Tag Archives: Haruki Murakami

The improvised word leaves space for you

Improvisation is a powerful part of art. Dancers, musicians and actors – those things we name the performing arts – all learn to improvise as part of their craft. Their work is temporal and transient. Once the move or note is performed it is gone forever.  A recording of Miles Davis playing Kind of Blue is only a representation. To experience the real thing you need to see the artist live.

The great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami owned and ran a jazz bar before he began to write. Murakami’s books have an improvised feel, and it’s something he often touches on when interviewed. 1Q84 – Murakami’s recent three volume novel – has the structure of a thriller. There’s an assassination, a private detective, a stake out. But it’s a thriller written by Murakami (who happens to also make it a homage to Marcel Proust) so like no other thriller ever written.

Eleanor Catton is my favourite new writer for a long time. We need many more people in this world willing to say that creation is divine. In this interview for The Guardian she talks about the process of writing The Luminaries. It’s a mystery, that Catton made up scene by scene, by asking at each point what a reader might enjoy reading. That’s the heart of improvisation – being open to what comes in the moment.

Improvising doesn’t mean just making up anything. Neither is it an excuse for poor quality art. To improvise you need great expertise. You need to have internalised the structures of your art to such an extent that you can work them without conscious thought. That’s hard. It takes time and practice but also immense openness and trust. Because yes, you might fail.

When you plan, what is it you want? And which part of you wants it? Planning is an intellectual exercise. It pleases your mind to plan things out, because then your mind can be satisfied that everything is going to go as planned. Your mind doesn’t like uncertainty. It doesn’t like the possibility of failure. But without that possibility, there is no chance of success. You have to be wary of your minds motives. “I have to pay the rent this month” isn’t a thought that is going to help you create, however true it may be.

This isn’t an entry in the debate between outlining vs. not outlining a book. I don’t care, whichever is better for you. But be aware that both can be done either from grace or from fear. A fearful outline will try and fill in all the space that your imagination needs to improvise in. A graceful outline will focus much more on establishing narrative dynamics than plotting. Refusing to outline can be it’s own kind of fear, rejecting the mind’s technical knowledge, without which the imagination can create nothing tangible. “I don’t need to learn anything to be creative” is one of the first barriers hopeful creators will need to get over.

The beauty of improvisation in any creative act is that it allows us to experience the world as YOU see it. Write a thriller, that’s a great structure. But write YOUR thriller. Write a space opera or an epic fantasy, there are rich images and symbols in there to explore, but make them yours. That’s a scary thing to do. We might all see what an oddball you are! But for everything person who turns away, you’ll find many other who love you for being yourself.

The Unspecified Reader

[pullquote]I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers.

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I talk About Running


So a captain is married to her ship, and a novelist is married to her readers. Earlier this week I wrote about the social artist in my column for The Guardian, and collected some irate responses in return. What about the loner artist? What about us guys and gals who want to sit alone in our bedrooms and explore the inside of our own craniums in intimate detail. I feel certain there are any number of writers who just want to do this and nothing and I raise no objection to their doing just so. But when we talk about what it is that takes a writer from their bedroom, in to the minds and imaginations of thousands or millions of other people, it has to be some intense fascination with that unspecified number of readers. Social media gives that fascination form. Writers can’t leave Twitter alone because it provides 24 hour access to the unspecified reader who in the dark ages of print were only available through books. There has to be something in the psychology of a writer that makes the unspecified reader more important to them than any other relationship.

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Murakami Murakami Murakami

Cover of "After Dark"
Cover of After Dark

I’m in the midst of a Haruki Murakami binge. I finished Norwegian Wood a few days ago, and had to go right back to the beginning and start reading it again. I’m tearing through After Dark, and have Sputnik Sweetheart at the top of the ‘To Be Read’ stack.

(The ‘To Be Read’ stack lives by my bed. It’s actually more like seven or eight stacks. If I kept all the books that need attention in one stack, it would be taller than I am and present a genuine health and safety risk. I also have a ‘To Be Read queue for e-books.)

My Murakmi love began around 2006 when I plucked a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle from the shelves of the Piccadilly Waterstones in London. It’s very rare that I buy a book ‘cold’, most of my reading follows the trail of authors related to or influenced by other authors I’m interested in, and these days my schedule of reviewing. So to pick up a book by an author I had not even heard of, having no idea what to expect, was unusual. I was likely influenced by my love of Banana Yoshimoto (whose short story collection Lizard I read half a dozen times in my late teens).

I didn’t entirely understand Wind-Up Bird at first. I knew what happened. I knew I was powerfully affected by it. But I didn’t understand why. The story of Wind-Up Bird, which follows the journey Toru Okada as he loses first his job, then his cat, then his wife, would have strange resonance’s with my own life over the next few years. Murakami has a uniquely accurate bead on the lives of young men, and the growing-up process we go through to reach true adulthood.

All of Murakami’s novels are bildungsroman, or ‘formation novels’, in which a variety of young male protagonists, generally in their late teens / twenties / early thirties experience emotional trauma which then drives them towards true adulthood. In Norwegian Wood it is the loss of a first love that drives the story of Toru Watanabe, as he is torn between a profoundly damaging emotional entanglement with his first lover, and the hope of a future life offered by another young woman. Murakami’s protagonists, talking in the first person, are terrifyingly ignorant of their own vulnerability. There is a chilling edge to Murakami’s narrative, as he shows his chracters placing their trust in friends and lovers, but leaves open the possibility that they are being manipulated and betrayed even as they are being helped.

It’s that utter moral uncertainty that raises Murakami’s novels to greatness, along with his breathtaking exploration of the edges of the metaphysical. As his young characters are broken by loss and grief, Murakami shows how certainty and reality collapse in states of great emotion. In the most subtle and oblique ways Murakami is a fantasist, twisting strange eruptions of the weird and unreal in to his work to explore the inner lives of his characters. It’s as though his writing sits eternally on the border between the real and mundane and the fantastic and numinous, with every part of his story slipping freely between the two.

My latest Murakami binge has been set off by the release of the film of Norwegian Wood. Which I can now watch, having decided there was no way I wanted to spoil the book by watching the film first. Here is the trailer. If it catches your attention, but you have not read Murakami yet, I suggest you do so immediately.