Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Way According to Haruki

I'm currently reading Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, a magical novel set not in the historical 1984 but in an alternate period of time named by one of its characters, who realizes that everybody seems to remember events of which she has no recollection: a Russian/American plan to put a base on the moon, a giant shoot-out between police and a religious sect at a remote lake.  Through a hilarious but inescapable train of logic, she comes to the conclusion (correct, as it turns out) that she's not living in 1984 at all any more, but rather 1Q84, a sort of parallel 1984 in which the "Q" stands for "question." 

Any doubt she might have on the topic is dispelled the night a second moon appears, and no one finds it even slightly remarkable.  Murakami dazzles me like no other living writer, and I was sitting there, reading with my mouth hanging open, thinking, How does he do this? when he takes us into the head of the novel's other main character, a novelist who's ghost-writing a manuscript written by a very peculiar 17-year-old girl who seems to have at least one foot in a separate reality, and inside the writer's head we learn the following:

He had no well-defined plan for rewriting the novella, no consistent method or guidelines that he had prepared, just a few detailed ideas for certain sections. . . . Such thoughts only caused him confusion and anxiety.  He couldn't just sit there, arms folded, thinking.  All he could do was work on one small, concrete problem after another.  Perhaps, as he worked on each detail by hand, an overall image would take shape spontaneously.

Now, I'm not kidding myself that this is the magic formula that will give me a talent as extravagant as Murakami's, but it rings so absolutely true that I thought I'd noodle about it in a blog.

He couldn't just sit there, arms folded, thinking.  This is, I believe, the approach that kills many books-- and not only books, but complex, long-range projects of all kinds--dead in their infancy.  Sure, it makes sense to mull an idea over, whether it's a 200,000-word epic poem or a way to rearrange the living room.  But beyond a point, I believe that too much thought muddies things and invites doubt to build its ugly little fort; as Hamlet says, "thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought."

In other words, we start to screw it up for ourselves.  And the key, I think, is action.

All he could do was work on one small, concrete problem after another.  One of the most valuable insights I ever had into the writing process was that we never sit down to write a novel.  We sit down to get a character from Point A to Point B, to describe how a woman wears a hat, to find an interesting way to say that the sky is blue.  When we've done that, we've laid a little more track in the railway, we've added a little length to the thousand-mile sentence that comprises a novel. We're performing a small task, not a huge one.  We're not sitting down to produce a novel.  Or whatever project someone is working on.  And if we're fortunate, or if we work long enough . . .

Perhaps, as [we] work on each detail by hand, an overall image would take shape spontaneously.  Here it is: For me, this is the magic of the creative process.  We add a stepping stone to the path over the void, and something takes shape in front of us and it draws us forward and keeps us building.  It's mysterious on one plane, and yet, on another, it's just like everyday life.  Time and again in our lives we take a chance on something new, we take a leap, and if necessary, we grow our wings on the way down*.  And then, when we've landed, we look around and say, "Oh, so this is the direction I was meant to take."

Maybe I'm fooling myself, and other people are much more together and more intentional about things than I am, but this rings very true to me, both in art and in life: I have no consistent method or guidelines that [I have] prepared, just a few detailed ideas for certain sections.  

I know how I want to be with my wife.  I know what kind of work ethic I want to demonstrate.  I have convictions about the responsibilities I owe other people.  I have a general intention to be good.

But the rest of it is ad-lib, both in writing and in life.  I'm making it up as I go along.  The odd thing is that it seems less revealing to say that's my approach to life than to admit -- to proclaim -- that it's my approach to writing.  Writing is art, sort of, and art is supposed to be different.

I mean, isn't it?

Maybe not.

* "Sometimes we just have to make our leap and grow our wings on the way down."  -- Yoji Yamada, the most-produced screenwriter in the history of movies, with more than 100 scripts filmed .

Tim -- Sunday


  1. Another inspiring post for writers and would be writers, Tim! Now we know how you writers do it~

  2. I have the same sort of experiences Tim. I've just finished the first draft of a piece following some new characters in very unusual circumstances. It's rough but it's ready. Now maybe Stan and I can work it into something to add to those railway tracks...

  3. Once again you've given me an inspirational quote to post alongside one that guided me as a lawyer, "No mistake is as bad as failing to make a decision."

  4. I liken my process to a bad chef - throw enough pasta at the wall - when it sticks it's cooked

  5. Tim, either you use a VERY large font, or your yardstick has different markings than mine. You said, "...the thousand-mile sentence that comprises a novel."

    Now, in the hardcover of Queen, there are about 304 pages, and a full page is 38 lines, but let's call it 300 pages and 35 lines per page, to account for the partial pages at the beginning and end of chapters, and the empty space at the beginning and end of paragraphs (we are, after all, just ballparking here). Each line on the page is (approximately) 4.3 inches long. So that's 300x35x4.3 = 45,150 inches = 3,762.5 feet = 0.71 miles, less than THREE-QUARTERS OF A MILE!

    I suspect you're spinning a yarn here, or else you've been writing short stories all these years, not real novels.