||Translated by Kazuo Uekura
Sometimes I meet a person who says " I've had so many interesting
experiences that I can write lots of books about them."
I think I've heard quite a few people say the same thing especially
since I came here. This doesn't mean that Americans say such
a thing, but that many Japanese living in America often do.
What they say might be probably true, because it's quite challenging
to live away from their home country, and they must have encountered
various kinds of exciting happenings in this country. It's quite
natural that they should have a strong wish to tell their story
to someone else.
Of course, I don't know if they are really going to write their
own novels someday. But I can only say this after all; despite
the background as a writer who has written quite a number of
novels so far, I've almost never had any "truly exciting"
incidents in my private life. No doubt I might have had something
exciting as a person living more than 40 years, such as meeting
a strange and mysterious person or being greatly shocked by
a sudden change of destiny. Some memory, I can't tell you what
it is though, makes me smile and some still makes me so sore.
Thrilling things once quivered me with excitement. Nevertheless
I guess you must also have gone through such things as I have
experienced in my life. I've never met anyone who can be said
to have experienced "such an unbelievable happening as
no one ever had even in this large world." If I were quite
a stranger to writing novels and asked if I can declare to people
that "I've got so much stock of interesting topics for
my writing, " then my answer to this question will be "No."
Definitely "No." What I could do is just confess honestly
that "My life was somewhat interesting in its way, but
not interesting enough to write a novel about it."
For all this, in a very rare occasion we stumble upon people
who encountered incredible experiences in this world. I like
their story telling since a boy, and I often ask them to tell
their own episode. I have no idea of using their story as a
subject for my novel, but I just feel like listening to them.
Various tales exist; some of them are stunning, moving, heartily
laughable, and chilling me with fear. Their narrative is sometimes
so enchanting as to make me forget to go to bed. It is true
that "Fact is stranger than fiction. " But it is not
always true that the person, who has gone through such an excitement,
can write a novel as stimulating as his experience. There might
be a writer like Jack London (an American novelist 1878-1916)
who makes up extraordinarily interesting books from his plentiful,
extraordinary experiences, but judging from my knowledge, such
a novelist is rather exceptional.
Though this is my private opinion, people are inclined to be
captured by the keen sense of helplessness while actually writing
them down once they suffer overwhelming experiences. Painful
is the stress when one cannot reproduce or convey vividly to
others, however hard he tries, what he's experienced so intensely.
In my case, the stronger is the intention to "write about
a particular subject in a particular way," the harder it
becomes to start writing and to express myself. This stress
somewhat resembles the irritation one feels when he cannot describe
to another person what he experienced so vividly and realistically
in his dreams. All words I use to narrate my feeling of the
moment fail incessantly to describe what I wish to, and then
they begin to betray me.
To the contrary, there are some people, despite their lack of
experiences, who can find out something funny and something
pitiful in a trivial incident from their unique viewpoint which
is quite different from that of others. They can recreate their
findings into a different form and tell other people more comprehensibly
about them. These people are standing much closer to novelists.
Anyway I have no experience in my life which is really worth
telling you about. I can understand why John Irving said something
to the effect that "If I write my books based on my personal
experiences, my readers will probably fall asleep after the
first 20 pages." In my case, less than 20 pages. It is
generally believed that writers create their works under the
influence of various real experiences, though. For instance,
when I published my first novel, my acquaintances around me
suddenly started to become restless and nervous. They began
to keep a distance from me though we had been enjoying a casual
relationship until that time. At first I couldn't make out why,
but after talking to them, I noticed they gave the cold shoulder
to me for fear that I might use them as the models for my next
book. We've been getting along with one another since they found
that I had no intention to write such kind of novels.
Since I came to the States, I've visited lots of universities
and talked with many American students. I've talked publicly
before a large audience, too. But I feel more comfortable when
speaking face to face in a small class, using my own words and
following my own casual style. Sometimes after class, all of
us went to a pub and enjoyed an open and frank conversation
over a glass of beer. In such an atmosphere, there is no difference
between American and Japanese students. Students, who assumed
an affected attitude in the presence of a teacher during the
session, now get relaxed and recover the childish sparkle in
They are usually the students interested in Japanese Literature
or Japanese, but for many of them, this is the first time in
their life to meet a novelist. Therefore they are very eager
to know something very realistic about a novelist, for instance,
what kind of creature a writer is, what kind of ideas he has,
and what kind of life he is living. Some of them wish to write
a novel themselves, too. These novelist-oriented students are
keenly interested to know how they can start writing a novel
or become a novelist. Most typical questions asked by them are
1. What did you want to write in your university days?
2. How did you publish your first novel?
3. What do you think is the most essential for writing novels?
From my standpoint as a private writer, I find it almost impossible
to expand my case into the level of all writers and to teach
them that "Novelists are such-and-such people" or
"This is the way to write a novel" or "You can
become a writer in this way." I also find it meaningless
to suggest to them knowingly some "correct" theory
of becoming a novelist. So I show them my concrete example,
saying that "In my case I am like this." Besides,
they much prefer the quick, descriptively "colorful"
start-up example to the logical, abstract theory or concept.
In this "concrete and colorful" way, wherever I went,
I explained to the students how I became a novelist, and I happened
to notice that it was nearly good luck itself that made me a
writer. Sometimes I am deeply impressed by the fact that I could
become a writer.
When a student, I was certainly thinking of writing something.
More specifically, I wanted to write film scenarios. Scenarios
first, and then novels, for I felt interested in films. That
is why I chose to enter the Film & Drama Course in Waseda
University, but I gave up writing scenarios halfway, thinking
it didn't fit me. I didn't have the slightest idea of what to
write or how to write in those days. Neither any material nor
any theme did I have to write about. Such a person could never
start writing a script ( or anything else), which was a self-evident
fact. But I liked to read film scripts anyway, so I went to
the Drama Museum on campus almost everyday, if not attending
classes, and devoured all the film scripts in the West and in
the East through all ages. Looking back on my student days now,
I think this devouring helped me so much. Therefore, I think
I can give a piece of advice to younger people, having a wish
to write something, that "you need not force yourself to
write something when you can not." I wonder if this might
help them or not though.
Then I graduated from Waseda, got married, and started working.
(No, it is opposite. I married, started working, and then graduated
from university.) Driven by the severe everyday life, I totally
forgot my wish to write something. To clear off my debts, I
had to work from early in the morning till late at night like
"a whipped carriage-horse," which sounds like a non-literary
clich?, though. I continued it for seven years. As my bar served
the "stuffed cabbage" , for instance, I had to cut
a full bag of onions into tiny pieces every morning. Still now
I can manage to cut plenty of onions in a short time even without
shedding tears. My hands automatically and swiftly move as if
they knew how to do it.
"Do you know the knack of slicing onions without tears?"
I ask my students sometimes.
"No," they say.
"Finish cutting them before tears start dropping."
A big laughter occurs.
When it comes to the topic like this, a lively sparkle appears
in my students' eyes. That might be partly because they've rarely
heard such a story in their regular classes, and partly because
they more or less have a sort of vague anxiety about their future:
"What kind of life course am I going to follow?" "What
kind of possibility can I find there?" I can understand
their sense of instability about their present position and
their future. Around the age of twenty, I was as unstable as
they are now, or my case must have been far worse than what
the word "unstable" means. If a god appears here and
asks me if I'd like to go back to the age of twenty again, I
will probably decline by saying "I appreciate your offer,
but I am quite satisfied with the way I am now." If you
pardon me, I want to say frankly "To hell with my twenties."
Then at the age of 29, a sudden impulse of writing a novel knocked
on me. Now I'll explain about it more. It was an early afternoon
in spring and I went to see a baseball game between Yakult Swallows
and Hiroshima Carp in Jingu Baseball Stadium. Lying down in
the outfield bleacher, drinking beer, and when a player named
Hilton hit a double, I made a sudden resolution that "Now
it's time for me to start writing a novel." This is how
I started to write a novel.
When I give such an explanation to my students, all of them
make a stunned face. "That means ah...the ball game meant
something very special to you?" "I don't think so.
The spring sunshine, the taste of beer, the flying two-base-hit
ball, all these elements got together and they stimulated something
in me, I guess," I explain. "All I needed was the
time and the experience to identify myself. It doesn't have
to be a special experience. It doesn't matter that they are
just a series of ordinary experiences. But they have to be the
experiences that are embedding themselves deeply in my body.
When a student, I couldn't find out what to write despite the
itch for writing something. I needed the seven years and hardships
to discover the theme for my writing, I guess." "If
you hadn't gone to the ball game stadium on that April afternoon,
you would not be a writer now, Mr. Murakami?"
I really mean it; "Who knows?" If I hadn't been in
the stadium that afternoon, I might have lived my ordinary life
without writing any novels. But as a matter of fact, I was in
the empty outfield bleacher of Jingu Stadium on that spring
afternoon - yes the stadium was really empty in those days -
and lying down, watching Dave Hilton hit a beautiful double
into left field, I came to write my first book "Hear The
Wind Sing." It might have been the only "extraordinary"
incident in my life.
"Mr. Murakami, do you think something similar will happen
in everybody else's life?"
"I have no idea." That is the only answer I can give.
"But I imagine something similar, if not exactly the same,
will more or less happen to anybody else. The instance of revelation
must sometime visit you when various things suddenly get connected
to each other. Well, at least, don't you think our life would
be happier if we believed such a moment is sure to come?"
Anyway I think I learned quite a few things from my job. A few
years ago a book titled "All I Really Need to Know I Learned
in Kindergarten" became a big bestseller here in the U.S.,
and in my case the same thing can be said: "All I need
to know I learned in my jazz bar." I acquired various knowledge
at the schools that I attended, but frankly speaking, this kind
of knowledge didn't help me very much when writing a novel.
I have no idea of maintaining that the school education is meaningless,
but I rarely met a situation when it came home to me how important
my school education was. When I was a small boy, my mother told
me that "If you don't work hard now, you will have regrets
for not having studied harder after having grown up." Her
advice gave me a vague feeling that she might be right, but
still I can't understand what she really meant. That's because
after grown up, I've never regretted that "I should have
studied harder when young." It is my twenties that taught
me some truth about how I should live, and in those days I was
literally engaged in physical labor day after day. I spent every
day in my twenties working both physically and desperately hard
in order to pay my debts every month. I could not think about
anything else even if I tried. But as a result, that kind of
hard labor nourished me most. Labor was the best teacher to
me and my "true university."
For instance, managing a bar, I have a lot of customers every
day, and not everybody necessarily likes my place, or more accurately,
just a few of themdo. But strange to say, you can manage to
carry on your business if one or two customers out of ten really
like your place and if they wish to "drop by this bar again."
Sometimes you can have a better result when only a few out of
ten really love your place rather than when eight, or nine customers
merely feel that "it is not bad." This lesson came
home to me, while I was running my bar, through the pains as
if to have all the bones in my body crushed. Even when many
people speak harshly about my book, I can believe, firmly and
in the daily sense brewed through my own experiences, that it
doesn't matter so long as one or two of them intuitively understand
what I want to express. It became an invaluable lesson to me.
Without these experiences, it might have been much harder for
me to live as a novelist and some malicious comments on my book
might have disturbed my own pace. When I talked about these
things with Ryu Murakami (one of the contemporary writers in
Japan; his novel "Almost Transparent Blue" in 1976
won the coveted Akutagawa Award and the Gunzou Award for New
Writers), he was impressed and exclaimed that "You are
really great, Haruki. I'll get mad by not being praised by all
of the ten critics." But his comment, on the contrary,
impresses me because it certainly sounds like himself.
Though I have no idea of boasting of myself - it isn't even
worth boasting of, I'm not a person to think by using my brain,
but rather a person to do so by actually moving my body. I am
a person who can learn or write only through the body. That
is because I used to make my living by making use of my body
from morning till night. That is everything the word 'work'
meant to me. This character of mine sometimes makes me feel
out of place in "the world of literature." Partly
this sense of "out of place" might have urged me to
go abroad and live away from Japan for such a long time. The
reason I cannot do without my favorite jogging and swimming
may have the same origin.
About writing a novel, I have almost nothing to "teach"
to my students. "All you have to do is live actually. If
you really wish from the bottom of your heart to write something
or to express yourself to somebody else, the time is sure to
come when you can write something despite the fact that you
can't write anything well now. Until that time you carefully
continue to pile up your daily experiences one by one as if
to lay bricks one after another. For example, love someone seriously,
" I say, and then some student responds that "I can
do it, too," which makes all of them laugh. Another student
asks "What shall I do, if such a time doesn't come to me?"
Some giggle. In such an instance, without any hesitation, I
quote a vocal teacher's cruel line from Orson Welles's "Citizen
Kane"; "Some people can sing, others can't"
When I won the Gunzo Award for New Writers with my first novel,
and I said to all the people around me that "My first book
I've written recently won me the Gunzo Award for New Writers,"
none of them believed my words. Instead, they thought I was
joking. Probably some of them, I'm convinced, still have a deep
doubt about the fact that I'm called a novelist. In their eyes,
I guess, I look something different from a novelist.
Away from those days, away from Japan, and a long way from the
stuffed cabbage, now I look back on my past life and I think
that our life is very hard to explain, whether we have "exciting
experiences" or not.
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