Monday, 23 April 2012

Currere Ergo Sum

It’s not often that I read a biography, let alone, an autobiography.  I can’t even remember the last time I did.  Maybe it was Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father.  And even then, I didn’t finish the book, reading only parts about the current US President’s life in Indonesia.

So, there I was, 7 o’clock in the morning, in Kuala Lumpur’s International Airport (how I envy the Malaysians for having this, and us Indonesians the dark and gloomy SHIA), looking to break my US$100 bill, so that I’d have small change as I arrive in Phnom Penh later in the day.  I thought about a teh tarik, but as I walked towards the kedai kopi tiam, I was somehow lured into a bookstore by a sign saying “Buy 2, Get 3”.

Nothing from the piles of 3-for-2 books became of interest to me.  But next to them were a pile of Haruki Murakami books.  Just a week earlier I had purchased Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart but had not had time to finish.  Therefore, it would seem silly to buy another of his books.  Well, sillier things have happened whenever I am in a bookstore.  Like, for example, buying a book which I already owned (but with a different book cover), or buying a classic like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center Of the Earth just because it’s a classic and that maybe someday, just maybe, I’d have time read it.

I looked at the price sticker on the back of Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir (WITAWITAR), and sure enough, it was just more expensive than a glass of teh tarik.  And so, foregoing my physical thirst, I succumbed to my intellectual hunger instead.  At least, that’s what I liked to think that I was doing at the time.  As well, I got the small change for my first days in Phnom Penh.

Out of curiosity, I started reading the first few pages of the book on the 1.5 hour trip from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh.  And I simply got addicted.  I was confident that I’d be able to finish the book during my stay in Cambodia.  But of course, that never happened.  Instead, I became consumed by two other books on Cambodia.  A week later, back in Jakarta, I finally got a chance to return to reading WITAWITAR.  And boy was it a good book!

When talking about running, Murakami actually talks about many other things.  He describes the will to push oneself to the limit, about the struggle between the mind and the body, about what it means to be a writer, to be a doer (not just a dreamer), and of course, to be a runner.  It’s a book about realizing one’s best potential through hard work and determination.

Murakami is one of my favorite writers, with Norwegian Wood considered as my most cherished of his books, followed by After Dark.  But what I never knew was that Murakami hadn’t started writing until his late twenties.  It all started with an epiphany while watching a baseball game.  Something along the lines of “If you build it, they will come”, I guess.

Not only that, Murakami does not claim himself to be a talented writer, or a talented person per se.  He has had to make up for this with hard work, as well as well-planned schedules and strategies.  Somehow I always thought that all good writers were just born with talent.  But I guess, Murakami has proven me wrong.  Let’s just hope that he wasn’t being typically-Japanese humble.

Reading accounts of Murakami’s training for the many marathons he has participated in, there were a number of lessons that I learned.  Lessons that I kinda wanna share with those who have yet had the chance to read this light, but filling memoir.
  1. To be a good writer one must have talent.  However, we can never control the quality or amount of talent we have.  We either have lots or little.  And therefore, we can either chose to spend all of our talent in one go, or use it up slowly, to ensure that it lasts a long time.
  2. If we lack talent, than we can rely on focus and endurance.  A good writer is capable of focusing and enduring the ordeal of churning out a good piece of writing.  According to Murakami, more than a mental activity, writing actually has more to do with physical stamina.  In this sense, talent will get you some place, but you can only roam endlessly if you have focus and endurance.    
  3. Running won’t generate ideas for someone experiencing a writers’ block.  The act of running requires so much focus that it’s unlikely one’ll be thinking of anything else but finish the course.  Running, however, will clear your mind, and allow for new ideas to spring out in its aftermath.  As in, after a good run, sit down and write.
  4. When we say things like “18 ‘til I die”, it means that we die when we are 18, because we can never be 18 throughout our lives.  Not in the mental sense, and certainly not in the physical one.  Our ability to survive and thrive depends on our capability to adapt to change.    
  5. It’s no use to fight time, because time will always win.  So, the best thing that we could do is to enjoy the things that we love to do as much as possible.  Our lives have limits, and when we’ve learned to recognize those limits, we’ll be able to enjoy what we have in our hands to the fullest.
  6. It’s never to late to start up something new, and actually succeed in it.  If something is worth doing, then it’s worth doing it your best, maybe even beyond your best.  Murakami didn’t start writing until he was 29, and he didn’t start running until he was 33.  He is now a well-knownwriter and runs at least a marathon every year.
  7. You can learn about yourself by analyzing the things you cannot live without.  Murakami said that most of what he knows about writing was learned through running every day. I am a football fan.  I can’t imagine life without football.  I have no idea yet what this means, but maybe by understanding this fascination, I’d be able to learn more about myself.
I, too, believe that I don’t have that much talent for writing.  I mean, I love reading any beautifully structured sentence, and then repeating it over and over in my head, trying to emulate them with my own words.  However, to sit down and write a long, substantive piece of story, well that doesn’t always materialize into something concrete.  More often, my ideas evaporate into thin the air.  Once in a while, there would be “sparks of genius”.  But, all in all, I am very much an average person. 

And so, if I was to learn anything from Murakami, then to be a good writer (blogs, articles, short stories or even presidential speeches), I’d have to train myself to play that part.  I must make myself more focused and resilient.  But nothing is impossible.  Murakami showed in WITAWITAR that he’s a mere mortal.  But, even mere mortals could ascend to a more deity-like form through determination, endurance, perseverance, focus, and a sound understanding of limits and goals.

Oh yeah, I really feel like going for a run now…

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