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Most of What I Know About Writing Fiction I Learned by Running Every Day

On September 10 I bid farewell to Kauai and returned to Japan for a two-week stay. Now I’m commuting by car between my office studio in Tokyo and my home in Kanagawa Prefecture. I still keep up my running, but since I haven’t been back in Japan for a while there’s lots of work waiting to keep me busy, and people to meet. And I have to take care of each and every job. I can’t run as freely as I did in August. Instead, when I can grab some free time, I’m trying to run long distances. Since I’ve been back, I’ve run thirteen miles twice, and nineteen miles once. So I’ve been able, barely, to keep up my quota of averaging six miles per day.

I’ve also been intentionally training on hills. Near my house is a nice series of slopes with an elevation change equivalent to about a five- or six-story building, and on one run I rounded this loop twenty-one times. This took me an hour and forty-five minutes. It was a terribly muggy day, and it wore me out. The New York City Marathon is a generally flat course, but it goes over seven bridges, most of which are suspension bridges, so the middle sections slope up. I’ve run the NYC Marathon three times now, and those gradual ups and downs always get my legs more than I expect.

The final leg of this marathon is in Central Park, and right after the park entrance there are some sharp changes in elevation that always slow me down. When I’m out for a morning jog in Central Park, they’re just gentle slopes that never give me any trouble, but in the final leg of the marathon, they’re like a wall standing there in front of the runner. They mercilessly wrest away from you the last drop of energy you’ve been saving up. The finish line’s close, I always tell myself, but by this time I’m running on sheer willpower, and the finish line doesn’t seem to get any closer. I’m thirsty, but my stomach doesn’t want any more water. This is the point where my legs start to scream.

I’m pretty good at running up slopes, and usually I like a course that has slopes since that’s where I can pass other runners. But when it comes to the slopes in Central Park, I’m totally beat. This time I want to enjoy, relatively, the last couple of miles, give them all I’ve got, and break the tape with a smile on my face. That’s one of my goals this time around.

The total amount of running I’m doing might be going down, but at least I’m following one of my basic rules for training: I never take two days off in a row. Muscles are like work animals that are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase the load, step by step, they learn to take it. As long as you explain your expectations to them by actually showing them examples of the amount of work they have to endure, your muscles will comply and gradually get stronger. It doesn’t happen overnight, of course. But as long as you take your time and do it in stages, they won’t complain—aside from the occasional long face—and they’ll very patiently and obediently grow stronger. Through repetition you input into your muscles the message that this is how much work they have to perform. Our muscles are very conscientious. As long as we observe the correct procedure, they won’t complain.

If, however, the load halts for a few days, the muscles automatically assume they don’t have to work that hard anymore, and they lower their limits. Muscles really are like animals, and they want to take it as easy as possible; if pressure isn’t applied to them, they relax and cancel out the memory of all that work. Input this canceled memory once again, and you have to repeat the whole journey from the very beginning. Naturally it’s important to take a break sometimes, but in a critical time like this, when I’m training for a race, I have to show my muscles who’s boss. I have to make it clear to them what’s expected. I have to maintain a certain tension by being unsparing, but not to the point where I burn out. These are tactics that all experienced runners learn over time.

While I’ve been in Japan a new short-story collection of mine, Strange Tales from Tokyo, has come out, and I have to do several interviews about the book. I also have to check the galleys for a book of music criticism that’s coming out in November and meet with people to discuss the cover. Then I have to go over my old translations of Raymond Carver’s complete works. With new paperback editions of these coming out, I want to revise all the translations, which is time consuming. On top of this, I have to write a long introduction to the short-story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, which will be published next year in the U.S. Plus I’m steadily working on these essays on running, though nobody in particular has asked me to. Just like a silent village blacksmith, tinkering away.

There are also a few business details I have to take care of. While we were living in the States, the woman who works in our Tokyo office as our assistant all of a sudden announced that she’s getting married at the beginning of next year and wants to quit, so we have to look for a replacement. Can’t have the office shut down over the summer. And soon after I return to Cambridge I have to give a few lectures at the university, so I’ve got to prepare for them as well.

So I try, in the short amount of time I have, to take care of all these things as best I can. And I have to keep up my running to prepare for the NYC Marathon. Even if there were two of me, I still couldn’t do all that has to be done. No matter what, though, I keep up my running. Running every day is a kind of lifeline for me, so I’m not going to lay off or quit just because I’m busy. If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I’d never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep on running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.

Usually when I’m in Tokyo I run around the Jingu Gaien, the outer gardens of the Meiji Shrine, a course that passes Jingu Stadium. It doesn’t compare with Central Park in New York City, but it’s one of the few places in Tokyo with any greenery. I’ve run this course for years and have a clear sense of the distance. I’ve memorized all the holes and bumps along the way, so it’s the perfect place to practice and get a sense of how fast I’m going. Unfortunately there’s a lot of traffic in the area, not to mention pedestrians, and depending on the time of day the air isn’t so clean—but it’s in the middle of Tokyo, so that’s to be expected. It’s the best I can ask for. I consider myself fortunate to have a place to run so close to my apartment.

One lap around Jingu Gaien is a little more than three-quarters of a mile, and I like the fact that they have distance markers in the ground. Whenever I want to run a set speed—a nine-minute-mile pace, or eight-minute, or seven-and-a-half—I run this course. When I first started to run the Jingu Gaien course, Toshihiko Seko was still an active runner and he used this course too. He was training hard in preparation for the Los Angeles Olympics. A shiny gold medal was the only thing on his mind. He’d lost the chance to go to the Moscow Olympics because of the boycott, so Los Angeles was perhaps his last chance to win a medal. There was a kind of heroic air about him, something you could see clearly in his eyes. Nakamura, the manager of the S&B team, was still alive and well back then, and the team had a string of top-notch runners and was at the height of its power. The S&B team used this course every day for training, and over time we naturally grew to know each other by sight. Once I even traveled to Okinawa to write an article on them while they were training there.

Each of these runners would jog individually early in the morning before going to work, and then in the afternoon the team would work out together. Back then I used to jog there before seven a.m.—when the traffic wasn’t bad, there weren’t as many pedestrians, and the air was relatively clean—and the S&B team members and I would often pass each other and nod a greeting. On rainy days we’d exchange a smile, a guess-we’re-both-having-it-tough kind of smile. I remember two young runners in particular, Taniguchi and Kanei. They were both in their late twenties, both former members of the Waseda University track team, where they’d been standouts in the Hakone relay race. After Seko was named manager of the S&B team, they were expected to be the two young stars of the team. They were the caliber of runner expected to win medals at the Olympics someday, and hard training didn’t faze them. Sadly, though, they were killed in a car accident when the team was training together in Hokkaido in the summer. I’d seen with my own eyes the tough regimen they’d put themselves through, and it was a real shock when I heard the news of their deaths. It hurt me to hear this, and I felt it was a terrible waste.

We’d hardly ever spoken, and I didn’t know them personally that well. I only learned after their deaths that they had both just gotten married. Still, as a fellow long-distance runner who’d encountered them day after day, I felt like we somehow understood each other. Even if the skill level varies, there are things that only runners understand and share. I truly believe that.

Even now, when I run along Jingu Gaien or Asakasa Gosho, sometimes I remember these other runners. I’ll round a corner and feel like I should see them coming toward me, silently running, their breath white in the morning air. And I always think this: They put up with such strenuous training, and where did their thoughts, their hopes and dreams, disappear to? When people pass away, do their thoughts just vanish?

Around my home in Kanagawa I can do a completely different type of training. As I mentioned before, near my house is a running course with lots of steep slopes. There’s also another course nearby that takes about three hours to complete—perfect for a long run. Most of it is a flat road that parallels a river and the sea, and there aren’t many cars and hardly any traffic lights to slow me up. The air is clean, too, unlike in Tokyo. It can get a little boring to run by yourself for three hours, but I listen to music, and since I know what I’m up against I can enjoy the run. The only problem is that it’s a course where you loop back halfway, so you can’t just quit in the middle if you get tired. I have to make it back on my own steam even if it means crawling. Overall, though, it’s a nice environment to train in.

Back to novels for a moment.

In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.

The problem with talent, though, is that in most cases the person involved can’t control its amount or quality. You might find the amount isn’t enough and you want to increase it, or you might try to be frugal to make it last longer, but in neither case do things work out that easily. Talent has a mind of its own and wells up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it. Of course certain poets and rock singers whose genius went out in a blaze of glory—people like Schubert and Mozart, whose dramatic early deaths turned them into legends—have a certain appeal, but for the vast majority of us this isn’t the model we follow.

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else. Even a novelist who has a lot of talent and a mind full of great new ideas probably can’t write a thing if, for instance, he’s suffering a lot of pain from a cavity. The pain blocks concentration. That’s what I mean when I say that without focus you can’t accomplish anything.

After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction—at least one who hopes to write a novel—is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, two years. You can compare it to breathing. If concentration is the process of just holding your breath, endurance is the art of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs. Unless you can find a balance between both, it’ll be difficult to write novels professionally over a long time. Continuing to breathe while you hold your breath.

Fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, since they can be acquired and sharpened through training. You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point. This is a lot like the training of muscles I wrote of a moment ago. You have to continually transmit the object of your focus to your entire body, and make sure it thoroughly assimilates the information necessary for you to write every single day and concentrate on the work at hand. And gradually you’ll expand the limits of what you’re able to do. Almost imperceptibly you’ll make the bar rise. This involves the same process as jogging every day to strengthen your muscles and develop a runner’s physique. Add a stimulus and keep it up. And repeat. Patience is a must in this process, but I guarantee the results will come.

In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.

Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process—sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.

Writers blessed with talent to spare go through this process unconsciously, in some cases oblivious to it. Especially when they’re young, as long as they have a certain level of talent it’s not so difficult for them to write a novel. They easily clear all kinds of hurdles. Being young means your whole body is filled with a natural vitality. Focus and endurance appear as needed, and you never need to seek them on your own. If you’re young and talented, it’s like you have wings.

In most cases, though, as youth fades, that sort of freeform vigor loses its natural vitality and brilliance. After you pass a certain age, things you were able to do easily aren’t so easy anymore—just as a fastball pitcher’s speed starts to slip away with time. Of course, it’s possible for people as they mature to make up for a decline in natural talent. Like when a fastball pitcher transforms himself into a cleverer pitcher who relies on changeups. But there is a limit. And there definitely is a sense of loss.

On the other hand, writers who aren’t blessed with much talent—those who barely make the grade—need to build up their strength at their own expense. They have to train themselves to improve their focus, to increase their endurance. To a certain extent they’re forced to make these qualities stand in for talent. And while they’re getting by on these, they may actually discover real, hidden talent within them. They’re sweating, digging out a hole at their feet with a shovel, when they run across a deep, secret water vein. It’s a lucky thing, but what made this good fortune possible was all the training they did that gave them the strength to keep on digging. I imagine that late-blooming writers have all gone through a similar process.

Naturally there are people in the world (only a handful, for sure) blessed with enormous talent that, from beginning to end, doesn’t fade, and whose works are always of the highest quality. These fortunate few have a water vein that never dries up, no matter how much they tap into it. For literature, this is something to be thankful for. It’s hard to imagine the history of literature without such figures as Shakespeare, Balzac, and di@kens. But the giants are, in the end, giants—exceptional, legendary figures. The remaining majority of writers who can’t reach such heights (including me, of course) have to supplement what’s missing from their store of talent through whatever means they can. Otherwise it’s impossible for them to keep on writing novels of any value. The methods and directions a writer takes in order to supplement himself becomes part of that writer’s individuality, what makes him special.

Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate—and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.

In any event, I’m happy I haven’t stopped running all these years. The reason is, I like the novels I’ve written. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of novel I’ll produce next. Since I’m a writer with limits—an imperfect person living an imperfect, limited life—the fact that I can still feel this way is a real accomplishment. Calling it a miracle might be an exaggeration, but I really do feel this way. And if running every day helps me accomplish this, then I’m very grateful to running.

People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But I don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.

I’m going to a gym near my place in Tokyo to get a massage. What the trainer does is less a massage than a routine to help me stretch muscles I can’t stretch well alone. All my hard training has made them stiff, and if I don’t get this kind of massage my body might fall apart right before the race. It’s important to push your body to its limits, but exceed those and the whole thing’s a waste.

The trainer who massages me is a young woman, but she’s strong. Her massage is very—or maybe I should say extremely—painful. After a half-hour massage, my clothes, down to my underwear, are soaked. The trainer is always amazed at my condition. “You really let your muscles get too tight,” she says. “They’re ready to cramp up. Most people would have had cramps long ago. I’m really surprised you can live like this.”

If I continue to overwork my muscles, she warns, sooner or later something’s going to give. She might be right. But I also have a feeling—a hope—that she isn’t, because I’ve been pushing my muscles to the limits like this for a long time. Whenever I focus on training, my muscles get tight. When I put on my jogging shoes in the morning and set out, my feet are so heavy it feels like I’ll never get them moving. I start running down the road, slowly, almost dragging my feet. An old lady from the neighborhood is walking quickly down the street, and I can’t even pass her. But as I keep on running, my muscles gradually loosen up, and after about twenty minutes I’m able to run normally. I start to speed up. After this I can run mechanically, without any problem.

In other words, my muscles are the type that need a long time to warm up. They’re slow to get started. But once they’re warmed up they can keep working well for a long time with no strain. They’re the kind of muscles you need for long distances, but aren’t at all suited for short distances. In a short-distance event, by the time my engine started to rev up the race would already be over. I don’t know any technical details about the characteristics of this type of muscle, but I imagine it’s mostly innate. And I feel that this type of muscle is connected to the way my mind works. What I mean is, a person’s mind is controlled by his body, right? Or is it the opposite—the way your mind works influences the structure of the body? Or do the body and mind closely influence each other and act on each other? What I do know is that people have certain inborn tendencies, and whether a person likes them or not, they’re inescapable. Tendencies can be adjusted, to a degree, but their essence can never be changed.

The same goes for the heart. My pulse is generally around fifty beats per minute, which I think is pretty slow. (By the way, I heard that the gold medalist at the Sydney Olympics, Naoko Takahashi, has a pulse of thirty-five.) But if I run for about thirty minutes it rises to about seventy. After I run as hard as I can it gets near one hundred. So it’s only after running that my pulse gets up to the level of most people’s resting rate. This is also a facet of a long-distance type of constitution. After I started running, my resting pulse rate went down noticeably. My heart had adjusted its rate to suit the function of long-distance running. If it were high at rest and got higher as I ran, my body would break down. In America whenever a nurse takes my pulse, she invariably says, “Ah, you must be a runner.” I imagine most long-distance runners who have run a long time have had a similar experience. When you see runners in town it’s easy to distinguish beginners from veterans. The ones panting are beginners; the ones with quiet, measured breathing are the veterans. Their hearts, lost in thought, slowly tick away time. When we pass each other on the road, we listen to the rhythm of each other’s breathing, and sense the way the other person is ticking away the moments. Much like two writers perceive each other’s diction and style.

So anyway, my muscles right now are really tight, and stretching doesn’t loosen them up. I’m peaking in terms of training, but even so they’re tighter than usual. Sometimes I have to hit my legs with a fist when they get tight to loosen them up. (Yes, it hurts.) My muscles can be as stubborn as—or more stubborn than—I am. They remember things and endure, and to some extent they improve. But they never compromise. They don’t give up. This is my body, with all its limits and quirks. Just as with my face, even if I don’t like it it’s the only one I get, so I’ve got to make do. As I’ve grown older, I’ve naturally come to terms with this. You open the fridge and can make a nice—actually even a pretty smart—meal with the leftovers. All that’s left is an apple, an onion, cheese, and eggs, but you don’t complain. You make do with what you have. As you age you learn even to be happy with what you have. That’s one of the few good points of growing older.

It’s been a while since I’ve run the streets of Tokyo, which in September is still sweltering. The lingering heat of the summer in the city is something else. I silently run, my whole body sweaty. I can feel even my cap steadily getting soaked. The sweat is part of my clear shadow as it drips onto the ground. The drops of sweat hit the pavement and immediately evaporate.

No matter where you go, the expressions on the faces of long-distance runners are all the same. They all look like they’re thinking about something as they run. They might not be thinking about anything at all, but they look like they’re intently thinking. It’s amazing that they’re all running in heat like this. But, come to think of it, so am I.

As I run the Jingu Gaien course a woman I pass calls out to me. One of my readers, it turns out. This doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes it does. I stop and we talk for a minute. “I’ve been reading your novels for over twenty years,” she tells me. She began in her late teens and is now in her late thirties. “Thank you,” I tell her. We both smile, shake hands, and say good-bye. I’m afraid my hand must have been pretty sweaty. I continue running, and she walks off to her destination, wherever that is. And I continue running toward my destination. And where is that? New York, of course.

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