Monday, September 12, 2011

Murakami, Marathons, and Novel Writing

Residencies are a new experience for me. I spent part of the summer working on my novel at an artist colony in Vermont. It's easy to see why uninterrupted studio time in an environment of other practicing artists has its appeal. Everyone you meet is working on a play, poem, short story, novel, painting, sculpture, mixed media installation, or other inspired piece of art. The environment provides for interesting discussions of aesthetics and art. If nothing else, the excitement of everyone creating in the same space for several weeks can be enough to inspire the most lackadaisical of writers to practice their craft.

The daily routine of sitting in my studio at the desk, opening the document and writing is a ritual of sorts. In quiet and consistent surroundings, it becomes easier to create. You develop a routine - a specific time, a specific place, or specific music - and train yourself to write. Sometimes writing flows freely and you are truly impressed at the ease with which you write. Your writing seems stellar and you see your artistic vision clearly on the page. These are good days. Other times writing can be a chore. Even the most reliable environment can produce nothing but a few lines, and those lines you think are worthless. But you have to keep going. You can't let yourself down. To stop would be to abandon the dream of being a writer. As a novelist, you have to sustain this practice over the course of years. Finding the energy to persevere can be a task all its own.

Haruki Murakami talked about the process of novel writing in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He provides an interesting take on the endurance it takes to be a novelist.
In the novelist's profession, as far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as winning or losing. Maybe numbers of copies sold, awards won, and critics' praise serve as outward standards for accomplishment in literature, but none of them really matter. What's crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you've set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can't fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn't seek validation in the outwardly visible.
It's remarkable that Murakami states that writers write for themselves, especially when that motivation must last for sometimes years. If you are not personally satisfied with the output of writing you create, no opinion matters other than your own. The author is the creator of the benchmark of success, not the critic. To create this kind of drive takes discipline and hard work. I often talk to other poets and short story writers and they ask me how I deal with all the moving parts. How do I keep coming back to the same piece day after day? The answer to both is that I do it for myself. No one will be more disappointed than me if I don't finish my novel. I will be letting myself down. Nothing anyone else says would change the fact that if I did not complete the novel, I would be failing at one of the goals I set for myself.

Murakami further elaborates,
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 about 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.
I've spent a few years on my novel and can now see the finish line. It really did take years, some more fruitful than others. I wish I had someone to give me such sage advice early on. I would have been more disciplined. I would have sat down in front of the computer every day and trained myself to write. Now I'm in an interesting place. I've developed the habits and routine necessary to continue to create every day. The recent residency in Vermont invigorated me, giving me the energy to push through the next couple months to the finish line. Part of me will be sad to see something go that I've lived with for so long. Another part will be relieved to move onto something new.

Ultimately, novelists create imaginative worlds in which readers can dally for more than a few minutes. They must have stamina to create such wholly rendered landscapes. We novelists labor day in and day out on a piece, sometimes for years. Finding the dedication to keep moving forward can be challenging. The question can hang over you every day: how do I continue to write? My advice is one page at a time for as many days as you can keep going. It makes the task easier, like training for a marathon. One day, you'll find writing that one page effortless. Then you can piece all the successive days together into a larger work and tell people you're a novelist. A smile comes to my face every time I imagine the day when this will be true for me. It will be the realization of a dream, one I set for myself, and one that I'm close to achieving.