Haruki Murakami is a very famous Japanese novelist – but he had no intention of becoming one until he was almost 30 years of age – a reminder that its never too late in life to start a new chapter. Looking back on an essay he wrote for The New York Times nearly 10 years ago, we revisit some great words of wisdom as Haruki reminisces about his past and how his love of music paved the way for a life of writing.
“When I turned 29, all of a sudden out of nowhere I got this feeling that I wanted to write a novel – that I could do it. I couldn’t write anything…but I told myself it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to become a literary giant. Still, I had no idea how to go about writing a novel or what to write about. I had absolutely no experience, after all, and no ready-made style at my disposal. I didn’t know anyone who could teach me how to do it, or even friends I could talk with about literature. My only thought at this point was how wonderful it would be if I could write like playing an instrument.”
From a young age, he dove into reading a world of novels, but had no aspiration to ever become a writer. He mentioned, “I never believed I had the talent to write fiction. In my teens I loved writers like Dosteyevsky, Kafka, and Balzac, but I never imagined I could write anything that would simply measure up to the works they left us. And so, at an early age, I simply gave up any hope of writing fiction. I would continue to read books as a hobby, I decided, and look elsewhere for a way to make a living.”
Settling with music as his professional domain, he left his university, took out a loan, and eventually opened a little jazz club in Tokyo called – Peter Cat. He maintained a simple life with Peter Cat by serving coffee in the day time and drinks at night. He did this for seven years and for one simple reason: to listen to jazz from morning to night.
His first encounter with jazz was in Kobe, when he was 15, and got to experience Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, and Art Blakey drumming and leading group – its no wonder why he felt thunderstruck witnessing one of the strongest units in jazz history. So how did jazz play a role in his style of writing?
“I had practiced the piano as a kid, and I could read enough music to pick out a simple melody, but I didn’t have the kind of technique it takes to become a professional musician. Inside my head, though, I did often feel as though something like my own music was swirling around in a rich, strong surge. I wondered if it might be possible for me to transfer that music into writing. That was how my style got started.”
Murakami continues to wax poetic about how rhythm, melody, and harmony are all influential factors.
“Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.”
“Practically everything I know about writing, then, I learned from music. It may sound paradoxical to say so, but if I had not been so obsessed with music, I might not have become a novelist. Even now, almost 30 years later, I continue to learn a great deal about writing from good music. My style is as deeply influenced by Charlie Parker’s repeated freewheeling riffs, say, as by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegantly flowing prose. And I still take the quality of continual self-renewal in Miles Davis’s music as a literary model.”
“One of my all-time favorite jazz pianists is Thelonious Monk. Once, when someone asked him how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”
He ends his essay with brilliant insight that can be translated for not only writing, but many different art forms, with an understanding that we don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, but rather just steer it in different directions.
“I often recall these words when I am writing, and I think to myself, ‘It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words.’ I find the thought reassuring. It means that vast, unknown stretches still lie before us, fertile territories just waiting for us to cultivate them.”
Latest posts by Staff (see all)
- Replacing Something That Doesn’t Need to Be Replaced - August 20, 2018
- We Can All Be Rocket Scientists - August 16, 2018
- Mission Impossible: Mastering an Instrument - August 12, 2018