From the short book Novelist as a Vocation, by Haruki Murakami:

One bright April afternoon in 1978, I attended a baseball game at Jingu Stadium in downtown Tokyo…

I stretched out with a beer to watch the game. At the time there were no bleacher seats, just a grassy slope…

The satisfying crack when bat met ball resounded throughout Jingu Stadium. Scattered applause rose around me. In that instant, and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.

When I Became a Novelist

As Murakami tells it, he proceeded to do just that. He wrote late at night at the kitchen table after closing up the jazz club that he was running at the time. His approach combined elements of freewriting and translation; working on a style and a voice of his own, he discarded his first manuscript and rewrote it in English, translating to Japanese as he went. The patience and hard work paid off, as the book, which became the first part of what is (back?-)translated as Wind / Pinball, went on to win a literary prize. This further bit of luck helped give Murakami the impetus to sell the café and write full time.

Though he later streamlined his process of composition, saving the translation for English-language authors whose works he rendered into Japanese as a break from own his novel-writing, Murakami points out the similarity of his early approach to Agyota Kristof’s writing in non-native French. This unexpected link turns eerie in the light of another. A video game released some 30 years later by Murakami’s early collaborator Shigesato Itoi would take inspiration from Kristof’s Notebook novels when he worked on the long-awaited game MOTHER 3. Whether Itoi learned of Kristof from Murakami, or vice versa, or whether the connections here are as coincidental as the crack of the bat and the striking thought of writing a novel, the comparison invites readers into that mysterious subgenre of authors writing in non-native languages (Conrad, Nabokov, Achebe, etc). It provides a kind of analogy for the status of storytelling in the new medium of video games, a stylistic language in which none of Itoi’s generation of developers could be said to be native speakers, as opposed to a more recent follower like Toby Fox, who learned to read by playing EarthBound.

Seeing the field and the sky, drinking and loafing, taking the baseball game in, Murakami invites into his charmed, dogged pursuit of words and stories worth sharing.

From where I stand, the statement “Anyone can write a novel” is not slander, but praise.

In short, the world of the novelist is like a professional wrestling ring that welcomes anyone who feels like taking a crack at it. The gap between the ropes is big enough to pass through, and a step is provided to make your entrance easier. The ring is spacious. No security men block your way, and the referee doesn’t bark at you to leave. The wrestlers who are already there–the established novelists, in other words–are at the very least resigned to your presence: “No worries–come on up and take your best shot” is their attitude. The ring is–how shall I put this?–an airy, easy, accommodating, altogether laid-back environment.

While entering the ring may be easy, however, remaining there for long is hard.

Are Novelists Broad-minded?

From the grassy baseball diamond to the squared circle of the wrestling ring, Murakami’s musings on his fortuitous beginnings shade into more hardnosed arguments for the vocation he has followed, but the constant of his voice is its comforting earnestness. Whether he is the spectator lightly imagining what he could do if he tried, or the fighter vying to maintain his position, Murakami’s advice is at once writerly and simple, challenging and affirming.

This is purely my opinion, but if you want to express yourself as freely as you can, it’s probably best not to start out by asking “What am I seeking?” Rather, it’s better to ask “Who would I be if I weren’t seeking anything?” and then try to visualize that aspect of yourself. Asking “What am I seeking?” invariably leads you to ponder heavy issues. The heavier that discussion gets, the farther freedom retreats, and the slower your footwork becomes. The slower your footwork, the less lively your prose. When that happens, your writing won’t charm anyone–possibly even you.

The you who is not seeking anything, by contrast, is as light and free as a butterfly. All you have to do is uncup your hands and let it soar. Your words will flow effortlessly. People normally don’t concern themselves with self-expression–they just live their lives. Yet, despite that, you want to say something. Perhaps it is in the natural context of “despite that” where we unexpectedly catch sight of something essential about ourselves.

On Originality

That image of uncupping the hands resonates with another moment of serendipitous rightness from early in Murakami’s career. When he was going for a walk and found a wounded bird, carrying it home, he suddenly realized that he would win the literary prize for his first book. In the process of modulating his voice, writing and compiling the essays that make up Novelist as Vocation, he is moving between the gentle pickup of the wounded world and the release of the reader into the ring with him, to stay or to go as we see fit. Inviting some fitting response, but ultimately leaving the choice up to us, Murakami’s call to readers is freeing, healing, as he passes along the call that comes through him from a long-ago game.

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