite was Scheherazade) On those days where writing just wasn’t happening, I would take my copy out and read. Then I started noticing something…every time I read, all of the cobwebs in my head started to clear. I don’t know if it served as a healthy distraction, or some kind of warm-up for my brain (maybe both?), but I soon started reading for myself before writing, and it became this amazing solution to getting through writing. I would read, then put it away and focus on diss writing, and I got so much done! Reading became this safe space when it came to the diss writing blues. And, somehow, Haruki Murakami became the unofficial mayor of this space.

Murakami by candlelight

I read a lot of books during this writing process. I read The Book of Illusions, a Paul Auster novel I’ve been meaning to read for a while; I re-read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, a book assigned to me from my Page-to-Bedside class, but nonetheless a book I’m happy to reread; I also read several Junji Ito Mangas, including Uzumaki and Remina. But after reading Men Without Women, I entered this phase where I wanted to read everything ever written by Haruki Murakami. Initially, it was because I knew I would never have to write a paper about it. It felt nice to read something that had nothing to do with my studies. I also didn’t want my impression of Murakami writing to solely be based on an anthology of short stories. He’s a novelist, through-and-through…the kind I aspire to be. The book I started after was Kafka on the Shore. It is one of the most jarring books I’ve ever read, with several timelines and material that would irk anyone, like statutory rape, animal mutilation, and incest. It had all of this, yet it was also a marvel of a novel. Every component a novel needs to be great, this one delivered them without hesitation. Every character, subplot, setting, element of fantasy and the surreal, historical reference, every piece delivered in this amazing book, a book I could read the way I tear into a steak. It was a really good book to read. I had to continue this trek, reading one hour a day, as the fuel for diss writing.

I later read After Dark and I’m currently reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Reading After Dark felt more like witnessing an experience these two people went through, the way someone recounts the last bender they went on. I loved how it spoke to my  Nightowl self, navigating the world at three in the morning. Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a slow burn. I didn’t think I was going to like a novel about a guy whose wife leaves him as the starting point of a novel, until the stories wrapped around it unfurled into this landscape of adventures. I also read a book that concretized my connection to Murakami: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. In this memoir, Murakami connects the novel-writing experience to preparing for a marathon.  After reading the description, I felt that this was one of those books that comes into your life for a reason. I love what writing does for me and I love what running does to me. Identifying as a writer and a jogger, it’s not difficult to see the connection between the two. And I would love for that to be the end of it, but it was impossible to read this and not think about dissertation writing. This is the writing taking over my everyday. All day, I think about sentences, flow, coherence, framing devices, how my sources work together, and try to organize them into a piece of writing that encapsulates my research interests. I’m in the headspace Murakami is in as I read his book, but am producing writing that could not be more different.

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I really appreciated the moments in the book where he talks about his process, for both writing and running, as they almost mirrored what I knew about both this whole time. He loves talking about the music he listens to during running and his love of a good fountain pen. I don’t listen to music when I go jogging, and I’ve never owned a fountain pen. But I do know how important creating a good playlist or loading an album to get into a writing grove is. It becomes the oil that lights the flame inside of you when you are on a writing upswing. I don’t, nor have I ever, owned a fountain pen, but I always carry a journal in case some idea pops into my head, catching it before its ephemeral state disappears into nothingness. There are only so many things in the world more pleasing than writing a letter with a good pen, on paper that aides in communicating the heart of those words. Music and a love for stationary are fine connections, but when he gets into the connections between writing and running a marathon is when I totally get what he means. Early in the book, he writes, “…writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically, a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible”. I love the feeling when I get to do the writing I want to do (such as the writing I do here, on my blog). I don’t feel like the world is pressuring me to produce something, or like I’m competing with anyone. I’m practicing and putting in the work because I want to be a better writer than I was yesterday. As for “validation in the outwardly visible”, I don’t know who reads my blog, but if someone took the time to do so, all I can feel is appreciation that they cared enough to do so. (Sidenote: to those reading this, I can’t describe to you enough how grateful I am for your eyes and for your time) These connections are real, and I have experienced many, if not, all of these. But that’s when I write for me. When it comes to dissertation writing…ugh.

When I think about dissertation writing, I think about the parameters I’m confined to. The writing is direct and unambiguous for a reason. You are trying to enter the space that is academic discourse, which involves being fluent in academic jargon and, at minimum, the last hundred years of research in your field. The sentences themselves are under a kind of scrutiny that will require multiple rewrites, even if it means starting from scratch. While the writing is important, what is just as important is the time spent researching, making sure you are in dialogue with the scholarship, while also making sure you are not missing any of the latest arguments or contributions. Sometimes, writing a novel can feel like this, where you are trying to do something new and make your contribution to the literary world known, but a stark difference is that when writing a novel, there is no committee you must stay in constant contact with in order to make sure your writing is contributing something meaningful. The process, for better or worse, is collaborative, very much unlike the novel writing or the marathon running Murakami talks about. There’s an adage that gets thrown around in grad student circles once you reach the dissertation phase: a good dissertation is a done dissertation. I care so much about writing well, and I feel so gross turning in work that I’m not proud of. Concurrently, every day that passes, that adage that becomes more and more true.

There’s a part in WITAWITAR (can I use this acronym for What I Think About When I Think About Running? or stick to the title? what do you think?…Yeah, I’ll stick with the title) where Murakami reflects on what it takes to be a writer after being asked this question so many times. He breaks it down to three parts: talent, focus, and endurance. Here is where the connections to dissertation writing become very apparent. For talent, yes, this is very necessary. While the talent to write a novel and a dissertation are vastly different, they both nonetheless require talent; it’s just a different kind of talent. While the work, writing, and training you do in a graduate program leads you up to this stage, if you do not possess the talent to write a dissertation, it will ultimately lead to difficult conversations you will have to have with your committee. It’s very hard to imagine someone making it to the dissertation phase and not possess the skills needed to write a dissertation, but it’s not only possible; it has led to some brilliant people not completing their programs. The talent, however, is not exactly the same as writing a novel. If your writing possesses the ability to reflect your interests in your field and shape your ideas in a way that contributes something meaningful, then you can essentially write a dissertation. This kind of talent has more to do with making artful connections and seeing something through the material that only you can see. It’s still difficult to master, but it’s ultimately very much a talent you have to possess. The second part is focus. I don’t think anyone would disagree with this opinion. Murakami describes this focus as “the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment”. It is so easy to get distracted, or to go off on a research tangent, or stop writing because of all of the other things you are working on. That will be the doom of your dissertation. You have to focus on things like deadlines, a cap on sources, and making sure you are in communication with your committee. This is a big deal because it is so easy to leave it. If you are not dedicating time to your dissertation at least 2-3 times a week, you will be the grasshopper who didn’t harvest during the summer, getting left out in the cold in the winter. And the winters in the Midwest can be pretty brutal. The third part is endurance. This is also something I can’t think anyone would disagree with. The main reason is because you are being asked to write a looooooooooong piece of writing composed by hours and hours of research. Not only can you not treat a dissertation like a term paper you wrote the night before, but it’s not possible. You have to dedicate so many hours to studying your subject, to the point where it’s totally possible that you’ll spend weeks solely dedicated to reading about your subject. You also have to endure the revision process, which involves spending weeks of writing, only to be asked to start all over since your research is inconsistent and your writing isn’t reflecting your best writing. If you can’t dust off your shoulders and continue working through that process, you won’t finish. That’s another thing no one would disagree with. These three parts speak so much to writing, both to novel writing, and dissertation writing, but (if I may), as someone who is interested in both, I feel that we can add one more part: you have to care. Whether it’s the inner-lives of the characters, or the main argument of your dissertation, it’s going to be so hard to push through and finish if you are writing something you have no interest in. You are writing about a subject you will dedicate hours on days on weeks on months on years of writing. The interest you have in it has to be a kind of interest that will encourage you to continue to write to write well. (this may be my own prejudice when it comes to writing, but…) If you are writing about something that you don’t care about, why should your audience care? I know that graduation status and economic factors contribute to the completion of a project, but like one of the lessons you have most likely learned at the professional stage of your life, you are forced to ask, If you don’t love what you do, why do it? I’m saying this while a gigantic pile of books is waiting for me to pick up at the library. I really don’t want to go down there right now. But I will. I know I will.

When Murakami writes about running marathons and the connections he makes to novel writing, you can tell they are coming from genuine observations. He reflects on his time running a marathon in Athens and how he had to completely change his daily and weekly routine to become a full-time writer. But, ultimately, writing a dissertation and a novel are two different things. I think about my experience with diss writing, and then about the kind of running I’m into. During the summer, I would spend all day in the library until it closed, then go to the gym. Due to a health issue I’ve had for years (you can learn all about that here), I adopted a jogging practice that helps address that issue. I’ll go the indoor track, jog three laps, then sprint the next lap. Those four laps are one set- I’ll do three sets. When you start, you are well-aware of what you are trying to accomplish, keeping an even pace, making sure you are jogging slowly, but fast enough to give yourself a workout. After the first lap, you feel good, like you are in sync with your body, and the process, and things are going well. You keep jogging, focusing on reaching each benchmark, finishing lap 2, then lap 3. As you turn into the end of the lane, you think about how much energy you will need for the next lap, hoping that you have enough….

AND THEN YOU SPRINT!!!!!!!

you can feel the fire coming out of your lungs, your legs are made of pure muscle, launching you forward like a cheetah, you work and work and work, breathe and breathe and breathe, pumping out as much as you can, then you see the finish line, but you don’t slow down, you speed up, faster, and then…..

You start the next set. Your body wants you to stop…but you can’t. You are now in the process of completing this project, visualizing the end, and how good it will feel when it’s done. Your pace slows down dramatically, until you pass that second lap, then you get a new wave of inspiration. You feel better, jog a little faster, and your vision clears up. You feel like you have regained the energy you lost since the first lap. Your confidence comes back, and you keep working….

AND THEN YOU SPRINT!!!!!!

your lungs hate you. The ease of quitting is so tempting. This is strenuous work. Why the hell are you doing this? Your feet hurt after lap after lap of pounding the track floor, your legs wobble, if it wasn’t for the focus you held on to, you most likely would have slipped, but you keep going, because you have to, then it’s strangely not so bad…

The next set starts up, and you feel exhausted. You jog at a drastically slowed pace, caring more about just standing up straight than finishing. You hope that you will feel better once you finish the second lap, but you don’t. Instead, you are now solely dedicated to finishing. Your arms are swaying instead of swinging, the thoughts in your head are just jumbles. You try to pick up the pace in the third lap, but you are so exhausted, it’s almost impossible. But you keep going…because you have to. You have done so much work. Work to be proud of. Work that is the product of dedication, focus, and endurance. You did this. You are the one completing this final lap. There is no one competing against you. It’s just you and one more lap. One more lap that will most likely take all of the wind out of you…

AND THEN YOU SPRINT!!!

sprint, damn you! You can do this…you’re running…you’re one with your talent…words…ideas…clarity…these are only things you care about at this point, all of your energy, all of your heart, goes into finishing this lap…faster…you’re so close…the last bend is coming up, but you don’t slow down…you speed up…finish on your terms…you got yourself here, after laps and laps of hard work and determination…you’re about to cross the finish line….

You finish your final lap, stop cold, and take the heaviest breaths your body can withstand. Yes, it hurts to exhale, yes, it hurts to drink cold water so quickly, yes, you are drenched in sweat…but you did it. You did it when even you yourself thought you couldn’t finish. You’ve earned a large gulp of cold water. You’ve earned splashing your scalp with water, not caring about the water that splashes around the fountain. Once you’ve caught your breath, you walk out another lap to gradually slow your heart down, but also as a kind of victory lap, reveling in accomplishment. The air entering your lungs feels so good, puffing out your chest each time, accompanied by a sense of pride that only comes from accomplishing something great…

That’s what it’s like after finishing one chapter in your dissertation. You have three to go, plus an introduction and conclusion. I’m gonna do a lot of running.

Reading Murakami novels made me think so much about being a writer. As I was reading this, I asked myself, kinda a lot, what is the writing I’m interested in. I want to be a novelist, writing stories that tap into that feeling in your heart that reminds you of your humanity. (I also want to know, How do I write and not come off as a sexist? A lot of criticism of Murakami comes from accusations of sexism. There is a very interesting piece that looks into that, including an interview with a renowned Japanese novelist. Read that interview here) My goal now is to channel that passion into the writing I’m doing now. My research is on the comics of COVID-19, specifically on the comics written during the first waves of COVID-19 spread, pre-vaccine. I want to explore what the comic medium has to offer writers who tried to work during a pandemic and the anxieties that came along with it. The questions I’m asking help to ground the seriousness of my work with my passion for medical humanities and comics studies. I may not be writing in the style I get to in my blog, but I was able to find an idea that can address the struggles of everyday people trying to live through a pandemic, and possibly provide insight into what it means to survive a pandemic. I think about the writing I’m doing, Drive My Car, how, as I write this, we are still in a pandemic, and my own experience catching COVID. I know what my heart wants to say. I now have to adhere to the process that will bring these ideas into the space that is academia. There’s a passage in the book that makes me think about what I’m being asked, and whether or not I could even do it. In What I Think About When I Think About Running, Murakami writes,

“I think certain types of processes don’t allow for any variation. If you have to be part of that process, all you can do is transform-or perhaps distort-yourself through that persistent repetition, and make that process a part of your own personality”.

I care about this project, and I want to do it well.  The goal now is to embrace this new genre of writing and use it as a vehicle for sharing my passion with the public. The process is difficult, but if it produces writing I can be proud of, I will do the work, and smile when it’s done, drinking the Negroni waiting for me at my favorite bar after my defense, celebrating with all of the voices that cheered me on getting here.

Epilogue: I would love to share some kind of wisdom or advice about dissertation writing I learned during this process, but the process itself is so individualized, that it’s hard to imagine one piece of advice that can speak to everyone in this stage. Interestingly enough, it is that uniqueness that helped me come up with something:

You ever hear someone say something about a friend, or in the movies when someone wants to pull a heist, and there’s something they have to do that’s really difficult, and someone says, “I know a guy”. The “guy” is someone so specialized and so good at what they do, it is no question that they will accomplish whatever task you give them. Writing a dissertation means aspiring to be “the guy”- you are the one person that is so specialized in your field, that you become the person people go to, scholars or not, when it comes to the subject. Your skill will be undeniable, and your aptitude will be legendary. When you’re “the guy”, you are the ambassador of your ideas, where you, and only, you can contribute this kind of writing, earning you praise in your circles. Be “the guy” that wrote your dissertation.

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