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What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami What I talk about when I talk about running

Running is hard work. It’s often lonely, it’s cursed by twisted ankles, strained muscles and in weather like today, soggy feet. And yet, when your body becomes bewitched in that elusive rhythm, it feels worth it.

Haruki Murakami, Japanese author and obsessive runner, believes his writing is dependent on his running, and explains the relationship in this wonderful little book. I read it whilst banned from running due to a concussion, which made it a frustrating read – I wanted to put on my trainers by the end of the first chapter.

He talks about how writers don’t need to live Hemingway-style tragic lives to write, and how training for a marathon builds the necessary stamina for writing a long work of fiction.

It’s the fourth book I’ve read by Murakami. His books always leave me with the haunting feeling that I need to reread them, and then probably reread them again after that. This book, being straight non-fiction with a title that clearly mentioned running, was easier going than the others. There was no odd magic (Kafka on the Shore), I wasn’t completely depressed by it (Norwegian Wood) and I haven’t spent the hours since reading it in a maddened frustration, wondering if the ending was happy or sad (South of the Border, West of the Sun).

It’s clearly a memoir about running. Except I’m not actually sure it’s about running at all.

Running it seems, is rarely about running. It’s sometimes a test of strength and determination, it’s sometimes a vain attempt to lose weight or belong, and other times it’s done because of the fear of what will result without exercise. It’s a lonely, selfish sport.

What I took from Murakami’s book though, wasn’t at all about running. Running, according to Murakami, is about knowing the person that you are.

This quote was chosen with the Father in mind:

“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any lengths 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 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.”

And I felt it like a wink. Permission that sometimes it’s ok to be a bit anti-social, sometimes it’s alright to take a bit of time and be a bit selfish.

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Writing Resources: The Books That Taught Me To Write

[Last updated: 09/11/2015]

books on writingCopywriter, storyteller, blogger. Many of the same principles apply, regardless of which angle you’re writing from.

Learning to write is tricky. Good writing is subjective. What one person loves, another detests. I set off on this journey hoping to develop good writing, but I’ve found this original goal is not specific enough.

In copywriting – writing to inspire action – there’s a clear goal to each piece of writing. When it comes to stories, the goal might be to evoke empathy, or demonstrate the value of a certain perspective, or persuade the reader to reconsider their own worldview.

Measuring how effective a piece of writing is, especially away from hardcore marketing, is difficult. Asking for feedback when you’re an insecure dreamer is daunting. When we pluck up the courage to do so, it’s often to be disappointed by the vagueness of the guidance we receive.

‘It’s very you’ means what exactly?

Nothing has improved my writing more than genuine feedback, and nothing has been as distracting for its development. I keep on aggressively pushing for quality. Seeking out and engaging feedback is crucial, but between conversations with those brave and through enough to be trusted to edit your words, reading a few books on regular writing hiccups helps too.

The two that I shan’t let you borrow

1 – Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Love it; hate it.

Novel writing is overwhelming. When you’re hunting answers as to how to write, you come across a lot of details on the art of firing up your imagination, crafting in-depth characters and developing an over arching plot which changes the protagonist. What is often missed out is how you actually pull it all together.

Larry Brooks suggests ‘six competencies’, the fundamental building blocks of writing a story: theme, conflict, character, scenes, voice. What I learnt from reading his book is applicable to writing this blog and content marketing too. It’s about writing with purpose.

What Larry tells us is that thrashing around hoping something is going to work out won’t work. What I know from actually writing is that without a bit of thrashing around my imagination remains sedate. Reality requires a balance between the plotter and the ‘pantser’.

Reading Story Engineering, I discovered that whilst there’s nothing wrong with thrashing, it’s slow. Think of trying to swim the length of a pool. Technique trumps power.

So why the hate? The way Larry writes. That condescending…

Have you ever watched the Ted Talk by another Larry, Larry Smith, on why you will fail to have a great career? Larry King makes me feel the same way as Larry Smith does. He makes me need to take a deep breath. I’ve put the book down in frustration many a time, and yet I can’t help thinking that if only I submitted to the patronising wisdom then maybe I’d actually write something worth reading.

Maybe, the frustration is merely my fear. Maybe I despise Larry King because he calls out my failings.

Story Engineering stays close to my keyboard. It’s the book I go back to when I’m struggling with a scene or what I’m writing feels like clay. It’s not a book you may borrow, but if you want to write a novel, and your willing to work hard, rather than simply spiel out words all dream-like, then it’s the first book I’d recommend.

2 – Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation by John Seeley

This book is my grammar guru. Its tiny, but its explanations are the clearest I’ve come across. Every time I feel a bit stupid, or someone points out a mistake that I’m not so sure is a mistake, I go to this book. It doesn’t confuse, like so much grammar advice, it provides clarity.

The other books on writing I’ve read

(These books are in no particular order.)

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Browne and Dave King

Second hand, of unknown origin.

Works best read front cover to back cover. The tone of the helpful advice was neither condescending, nor lecturing, which I found refreshing.

Not a particularly memorable read.

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark

I’ve no idea where this book came from either – it’s also second-hand.

You could quite happily read a chapter a day and learn one lesson at a time. I read it in the bath. Full of good ideas and thoughts, but it’s not got enough of its own character to be a book I feel overly compelled to keep.

You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils

The Mother bought me this book. I guess this means she thinks I should try writing children’s fiction.

It’s a fluid read. You’d expect a level of simplicity perhaps from a children’s writer. I’d recommend it if you’re interested in writing children’s books. My criticism is that it could have gone into more depth in the sections devoted to middle grade and young adult fiction. Separate chapters with more in-depth information for these separate age ranges would be useful.

I keep it for every now and again when I go back to playing writing fairy-tales.

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

I read this book twice. Both times I borrowed it from the library (Warwick).

Why is it so good? Because it’s like the friend sat on your bed sharing chocolate and drinking tea whilst telling you their honest opinion. Reading the book this is how I hear Betsy Lerner’s voice. You believe what she says. You trust her, you want her to like you – you feel she’s selective though about who she does like – and that’s somehow inspiring.

Betsy Lerner’s blog is a giggle.

You are a Writer by Jeff Goins

Read as an eBook.

My favourite piece of Jeff Goins’ writing is actually his Wrecked Manifesto, from which I keep this lovely quote (not actually of Jeff Goins) which is the answers the question ‘What should I do with my life?’.

Step one. Stop pretending we’re all on the same staircase. – Po Bronson

That said, I enjoyed You are a Writer. Jeff Goins’ writing I like, because of his honesty and humility, but occasionally it feels a little too preachy to be really lovable. Occasionally I read something he’s written and I’m wowed, other times I feel he’s holding back out of politeness. Or he’s trying too hard.

He’s the author on this list I’d be most interested in meeting in person. You can get a feel for his writing on his site, goinswriter.com. If you want to be a writer, he genuinely wants to encourage you to write.

Brilliant Business Writing: How to Inspire, Engage and Persuade Through Words by Neil Taylor

This was the book I borrowed from Newbury library when I first got a job in marketing. Confidence lacking, I was determined to do something about my English.

It’s an encouraging read. It gave me a foundation to stand on when I was discussing persuasive and formal writing in the office and it made me feel like I was getting my inadequacies under control.

I was surprised how good it was.

The Writing of Clear English: A Book for Students of Science and Technology by F. W. Westaway

Found in Oxfam.

Not a book I’d necessarily recommend for someone who wants to improve their writing, it’s a little old-fashioned, but it does make an entertaining read.

I’ve rambled a little about F. W. Westaway’s writing guidance already on the blog so I shan’t repeat myself here.

Books about reading

Because writing without reading is like driving a car without a road.

Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose

A present from the Grump, whose support is always appreciated. You don’t need to want to write to find this book useful, but if you do want to write widely, it’s a pleasant read that’s suggests different ways of looking at fiction.

For me, a physics graduate who hadn’t read critically since school GCSEs, it was the bridge towards my current interrogative style. It’s an accessible book. A confidence booster. It’s filled with examples and extracts that make you stop to think.

It comes with a suggested reading list in the back for the non-literature student to use to broaden their own reading, and I have it to thank for making me fall in love with Chekhov.

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

This book was one of the Mother’s holiday reads. She enjoyed it, and so I followed her lead.

It wasn’t a great book, there was no great learning i took from it, no great insight, but it was amusing. It was perfectly suited to laying out on the veranda of an Italian villa and made me feel rather smug about how much I read. It made me wonder about reading War and Peace. There was something in the tone of voice though that left me suspecting that Andy Miller and I wouldn’t make the best of friends.


So these are the books I’ve read on writing. Which book has had the biggest impact on how you write?

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The Case For Working With Your Hands by Matthew Crawford

A book about the value of getting your hands dirty, written for an audience for whom calluses are alien.

Matthew Crawford Book Review

Naively, as someone who finds office environments difficult, and who enjoys making things – sewing, painting, papier mâché etcetera – I thought this book would be a self-help guide which would talk me through all the ‘bad for us’ parts of the office.

Books and covers and all that. Turns out, it’s actually a philosophy book, which isn’t at all about offices – despite the title. I think therefore I am; I work therefore I have meaning. Or something like that.

The single chapter on ‘The Contradictions of the Cubicle’ doesn’t really talk about cubicles. It discusses the contrast between an employee’s idea of purpose and their manager and/or employer’s idea of purpose. Personally I don’t think having one boring office job which you didn’t want to be doing in the first place is a good enough reason for ruling all office work out for the entire human population, but hey.

Matthew Crawford’s strength is the stories: the screw-ups, the dreams, the disasters, the romance. Tales illustrating what it actually feels like to be a motorbike mechanic, what it feels like to bond with a machine (I’m visualising of Rossi kneeling by his bike pre-race) and why it’s such a difficult feeling to cultivate in modern society.

As a philosophy book it was enjoyable, but lacked daring. I wanted more provocation. It asks the same sort of questions I ask of myself, and this isn’t really enough. I want pushing more. It questioned the value of the exam orientated education system, but it didn’t really offer enough of an alternative. We can’t all be motorbike mechanics.

The style in which it’s written makes me feel that the average reader would buy it, but never finish it. Despite my university education, the vocabulary was testing and there were times when I wondered what the point was the author was getting at.

I give you this example :

“For the neo-Darwinian, the frolicking of the dolphin is assumed to have some survival value, either for the preservation of the individual, or the passing on of its genes. I suspect, if you were to ask the dolphin, he would say it is backwards: he lives in order to frolic, he doesn’t frolic in order to live.”

I suspect most dolphins, if asked, would frolic because frolicking is what dolphins do.

Have you ever wanted to have a more hands-on job?

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As a reader, do you agree?

We look to novels and pictures to compensate us for the deficiencies of real life. The type of novel that is most satisfying to a person will therefore give us a clue to the wants which, in real life, that person is unable to express and gratify. (People often give away more information about themselves than they realize when they talk about their favourite novels and pictures.)

Do you agree?

Psychology for Everyman (and Woman) by A. E. Mander

Psychology for Everyman (And Woman) ManderThe quote comes from the Thinker’s Library, No. 48, Psychology for Everyman (and Woman) written by A. E. Mander and first published 1935. The 14th edition (which I am currently reading), printed in 1948, is a tiny book with a hard red cover that conformed to the war economy standards. The book is as tall as the length of my palm.

As an avid reader, it intrigued me. Do you agree or disagree with the statement? If you too share my love of books, what is it your reading habits say about you?

If, for a moment, we surmise that the statement is true, what do we learn? You can view my recommended reading list to see the books I love the most, but this only includes the substantive books that I feel have changed me.

I often read books that don’t fit within the stereotype of chic lit, does this suggest I have an unsatisfied desire to feel superior? Of course ideally I wouldn’t believe that there’s anything superior in being the person reading Plato over the person reading the Hunger Games, yet… well it’s difficult to change a belief isn’t it. Especially one that says what your ego wants to hear.

If I take a look at the pile of books on the table in front of me, two are about travel – a want to escape perhaps – another is Gandhi’s autobiography. Do I take Gandhi as a leader who I wish to emulate, or are the intellectual books my way of mimicking the real intellectual readers of my social group? By reading widely, am I trying to associate myself with those writers I adore, the ones who instruct in every piece of writing advice ever written, read, read, read.

Are my reading choices dictated by a wish to be respected. Certainly, since going down the path of marketing – which like it or not is stigmatised – I’ve read books with ideas that take longer to mull over. Am I compensating for the awe I use to receive or is this my obsessive drive to learn and my fascination with the human mind?

The pile of books also includes a book on the evolution of organisations, a book genuinely called ‘Joy at Work’ and a novel by Barbara Kingsolver.

Or is it all bullshit? Am I simply clinging to patterns that don’t exist?

A. E. Mander’s short list of ‘primary wants’

Primary Wants ManderFor BODILY COMFORT

For a SENSE OF SECURITY

To ESCAPE

To PROPITATE* anyone who has power to injure: to INTEGRATE oneself

To be (a) NOTICED, (b) ADMIRED and (c) LIKED by others of one’s kind

(a) To HURT and INJURE, (b) To OVERCOME and DOMINATE (c) To feel SUPERIOR

To ATTRACT, PLEASE and MATE with one of the opposite sex

To LOOK AFTER and PROTECT someone (e.g. child or mate) who is relatively weak

For the COMPANY and FELLOW FEELING of others of ones kind

To be LIKE OTHERS of one’s own ‘pack’ or ‘set’, especially its leaders

To CATCH and CAPTURE

To FIND OUT, to KNOW, to UNDERSTAND

To RETURN TO FAMILIAR PEOPLE, PLACES and CONDITIONS

*Win or gain the favour of


What books are you reading, and what do they say about you?

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The challenge of reading widely

reading widely - overwhelmed

When a piece of writing has an attitude and throws a different opinion my way, it makes me consider my stance on the world. It’s true for both fiction and non-fiction.

I assume it’s the same for everyone, but how far do you go, how far should you go, to find such writing?

Reading enlightening fiction

My reading list is littered with non-British stories that describe an unfamiliar culture.

Recently, I read Naguib Mahov’s Palace Walk. The story is set during the First World War in Cairo, Egypt. The characters deal with a set of circumstances that are as likely to happen to me as being beamed to the moon in a Star Trek style transporter. Voluntary housebound women don’t fit into that familiar ideal of a ‘strong independent woman’. To them, me, going to work, paying my own rent, living in sin would be just as alien.

It’s an excellent read. Naguib Mahov’s characters are rich, lively and make for an entertaining tale.

I came across the book because I asked my Egyptian friend what Egyptian-centric books he’d recommend.

Not everyone treats reading as an adventure. My friend Maple, who gave me The Hunger Games, reads for escapism. Her shelf is filled with books that are safe, reassuring and can be relied upon not to become too uncomfortable. I don’t believe this is bad, or inferior. Reading is a form of magic that fills many roles within a person’s life. But I can’t help feeling she’s missing out.

Why do you pick the stories you do?

Reading critical non-fiction

I’ve started reading a book of Noam Chomsky’s articles that was leant to me by one of my colleagues after a discussion about inspirational writers. They’re calculated critiques of the media and governments. I understand little of what I read. My knowledge of American politics is what I’ve gleamed listening on conversations between friends and family. My understanding of Barack Obama doesn’t go much past he has a cute dog (I assume the same dog still exists right?). And I’m sure George Bush is a fool (that’s what the media says right?), but the only fact that comes to mind is that he likes to paint.

Not great wisdom have I.

(I can feel the Grandfather despairing.)

But I like that the articles are challenges. They point out the blindness caused by a limited perspective. It’s difficult to verify what I read. I don’t know enough to form my own defined opinions, but from such articles hopefully I will become better at not instinctively accepting the perspective given to me.

It’s telling that this was the book recommended by this particular colleague. He’s a rather sceptical, witty man.

 

Where do you find writing that inspires and challenges you?

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How I read (My struggle with The Hunger Games)

Reading under the covers

Too intellectual? You’ve got to be joking

I love Star Trek books and historical fiction. I’ve got a fondness for certain physics textbooks, but I’ve never read War and Peace, or the Great Gatsby. I’ve not read Shakespeare* since school.

So do I feel smug or horrified when the Mother describes me as ‘too intellectual’ for the book she’s reading? Is it praise or is she slighting herself? She recommended Hollow Tree House, Little House on the Prairie and Daddy Long-Legs, and they’re all amazing books. It was the Mother who handed me Jane Austen and most of the business-flavoured self-help books I’ve read belong to her.

Can you even be ‘too intellectual’?

Just because you read the words on the page doesn’t mean you understand the depths of their meaning. On the rare occasion one of my literary friends comment on something they’ve been reading, I’m in awe of their insight. They can see why I feel what I feel.

Which is worrying, because how can I expect to write well if I’m blind to the method?

It’s true I like books that challenge me, that make me think. These aren’t necessarily inaccessible books. They aren’t limited to ‘intellectuals’. Plus, who does the Mother think she’s kidding, she’s the one who set me on this trajectory. She’s the one who demonstrated that learning isn’t an activity reserved for children, it’s a lifetime habit.

If I’m ‘too intellectual’ for a story, the Mother most certainly is too.

How to enjoy The Hunger Games

I confess, I struggled to read The Hunger Games.

The struggle wasn’t because it’s not a good book. My young cousin, the Little Mermaid (whose 3 hour abridged telling of the story is available for recital at family dinners) adores it. As does my grown up, married, ex-colleague Maple who kindly gave me my copy.

So if it is ‘good’, why did I struggle?

Because it takes a different method of reading to what I’m used to. Like getting back on the bike, or going out for that first run, it’s harder than it once was.

Which is how I realised that I read differently now.

There’s a pencil in residence beside the bath, and sticky notes peering over the Chekhov sitting on my bedside table. I’m scribbling opinion in the margins, I’m underlining repetition even if I’m not sure why.

This isn’t how one enjoys The Hunger Games. Such a story is for reading under the covers with a bright yellow torch stood up like a lantern; Katniss’s adventures need swallowing whole, like those of Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy. The appeal is in the tension, the forward motion. You’ve got to race through it before someone arrives to tell you to turn off the light.

Which no-one does because I’m all grown-up.

With Chekhov I cherish the words and the way they’re sewn together like an elegant tapestry. I reread the same paragraph three times in case there’s anything else hidden there. With The Hunger Games I was frustrated, challenged, bored perhaps. At least until I let go and accepted I didn’t need full sentences, or even every paragraph. A skim of the page was enough. The what happens next.

Once I let go, I was addicted.

Which means now I’m fighting an inner conflict. Was The Hunger Games a good book, or not?

What I’m certain of though is that I’m not ‘too intellectual’ to read it, even if it’s a children’s book. After all, it made me think.

So I have another confession to make. Before I read it, I considered that I might me past such books. That somehow such a story could be beneath me. I was wrong.

How do you read?

 

*It’s true I’ve watched and loved Julius Caesar, Henry V, Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure on stage, but recently when given a list and asked which play I’d prefer to see next I didn’t recognise any of the names–I had to tick all the boxes.
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